Suspiria (1977)

Classically Lacking is a series of reviews where I tackle some so-called-classics which have passed me by and make an argument either for or against going back and taking them on if you’ve missed them too, because who has time these days? You know how many shows Netflix has? And I don’t mean Friends I mean brand spanking new shows that I’ve never even heard of coming out week after week after week…

You seen that Paul Rudd one? It looks pretty good, but there is just. So. Much. Stuff. It can be hard to decide which stuff is worth your time, and this series hopes to help you find what is really worthwhile in the huge pop-culture pile that history has deemed classic.

We’re talking films, we’re talking books, we’re talking…actually that’s all we’re talking for now. It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, since I’ve been all caught up in this running malarkey, but I’ve been itching to get back into it and this week I have the perfect conceit. Since I’m a horror dweeb, a nightmare novice, a spooky sucker, and Halloween is fast approaching, I’m taking on a brief gauntlet of horror films and novels.

First up on the list: Suspiria (dir. Dario Argento, 1977).

Thankfully this is a film which doesn’t require you to be a horror expert to appreciate it. This is a just a damn good movie, forget the genre.

It is also profoundly weird. It was bizarre on release and is perhaps even more so by modern standards. By breaking all the rules, director Dario Argento has created something that will live on forever, something that 42 years after it’s release someone (me!) can watch for the first time and be completely entranced.

But let’s not get too hyperbolic, this is still a movie, an Italian movie, made in the 70s. There are things wrong with it, although most of these quirks come together to accidentally enhance the experience of watching it. Like many of the films of it’s time and geography all the actors speak their lines on set in their own language, and then in post they have been dubbed regionally. Watching in English you’ll notice that some characters lip movements match what they are saying, and some absolutely do not.

Dubbed in another language or not, it’s also very apparent that acting is not necessarily some of these actors’ finest quality.

But hang about, I don’t you hear you cry, you haven’t explained the story yet. What’s the synopsis? What’s going on? What is Suspiria about?

Alright, here you go:

Suzy (Jessica Harper) turns up in Germany to attend a ballet school, but there are weird things afoot. People are being killed. No one really thinks this is strange, except for a couple of students, one who ends up dead in the opening act and another who befriends our lead and embroils her in a vague investigation to find out what on Earth is going on.

That’s it. The plot of the story is: weird things happen in a dance school.

All you really need to know is that this is a pastel coloured nightmare which, much like a dream, doesn’t have all the connective tissue in place to draw you neatly from one scene to the next. There is just about enough for you make out the bare bones of the barely existent plot, but you really don’t need any more than what it gives you.

Watching Suspiria is more of a sensory experience than it is a narrative one.

The first thing that hit me was the soundtrack, performed by progressive rock band Goblin. It is bizarre and brilliant and really nothing like I have heard before, although in hindsight you can see how their work leads to future (past) soundtrack work from John Carpenter, Tangerine Dream, and even Cliff Martinez.

Then the colours! Jesus H. Christ the colours. It doesn’t even always make sense, why is that room glowing red, blue, yellow, who cares? This film exists beyond reality, deep in the subconscious mind of its creator, the colours help the viewer to identify that and appreciate the picture appropriately.

Plus it just looks really good.

Combine all this together – the sound, the lighting and colours, the dodgy acting, dubbing, and slight lack of narrative cohesion – and you get an experience which manages to be more like a dream than any other film that I’ve seen. It is, thankfully, a wonderfully entertaining dream, albeit a bloody gruesome one. I don’t think I can say that Suspiria is scary, but it doesn’t pull any punches when it delivers its sparse explosions of violence. When the first student is murdered she isn’t just stabbed, the supernatural killer cuts her open and stabs her still beating heart…

It’s a pretty awesome scene, and one that sets Suspiria’s stool out early on.

It is also definitely…unsettling. There are few specific scares, but the atmosphere is thick and weird, exactly what is happening at the school, or why, or how, is never explained. Once our lead reaches the conclusion of her investigation the movie just…ends.

There is no way that increasing the detail in this film would improve it. There is a bizarre lore dump before the final act of the film, but the way it pulls away from the pastel coloured cinematography into something more standard only increases your awareness of the localisation of the nightmare in the school.

Exactly what makes Suspiria so good can’t really be quantified – although there are tangible aspects of it which we can identify as “good” –  as it’s whole manages to be greater than its parts. Even the “bad” parts of it enhance the freaky experience. The terrible dubbing, for instance, becomes part of the charm. The only possible conclusion to come to then is this: if you haven’t watched Suspiria already, then watch it, because it is far too off-the-wall to adequately explain in a review, even a detailed one.

It is a unique cinematic experience, and an experience which is unique to cinema. The way in which it blends the audio-visual format to replicate (purposefully or not) the loose reality of our dreams and nightmares, is something which can only truly be done on film.

A cult classic which is absolutely deserving of it’s title.  

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