Monday, June 26, 2017

SUSPIRIA (1977) - ***1/2

Rated R
Running time: 92 min.
Release date: August 12, 1977

An issue that most horror films from the current era have is that they fail to develop atmosphere and tension, or set a tone that could leave the hairs on the back of your neck standing. They tend to just throw paper-thin characters into the plot and then have them killed without any sort of build-up. Dario Argento gives us Suspiria as an example of how to use technique and skill to build an atmosphere that is chilling, so that even if your characters or plot are lacking, you still have yourself a hell of a tone that could still leave an imprint on the collective brains of the audience.

Jessica Harper plays Suzy Bannion, an American ballet dancer who has come to Germany to attend the prestigious Tanz Dance Academy. She arrives on a stormy night, and one of the neat tricks Argento pulls happens in the first few minutes of the story. When the doors of the airport open/close, the creepy and atmospheric music by the prog rock group Goblin seeps in/out, almost as if Argento was letting the audience know that anything outside sounds like it could be life-threatening. Sure enough, when Suzy arrives at the academy, she sees another young woman run out of the school as if she were running for her life. That young woman is later killed in a most gory fashion by an unseen stalker. Well, mostly unseen. 

I always feel like somebody's watching meeeee...
Suzy is welcomed into the academy and is introduced to the instructor Miss Tanner (Alida Valli) and the vice-director, Miss Blanc (Joan Bennett) who seem like respectful folk, except when Miss Tanner pushes Suzy through a practice even though Suzy looks like she's going to pass out at any second. Then there is an issue with maggots infesting everything, forcing staff and students to camp out in the practice hall for the night. Apparently, it was due to boxes of spoiled food in the attic but what that has to do with the plot, who knows. Suzy becomes friends with Sara, who used to be friends with the late Pat, the young woman who fled the academy in the beginning, and she shares with Suzy stories of Pat and some strange happenings in the school. Of course, later on Sara herself meets a similar fate as Pat only this time thanks to some conveniently placed razor wire. A hell of a lot of razor wire. Then there is an incident with the school's blind piano player and his guide dog. It all adds up to something strange going on at Tanz Dance Academy and Suzy is in the middle of it all. Unfortunately, the story presented here by screenwriters Argento and Dario Nicolodi leaves some questions unanswered and provides very little details where more could have helped, as well as the occasional gaps in logic. However, the scares provided in the story are chill-inducing and legitimately frightening, and this is a credit to Argento and his skill.

Argento applies his trademarks throughout the film with several artistic flourishes. The production design and cinematography (by Luciano Tovoli) emphasize vivid colors such as blue, green and yellow. Red is especially used throughout, giving the film an intentionally unrealistic nightmarish quality. Whatever is missing in terms of story here is more than made up for with a haunting, dreamlike atmosphere and a tone that will keep you on the edge of your seat, waiting for the next gory killing. The score by Goblin is excellent and greatly helps establish the tone of the film.

Jessica Harper leads the cast as Suzy. Harper was previously seen in Brian De Palma's rock and/or roll horror opera The Phantom of the Paradise so she has a bit of experience with this type of role. However, like the rest of the cast, her voice work is overdubbed, even though she speaks English. When English-speaking actors have to re-record some of their own voice work, this can impact the dramatic effect of the dialogue. It can even, at times, be a little corny, especially near the end of the film when the big secret of the school is revealed. Harper does an admirable job but it is almost difficult to judge the rest of the cast with all the dubbing going on here. 

The end result is a film that is quite adept at setting a tone and providing impactful imagery that is meant to frighten an audience. Suspiria does that quite properly and is highly regarded in that respect. If Argento and Nicolodi could have somehow created a tighter story and had not left so many gaps or unanswered questions, Suspiria could have been something great. As it is, we are left with a merely "very good" film that will scare the pants off most viewers. 

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