Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Review - Supsiria (1977 - Dir. Dario Argento)

The violence in Suspiria has to be seen in context. Imagine a young evlkeith, brought up on a diet of tame and/or butchered horror films, where 18 rated films would barely register as 15s now, and suddenly Suspiria drops into his lap. Within the first quarter of an hour, a brutal stabbing followed by a quick ride on a noose-ended rope was certainly enough to make me sit up and take notice. When I finally got to see the uncut version  including the heart piercing, (round at a dodgy mates who had access to some highly specialist titles) Suspiria became one of my favourite horror films.

But time has passed and now it's the violence in Suspiria that seems tame. Surely there's more to this classic horror. The story perhaps? Nope. It's virtually non-existent. Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) wanders around a ballet school and discovers that someone entirely unpleasant runs it. That's about it, really. The big plot surprise is actually given away very early on by a whispered word on the soundtrack.

So it's not particularly violent and it hasn't got a story. Not much left is there. Apart from style and music. And this is where it shines. Literally shines.

The lighting produces such intensely saturated colours that it looks as though the television screen is about to burst under the strain. It really is glorious. The cinematographer, Luciano Tovoli (who also worked on Tenebrae) developed a style that suited Argento's desire to represent a fairy tale nightmarish vision. Supposedly a lot of mirrors and coloured gels were used to create the intensity of colours. The end sequence, awash with deep blacks and shining golds, is Tovoli's favourite part and it's easy to see why. Guillermo del Toro obviously loves it too. (Although Dario borrowed too from other directors, see if you can name the film and director this shot was a homage to.)

As with all Dario films, he loves to experiment with camera moves and new technology. In Suspiria he attached a camera to a wire and sent it zooming down towards an actor in the middle of a deserted square. It took a few attempts, due to camera smashage, but it looked pretty impressive when I first saw it. Nowadays, it's not quite so shiny. But there are plenty of other moments that are great even now; little things, like the shot of the sliding door mechanism as Suzy leaves the airport at the start. Dario's certainly a creative soul.

The production design also deserves a big mention in terms of the style of the film. I can't say that I'd ever want to go to ballet school - my hamstrings aren't that stretchy at the best of times - but I wouldn't want to set foot in this one. The wallpapers are so excessively busy and the colours so gaudy that gip projection would quickly ensue. But they perfectly suit Suspiria's lighting style and atmosphere.

The other major player in the atmosphere is the music. Written and performed by Goblin it has to be one of the finest and deliriously unsettling horror soundtracks. It also must be one of the loudest. If you set the volume of your audiovisual unit whilst listening to dialogue at an appropriate level to listen to, when the music kicked in your head would vibrate so hard, it would fall off. 

There is one scene in the middle where the atmosphere dissipates and the exposition goes on and on, slowing everything down to a standstill. A film without a story really doesn't need exposition even if it is delivered by Udo Kier. The whole section could be cut and the film wouldn't suffer.

When I started this Dario Season, I was expecting Suspiria to still be my favourite, but I think that it's been usurped by both Deep Red, and to a lesser extent, Tenebrae. In a film that relies so heavily on its style and the atmosphere it creates, whether you love it, like it or hate it depends on the effect of that style. For me, I still like it, but it's power has diminished.

(As for talks of a remake, why bother? Even if Natalie Portman might be attached to the main role.)

If you like this you could also try:
Deep Red, Tenebrae, Phenomena.


  1. Good review! Agree with pretty much everything you say, about the soundtrack and the virtually non-existent story.
    Supports my theory that set designs and lighting are more beautiful than CGI.
    What did you make of the sequel Inferno (1980) ? I was surprised how much I liked it, considering nobody really talks about it.

    1. Cheers Chris. The things about set design and lighting is that they actually exist, as do miniatures and prosthetic effects. CGI works best when it augments rather than replaces these elements.

      I used to love Inferno. The atmosphere and music are brilliant. But it's a strange case of the cut version being better than the uncut. I find the shot of the cat eating the mouse unpleasant and unnecessary. It's one of the reasons why I'm not interested in watching most of the cannibal films. Maybe I should just watch Inferno in the cut version... As for the final film in the trilogy, The Mother of Tears, well, let's just say that it's disappointing.

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