Suspiria ★★★

“I had no idea you were so strong-willed. I think that when you make up your mind about something, nothing will change it for you. My compliments.”

Sometimes there’s a, wait, wrong movie. Start over.

Sometimes, things don’t work out, and you just can’t quite put your finger on the reason. You meet a person, and you share a great many interests—you like many of the same movies and television programs and podcasts, you both enjoy cooking, you have similar senses of humor. By all rights, you should be fast friends. And yet...something is missing. Sometimes there’s a man, and he’s not the man for his time and place. He doesn’t fit right in there. And yet you know that he should. A lack of connection where no commonality exists is simply part of life and is, for the well-adjusted, untroubling. But a failure of association where all the pieces are in place is...well, it’s frustrating.

Such is my experience with Dario Argento’s 1977 masterpiece Suspiria, the first film of his “Three Mothers” trilogy, representing the Mater Suspiriorum (Our Lady of Sighs). It’s not that I hate the film—far from it. I enjoy it well enough. But it is a movie of wide renown and high regard, one routinely referred to as one of the great works of horror cinema. And as anyone who knows me can attest, I love horror films. It is weird and offbeat and stylized and bloody and European—all of which should be points in its favor as far as my admiration is concerned. I should love it. I know I should. Yet time and again it leaves me, if not exactly bored, then slightly cold and deeply saddened at my failure yet again to achieve communion with a horror classic. Does the fault lie with me or with Suspiria? As with most unhappy marriages, the answer is probably both.

Argento’s take on the European fairy tale, derived from an amalgam of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Bluebeard and Alice in Wonderland and the tales told by co-writer Daria Nicolodi’s grandmother, is proudly artificial from the opening “once upon a time” narration: “Suzy Bannion decided to perfect her ballet studies in the most famous school of dance in Europe. She chose the celebrated academy of Freiburg. One day, at 9:00 in the morning, she left Kennedy airport, New York, and arrived in Germany at 10:40 p.m. local time.” A simple plot animator, setting things instantly in motion, it is nothing if not economical. But it is also vaguely bothersome, like reading assembly instructions for a piece of furniture written by someone in a language they never bothered to learn. It’s just ever so slightly off.

For supporters of Argento and Suspiria, this uncanny quality is one of the film’s great strengths. It is, after all, a deliberately fantastic tale of witches and black magic operating with purposeful fairy-tale simplicity. Why shouldn’t it be boldly, proudly unreal? It’s an excellent question, and as a lover of all sorts of plainly artificial tales it is one I cannot quite answer except to say this: While a film must be accepted on its own terms as a starting point, and has essentially free rein in setting those terms, it must also work on those terms. For some, Suspiria’s garish otherworldliness is an integral part of its charm and singularity, but for me it too often seems an excuse for sloppiness and lack of attention to detail.

The party line on Suspiria is that its story, its dialogue, its acting all matter little because what really count are the setpieces and the visuals and the haunting, assaultive Goblin score and Luciano Tovoli's stunning Technicolor cinematography. And this is true enough, up to a point. Many horror films, especially those delving into the supernatural, are more about mood and atmosphere and style than about lifelike characterizations and razor-sharp storytelling. But to give Argento a free pass on Suspiria’s problems seems wrongheaded, at least where those problems shatter the film’s spell.

Most obviously, there is the use of ADR throughout, with all of the actors’ dialogue dubbed (quite poorly) in post. While this was commonplace in Italian cinema at least into the 1980s, it is a practice I have a hard time looking past, especially in the context of a film as set-bound as Suspiria. This is not a 1940s Neorealist depiction of underclass struggles, where the location shooting and relative primitiveness of the equipment might demand some technical concessions in favor of the greater cinematic good. This is a late-1970s film set almost entirely on fabricated sets (fabricated so cheaply, one might add, that they often look one step removed from a grade-schooler’s diorama). (I realize that, based on historical difficulties, Italian films often were forced to use ADR rather than live-recorded sound, but even if dubbing were a necessity, that is no excuse for dubbing shoddily and without concern for synchronicity—if every Golden Age musical could employ competent dubbing, so could Argento.) There is little reason not to bother either properly recording live sound or properly and synchronously dubbing the sound after the fact, unless of course the dialogue and the performances are of little consequence. And if they are of such little consequence to the director, it’s hard to see how they should be of any greater consequence to the viewer.

