From the beginning of his career in 1970 with the stunning and stylish The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, to 1975’s seminal Profondo Rosso (Deep Red), Italian horror maestro Dario Argento had single handedly ushered the thriller/slasher/mystery genre known as Giallo into existence, but with his next movie, the filmmaker desided to change things up a little.
Co-written with his muse and frequent collaborator, Daria Nicolodi (mother of Asia Argento), Supiria is often cited by many as Argento’s masterpiece, but while personal preferences usually lead me to favour Deep Red over Dario’s supernatural epic, this senses stunning horror remains an experience quite unlike anything ever seen before or since.
Perpetually shiny-eyed, American, ballet student Suzy Bannion has traveled to Germany to enlist in the prestigious Tanz Dance Akademie; but from the very second she arrives at the airport things seems decidedly off. Maybe it’s the torrential storm that blows up with her arrival, maybe it’s the chronically unhelpful cab driver, or just maybe it’s the panicked student she encounters when she arrives at the school who flees in terror into the driving rain. While Suzy settles in to the strangely hostile academy and its unsettling inhabitants (stern teachers, bitchy students, lumbering handymen), the girl seen fleeing earlier is brutally murdered while taking refuge at her friend’s apartment.
Meanwhile, numerous strange occurrences keep happening at the dance school that continues yo increase the deep and mounting sense of unease that Suzy was already experiencing; firstly Suzy is overcome by a strange weakness that makes her collapse mid-class, then a rain of maggots rain on the students from the rafters thanks to a shipment of rotten food stored in the attic. On top of that, while the students sleep in the dance hall while the infestation is cleared out, Suzy and new friend Sarah have a near-experience with the school’s unseen, raspy lunged headmistress, Helena Markos and 8n a freak “accident”, the school’s blind piano player is savaged to death by his own guide dog.
After Sarah reveals some of the dark secrets of the dance school to Suzy, she suddenly goes missing (read: slaughtered like a fucking pig) and after following up a few leads, the young ballet learns that the staff of Tanz may actually be a coven of witches with the mysterious Markos as their leader.
Realising that whatever nefarious acts are occuring will no doubt soon consume her too, Suzy takes the initiative and tries to get to the bottom of the school’s brutal history.
While discussing his aim for the film, Argento, in a magnificent act of enigmatic pretentiousness, stated that fear was a 370 degree centigrade body and with Suspiria he wanted 400 degrees and for all intents and purposes, he pretty much succeeded. Dropping all the fiendishly intricate plot devices inherent in the Giallo genre in favor of insanely stylish dream logic, Argento delivers a simplistic fairytale projected through the nightmarish lens of a hallucinatory fever dream that sears the retinas with staggering production design.
There really isn’t anything like Suspiria. Happily trading plot logic and nuanced character arcs to relentlessly bludgeon your eyes and your ears with incredibly vibrant colours, sweeping camera moves and an impossibly iconic score by prog-rock legends Goblin, Suspiria isn’t a movie you do the dishonor of just sitting down and simply watching, God no, to do Suspiria right you have to experience it in its optimum form as it wraps you up in its gaudy arms and refuses to let go.
Not only does Argento break with tradition with his subject matter, he also leaves Italy to gives us a decidedly worldly view with its German setting and American lead that adds immensely to the sense of alienation the young lead feels in before she even realises she’s gotten involved in this witchy business. This is also, interestingly, an all-female cast where all the men involved are removed from the equation for various reasons. Refreshingly divorced from having some romantic lead swoop in to save the terrified starlet in the final reel, Jessica Harper’s continuously unnerved Suzy drifts through proceedings as if in a trance or a daze (much like a receptive audience) and you can tell that this shift in focus has more than a little of Nicolodi’s influence all over it.
What is very Argento, however, is the violence which is just as jaw droppingly savage as you’d expect, but freed from the constraints of reality, the murders take on a whole new level of surrealism. The intricate double-murder that opens the film may be one of Argento’s best he’s ever film which doubles up as being both overwhelmingly brutal (one woman is stabbed so many times her heart becomes exposed – which then is stabbed once again) and unnervingly beautiful thanks to all the primary colours on display. Elsewhere, an extended and nightmarish stalk and slash sequence ends when the victim escapes into a room randomly and illogically filled with barbed wire and while some of the cruelty may smack a little of misogyny (an accusation that’s understandably followed Argento his entire career), you have to remember that not only are the heroes female, but so are the villains calling the shots too.
Ok, some may play the well-worn card of claiming that it’s all a little bit dated, but considering the film is shot like a vicious rock opera and plays like demented vision born from an addiction to cough medicine, surely the claim of “dated” is to miss the point.
The first of a loose trifecta Dario refers to as The Three Mothers Trilogy, that was contined with 1980’s inferior yet still impressive Inferno and concluded with the muddled Mother Of Tears in 2007, Susprira reigns supreme as a titan of horror that audaciously merges hypnotic European art house with Argento’s legendary flair for gorgeously realised atrocities.
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