Nine Nights of Argento #5 – Suspiria (1977)

suspiria4I will be watching Dario Argento‘s first nine films (not counting The Five Days, which is currently unavailable in the US), from The Bird with the Crystal Plumage to Opera.

four-stars4One of the greatest pleasures of watching Dario Argento’s work in chronological order is witnessing the evolution of a filmmaker as he finds his voice and continues to gain the experience and confidence needed to match his lofty ambitions. I first saw Suspiria years ago and recall enjoying it, but seeing what many consider to be Argento’s masterpiece in the context of his bigger body of work makes the experience so much richer.

Suzy, a young American girl travels to an elite ballet school in a remote part of Germany. Upon her arrival, two students are brutally murdered, setting off a string of bizarre and gruesome events revolving around the mysterious headmistresses of the academy. Before you can say “WITCH!”, Suzy and her bunkmates find themselves neck deep in black magic and bloodshed.

Suspiria marks a departure of sorts for Argento, chiefly because it’s his first film to deal with the supernatural, making it his first true horror film. Free from the restraints of the slasher subgenre, Argento is able to spread his wings and have fun, while still being able to pick and choose elements that clicked in his previous efforts.

Whereas his early crime stories like Bird with the Crystal plumage grounded the action in realistic urban environments, here Argento whisks us away to a world of gigantic art direction, disorienting soundscapes, and surreal neon lights of unknown origin. By favoring sound stages and elaborate sets over shooting on location, Argento is able to assert full control over Suspiria’s world, manipulating spatial relationships and hallucinatory imagery to ensure the viewer never gets comfortable in this foreign land of magic and murder.

While his previous films relied on frequent murder scenes to maintain suspense between long stretches of lounging around and putting together clues, Argento wisely keeps the body count low in Suspiria and ratchets up the tension through haunting visuals and Goblin‘s maddening score. He doesn’t need a dozen gratuitous kills to break up the downtime, simply because there isn’t a moment of downtime. From frame one, we’re plunged into a fast-paced Technicolor nightmare, and when the inevitable murders do take place, they are some of the most gut-wrenching and unsettling sequences in horror history, including the notorious death-by-disembowling/hanging/defenestration that opens the film.

If I have one complaint about Suspiria, it’s simply that I wanted more. The film ends abruptly and ambiguously, leaving you to put the remaining puzzle pieces together. What did the coven want from these girls? Why a ballet school? Are there more witches still out there? Considering that this is the same filmmaker who just a few years prior liked to spend five minutes with his killer explaining away his motives through dialogue, maybe the lack of ribbons and bows is not such a bad thing.

Next up: INFERNO


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Categories: Dario Argento, Director Spotlight, Features, Reviews


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    […] 1977, Dario Argento introduced global audiences to a world of magic and horror with his magnum opus Suspiria, a visually-stunning masterpiece of pop-art horror concerning a German dance school controlled by a […]

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