Kyle Armstrong’s review published on Letterboxd:
Part Sontagean Camp, part pure b-horror, Suspiria is a film that Arthouse Advocates™️ have spent the last 40 years attempting to reappraise. While I'm typically affectionate towards the former two traits, I'm also an historic nonbeliever in Style Over Substance™️. Suspiria, first and foremost, is the epitome of Style Over Substance™️. It's all a matter of tastes, but there's a difference between subjective enjoyment and objective criticism.
If anything could sway my views, though, it would be a midnight screening in 35 mm, and given my enjoyment of Mandy the night before, it seemed like a no brainer.
I'll start by saying I did warm to this film a lot. I'm not entirely sure if that's to do with the fact that this was my second viewing, or that I saw it in 35mm, which is always a wonderful experience. (That said, this was easily one of the worst 35mm print screenings I've ever seen, with obvious damage and warping, but that's neither here nor there.)
For one thing, knowing now that I had to essentially disregard the nonessential paperthin plot helped me appreciate the craft of the beats themselves. Plot and theme are not this film's primary focus, but the tight pacing surprised me. Every beat itself is a memorable scene, and although none of them are story-centric, it does give an aesthetic vibe that conveys the broadest strokes of the story arch. It also works well as a base-level, guttural suspense technique; when nothing's really happening, or the things that are happening are fairly insignificant, it gives a lot more power to the moments when the levee breaks. I still believe that the lead-up to the climax essentially slows the whole thing to a halt, and backfires on all the positive pacing that came before it, but somehow, the climax still hits well. Do I wish there was more substance to this plot? Of course I do; I loathe these types of films. But on its own merits, it's an ethereal experience, and since that's clearly the only goal Argento had in mind, I can only knock off points for the final act.
What propels Suspiria to higher ground, though, is Argento and his crew, especially Tovoli and the PD team. Every frame conveys a mood, and every color has a crisp resonance. It's odd, because I would definitely say every shot "serves the story," but in a way that has nothing to do with the plot. I guess the best way I could describe it is by saying it's a different sort of cinematic language, one derived from German Expressionism and Dr. Caligari, and not from other touchstones of horror, cheap foreign production, or even formalist filmmaking.
But this kind of leads me to my point, which is honestly the same point I made the first time I saw this: if the images in each frame are doing 99% of the work to move the film forward, then while not simply make it a silent film? Now, I imagine you could argue that this is a silent film, given the dubbing history, the flair in the performances, and the general disinterest in the dialogue - which is honestly trash - but I'm saying it would've served better to add intertitles. I say this too because the strongest element in Suspiria is hands down the Goblin soundtrack. Despite disliking this film, I spent the last year bumping this soundtrack at least one a month, because it's that good. As I listened to it last night on the train, I realized that the album itself conveys both the aesthetic mood and the actual plot precisely. Maybe I'm just more used to listening for the stories in prog albums than I'm used to finding the aesthetic bliss in plotless films, but if this soundtrack had been fully utilized and replaced all of the dialogue, I would find Suspiria much more successful. Without this, I simply sit on the edge, trying to imagine what it could be like, but what good is it to watch a film if you're only going to spend the runtime imagining another film?
There are always going to be some small blockades all of us have when we watch a film. For me, even the most stylistic film has to have a theme that goes beyond the surface, and if not, I simply cannot focus until I work one out. While I get that many approach Suspiria with a feminist tilt [and maybe there's a queer subtext as well; then again, maybe that's a modern understanding of bi-lighting], I think that reading is too textual to be what I'd classify as thematic. But for the longest time, I sat there trying to find something. I got so desperate, in fact, that I started to project my actual job onto this film. I've work in nonprofit development -fundraising to most people - and have mostly worked in arts nonprofits [and hope to return within the next year or so]. And let me tell you, convincing rich people to donate to the arts is an art in and of itself. There's a lot of talk about important donors, money, and finances in general in Suspiria, and the behind the scenes work that goes into cultivating a high net-worth donor. Suzy, being the niece of one high net worth donor in particular, is someone who, despite being a pain to the organization itself, has to be treated with care, or else her aunt might not donate again. But, behind the scenes, despite the fact that the family gives a substantial amount of money, everyone wants to kill Suzy. That has to be a theme of Suspiria, right???? Right?!?!?!?!
I sat in the theater for literally an hour trying to convince myself that this incredible niche theme that I was projecting onto this movie that simply isn't for me was so obvious, and clearly existed in-text. But that's the thing with Style Over Substance™️ films - you can project any idea you want onto them, but that doesn't mean there's anything there. This inherent emptiness left me, well, empty. It's a better film than I gave it credit for, but it's not flawless, and on top of that, it's not my tastes. Maybe I'll return once I get used to more giallo films, but for now, I'm completely satisfied listening to the Goblin soundtrack if I want to get into a spooky mood.