Saturday, June 2, 2012

Suspiria















SUSPIRIA                   A-                   
Italy  (98 mi)  1977  ‘Scope  d:  Dario Argento 

The Only Thing More Terrifying Than The Last 12 Minutes Of This Film Are The First 92.    —poster tagline    

One of the Granddaddy’s of horror films, largely due to the spectacular effects, where this is one of the most outstanding uses of color of any film ever made, using the three-strip Technicolor process (already obsolete at the time of shooting), where every single shot is literally bathed in the sensuous beauty of Technicolor, always accentuating the eye-popping visual design of the film, shot by cinematographer Luciano Tovoli.  Using something of a barebones story, the film is instead prone to extreme exaggeration, featuring spectacular murder sequences, where much of the film plays out like a visit to a mad funhouse, where behind each door is another frightful experience designed to produce shocking horrors, each one more astonishing than the last.  Using a repeating musical theme composed by Argento along with the band “Goblin,” this has a familiarity with John Carpenter’s creepy and hypnotic electronic score in HALLOWEEN (1978) released the following year, where you get a pervasive sense of foreboding dread just from the opening sequence, Suspiria (1977) Very scary first 15 minutes!!! YouTube in HD (15:12), which is a breathtaking lead-in to this nightmarish world drenched in brilliant colors, a master class of filmmaking technique taking place on fabulous sets, including the initial murder sequence starting at about the 9:30 mark.  The spookiness of the taxi cab ride may as well be an arrival to Transylvania, instead it’s Jessica Harper as Susy arriving in Germany to study at a prestigious dance academy, featuring an extraordinary sound design throughout, but also horribly amateurish dubbing and hysterical overacting.  In a sudden shift of narrative, a frightened woman, Eva Axén, flees the school in a panic, finding safe refuge in the apartment of a friend, only to be murdered by an unseen force in the middle of the night, two white eyes staring from out of the dark, where some may confuse this character with Susy, as both are soaked by the rain.  Argento, in something out of the Werner Herzog handbook for making movies, supposedly played the musical soundtrack at full blast on the set to force the actors into an unnatural sense of powerlessness to circumstances beyond their control, perhaps best expressed in this weirdly ominous sequence of Susy simply walking down the corridor of the new dance academy, MOVIE : SUSPIRIA [1977] - YouTube (1:18).    

Literally nothing can prepare the viewer for the assault on the senses that Argento throws at you, feeling as if you’re stuck in the hypnotic intrigue of a nightmare you can’t escape, captivated by a relentlessly horrifying, fear-inducing experience where you’re continually drawn deeper and deeper into this cavernous abyss, where you find yourself alone in a dark and hallucinogenic fever dream with an evil force on the loose.  Even before her entrance to the academy, all is not right, as things are strangely out of whack, where Susy is seen as a young, wide-eyed innocent lured into the mysterious lair of dark and hidden forces which have their own peculiar designs.  The school is run by Joan Bennett (her final screen appearance), a former film noir femme fatale in Fritz Lang’s SCARLET STREET (1945), as the seemingly sophisticated and ultra polite Madame Blanc, while the harsh taskmasker and disciplinarian is Miss Tanner, none other than Alida Valli from THE THIRD MAN (1949), both familiar faces that add character and and a kind of camp personality to the overall rich décor of what appears to be a witch’s coven, something along the lines of ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968), where we get a clue when the doctor treats the young ballet dancer’s blood instead of any illness, recommending a glass of red wine every night, which has the effect of inducing sleepiness, leaving her helplessly drugged each night.  Her roommate is Sara, Stefania Casini, best friends with the girl killed earlier, who suspects foul play but has little to go on.  When a shower of maggots falls from the ceiling, not to mention a bat attack, and the mysterious death of a blind pianist, mauled by his seeing-eye dog, you’d think this ought to provide sufficient warning to one and all, but no one leaves or turns to the police.  As dark fates continue to befall several more individuals, Susy stupefyingly remains on the premises, remaining drugged and clueless to the source of evil.  There’s even a Susy and Sara swimming pool sequence with the eerie tone of DIABOLIQUE (1955), where in the calmness of the still water, the atmospheric presence of a disturbing force is everpresent, which eventually leads to her roomate’s gruesome demise, another spooky sequence of slasher horror Suspiria's best scene - YouTube in HD (3:35) that is quickly covered up by the next morning.    

When Sara supposedly disappears, according to school officials, packing and leaving without a word early the next morning, Susy contacts one of her friends, a young, cherubic faced Udo Kier who plays Sara’s former psychiatrist.  They discuss the possibility of witchcraft, as if this is the message Sara was trying to send her from the grave, but Udo offers the standard psychobabble mantra, “Bad luck isn’t brought by broken mirrors, but by broken minds.”  However one of his colleagues offers keen insight by suggesting witches have an insurmountable desire to accumulate power, where all the minions of the coven collectively offer their knowledge to a single leader who rules over them all, amassing supernatural powers that can literally alter reality.  Most of this narrative information is for the audience’s behalf to help them find their way through this dizzying weirdness, as the director only accelerates the relentless slasher assault with terrifyingly creepy, wall to wall music that continually sounds like glass shattering.  Argento really is a master of the tracking shot, as this is his chosen method to take us slowly on a dreamlike journey into a strange new world, becoming something of a haunted house movie, where characters are forever exploring the remote interiors of the building at their own peril, including Susy who finally throws out the wine and thinks she’s on to something.  The slow pan of the camera through the hallways literally becomes her hesitant, but curiously fearful perspective as she attempts to trace the source of evil, following her down corridors that are suddenly saturated in a torrent of red, continuing through hidden doors into strange, mysterious rooms, all with a strikingly beautiful decorative design, accompanied by the sound of whispered shrieks on the soundtrack, past two Russian fat ladies who menacingly stand guard to their eerie, secret world, seen in the kitchen giggling hilariously while they chop meat.  As Susy climbs deeper into the unknown, with the mind-altering music weighing upon every anticipated thought, the suspense by itself is hair-raising, but she continues to wander into the mysterious lair of a Hellish underground, a place where the living and the dead coincide, where we’ve already seen what can happen to her helpless friend Sara.  Argento’s slowly building sense of dread is met with simply extraordinary Art Deco splendor, using lush visual effects to create an unsurpassed boldness that literally redefines the genre through such a brilliantly extravagant, heavily stylized art design, where the frightening onslaught of terror onscreen becomes a uniquely individualized film experience. 

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