That dialogue and those performances are, by and large, rather dreadful. There are bright spots, to be sure. Jessica Harper is quite wonderful as Suzy, the Snow White stand-in whose wide-eyed innocence and confusion slowly give way to dread as she begins to suspect that the Tanzakademie may not be devoted just to the classical arts. Also excellent is Joan Bennett as Madame Blanc, the academy’s headmistress, whose decaying elegance mirrors the building around her and whose imperious self-possession is both vaguely regal and vaguely menacing—she is the perfect evil stepmother figure to Suzy’s Cinderella. The rest of the cast, however, range from wooden to scenery-chewing, sometimes managing the tremendous feat of being both at once. The usually dependable Alida Valli, as head teacher Miss Tanner, is done no favors by filling a role similar to Bennett’s—her outsized teeth-gnashing starts out pitched at “grotesque” and grows more exaggerated from there, whereas the fairy tale villainess usually has a redeeming quality of charm or wit or intelligence to balance her evil impulses and add an element of allure. After Valli, the drop-off is steep, though special mention must go to Barbara Magnolfi’s turn as Olga, one of Suzy’s fellow students, who seems to have modeled her performance after some combination of precognitive footage of Joan Collins’ Alexis Carrington Colby and a Wild Kingdom episode on the predatory habits of the lioness.

The actors may be forgiven to some degree, as Argento is reputedly as hands-off a director as they come (Stefania Casini, playing Suzy’s friend and ally Sara, recalls him telling her just to do whatever she wanted in one key scene) and handed them dialogue that even the most skilled thespian would be at pains to render believable. The script, which is thankfully minimal, consists alternately of thuddingly obvious pronouncements, characters unrealistically speaking aloud their thoughts, and ham-fisted exposition, leavened occasionally by bits of inexplicable weirdness, such as when Miss Tanner tells Suzy that she can feel free to call handyman Pavlo (Giuseppe Transocchi) ugly to his face, since he only speaks Romanian and won’t understand, or the strange non sequitur about how girls with names beginning in “S” have the names of snakes—the bon mot’s answer to Little Boy, starring Olga as the Enola Gay.

The plotting, while elegantly simple in its broadest outlines, also falters when it comes to the details. Sara and Suzy’s attempts to count the teachers’ footsteps as they ostensibly leave the academy make little sense, apparently leading them to an attic and then to Madame Blanc’s office, which logically should be nowhere near each other, though Suzy does not seem confused at her teleportation. Suzy’s denseness about the restricted diet on which Professor Verdegast (Renato Scarpa) has placed her defies reason—maybe, just maybe, if you get woozy every night after drinking a glass of wine poured for you by someone else out of your field of vision, there’s a connection between the two. And why, exactly, would the Tanzakademie’s mysterious directress, supposedly out of town, come and sleep just outside the makeshift dormitory set up for the students during an upstairs fumigation when there are so many other places she could have slept (seemingly endless places, given her supernatural capabilities)? That the answer is solely to let the audience know, through a bit of clumsy exposition, what her breathing sounds like for future reference is indicative of the carelessness plaguing much of Suspiria.

Then again, perhaps I should let all of that go and get swept away by Argento’s vision. Perhaps the story and the screenplay and the acting really don’t matter in the face of Suspiria’s delightfully twisted Grand Guignol setpieces and florid visuals. It is certainly true that Argento has an eye for the colorfully macabre, bathing his film in bold, bright primary colors—especially a red evoking hell (or, in the case of the film’s many passageways, a birth canal)—and staging terrifically inventive deaths. When people speak of Suspiria, they seldom speak of Udo Kier’s snore-worthy expository dump as Dr. Frank Mandel, friend of Sara and expert on the occult. They speak of Goblin’s indelibly hypnotic score, full of tinkling chimes and African drums and disturbing whispers (though Argento’s odd decision to cut it off frequently and abruptly, without any fade or other transitional effect, is one of the film’s many unpleasantly disorienting choices). They speak of Pat Hingle’s (Eva Axén) introductory death at the hands of an unseen malevolent force, complete with a busted stained glass ceiling, blood the color and consistency of tempera paint, and an incidental casualty necessitating a closed casket. They speak of Sara’s unfortunate encounter with a room full of razor wire—an encounter that, logistically speaking, makes absolutely no sense (Why is the room there? What purpose does it serve? Why does Sara jump into it?) but that, on a purely visceral level, is striking in a way few horror deaths are. They speak of the utterly batshit finale, runneth over with darkest incantations, invisible Black Queens, reanimated corpses, and a conflagration from which our intrepid heroine may only narrowly escape if at all. If there is a common denominator to these passages, it is their almost total abandonment of story, dialogue, and good sense, their wholehearted embrace of visual excess and elaborate carnage to the exclusion of all else. Those pieces make Suspiria a memorable and enjoyable experience, to be sure, but for me they do not make it an altogether successful one.

Or maybe I'm wrong. Maybe Suspiria is exactly the cruel, candy-colored masterpiece so many claim it to be. Maybe the deficiencies really don’t matter, really don’t pull the audience out of the film with head-scratching fervor. Maybe the atmosphere and the Technicolor and the unhinged commitment to his own bizarre vision carry Argento’s film further than I am willing to travel. Who can say? Faced with a film meeting all of one’s idiosyncrasies and yet inspiring apathy, one can do little except...sigh.

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