I must have first seen Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA (1977) on VHS in my late ‘teens, no doubt with a cropped aspect ratio, but I think of it mostly on the big screen, in a darkened theatre with the sound turned up pretty loud. It turned me on to gore and to Italian horror in general. LA LA LA LA LA LA LA
We had a few midnight showings of it when I was a projectionist, and that must have included some staff screenings, just me and a few of my co-workers sitting in the cavernous, dark, Art Deco cinema, smoking cigarettes and getting the bejeezus scared out of us.
I always remembered it being incredibly gory.
My old theatre showed a nice Technicolor 35mm print of it recently, but it was at midnight and I’m an old lady now and anyway that place is dead to me, so I went to see the new DCP at my second home, the Brattle. It was a Thursday night, and I went to the 7pm show, which is not as scary as a midnight show but at least I stayed awake the whole time. Which reminds me of a story about our midnight shows in the old days: one night a woman who worked at a nearby theatre fell asleep during a midnight screening of SUSPIRIA, and the crack staff at our theatre failed to thoroughly check the house before they closed up. She woke up alone in the dark at 4am! LA LA LA LA LA LA LA…
I enjoy revisiting favorite films. The best ones bear repeated viewings, and I find myself seeing new things in them, or having different reactions to them. This recent viewing of SUSPIRIA was no exception. I knew I loved it, but somehow had forgotten just how sublime it is. It was on my list of favorite horror movies, but now it’s on my list of all time favorite films.
The films opens during an otherworldly rainstorm, and the arrival of our heroine in a new place. The soundtrack is intense and the story is immediately mysterious. The interiors are incredible.
The story takes place at a boarding school for ballerinas, and most of the characters are female. The school has a lot of creepy Art Nouveau details – something about the organic shaped doorways is very strange. Colored lights help set the mood. Scary and unexplained things transpire. People disappear, there are a few grisly murders, and gross things fall from the ceiling and into the girls’ hair. Authority figures lie and overreact. Girls are threatened. An unseen woman’s presence promises danger. Sounds in the night disturb the girls, and our heroine experiences health problems. Something is very, very wrong.
My favorite weirdo, Udo Kier, turns up to explain everything during a rare daytime outdoor scene, shot at the perfect BMW headquarters in Munich.
In my memory, the film is much gorier than it actually is. It seems like a film in which everyone is cut to pieces and women are tortured. I had forgotten how mysterious and spooky it is, that the horror is mostly psychological rather than bloody. Still, the razor wire scene remains hard to take.
While the film is earth shattering and transformative, its story is actually a rather classic fairy tale or ghost story. Remove the music, the lights, the architecture, the wall coverings, and you have a fairly straightforward plot. Argento’s magic is wrought through his attention to detail, his set design, the framing, the colors, the sounds. The script is probably the least important part of the movie.
The fact that it is is dubbed is off-putting to many viewers. It’s difficult to get past this aspect of the film the first time around, although it does lay the groundwork for viewing other Italian films, most of which were dubbed as a matter of course.
Much has been written about SUSPIRIA. I think you should watch it once or twice and then read up about it. I like this article, which also finds the architecture of the film to be a major character. Here, color is the objective. I read something great online about the filming of SUSPIRIA, but now I can’t find it. There is a remake happening, but let’s just pretend we didn’t hear about that. I mean, why repaint The Garden of Earthly Delights when you can just enjoy the original? Blasphemous.