Thursday, October 21, 2010

SUSPIRIA (1977) Movie Review


Review by Tom Parnell

What exactly do witches do?

If you think about it nobody has ever really explained this. From a very young age we are told there are witches, they have little pointy hats and broomsticks, throw frogs into cauldrons and cackle a lot. But nobody ever explains why they do all this. What is their goal?

Dario Argento’s cult classic SUSPIRIA poses this question in a sort of Grimm fairytale for adults (if the brothers Grimm were sponsored by an artificial blood production company). Whether the film actually answers it is another matter.

The movie begins with all-American stranger-in-a-strange-land Suzy Bannion (played by Jessica Harper) arriving in an unnamed European country where she has enrolled in a prestigious ballet school. What’s going to happen to her?

We are less than five minutes in before the tension begins to build, driven in no small part by the EXORCIST-style theme performed by the aptly named Goblin. Although Argento goes to great lengths to build suspense throughout SUSPIRIA, we are left in no doubt as to the nature of what lurks in the shadows, as the phrase “Witch” is repeatedly whispered whenever the music grows to a climax. At points this can get somewhat irritating, as there are several moments when the characters are listening for specific creepy noises around them and it becomes hard to distinguish sound effects from the relentless repeating soundtrack.

From the start the film’s set design and cinematography are stunning. Every building and room is bigger than life and decorated in a spectrum of coloors with wallpapers that appear to have been designed by an excitable descendent of William Morris. Argento continually finds unusual and exciting angles from which to frame shots, from distant headlights through a pitch-black woodland to the unusual spectacle of pouring a glass of wine practically straight down the viewer’s throat.

Where this film falls down is in the plotline and dialogue. Suzy wonders around the mysterious dance academy doe-eyed and mouth agape, while the requisite number of friends and acquaintances are knocked off in a variety of gore-soaked ways. Then suddenly and inexplicably she starts talking about witches (I can only suspect that she somehow caught a snippet of the soundtrack) and the next thing you know she’s off consulting a ‘witch expert’ who happily knows an awful lot of plot exposition.

I read afterwards that Argento had initially planned to populate the dance academy with 12-year-olds, but the studio wouldn’t let him so he kept the dialogue in protest. This would explain a lot, but if it is the case it seems a shame that he ultimately punishes the viewer for this censorship.

In all SUSPIRIA is a stylish and well-paced horror, with some truly grizzly set pieces. But if you’re wondering what motivates a witch I still can’t tell whether it’s murder or whether they’ve just got to dance!

Tom Parnell is a writer and former journalist who is eagerly awaiting the DVD release of Toy Story 3.


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