Bucket List Movie #462: Suspiria (1977)
Welcome to another Horror-tober edition of Bucket List Movies, and today's film is made by Italian director Dario Argento. Argento at his peak was highly praised for his striking visual style in such classics as The Bird with Crystal Plumage, and today's BLM, 1977's Suspiria. Make no mistake, Suspiria is an incredibly gorgeous movie, every other scene swathed in poisonous reds, ghoulish greens, and sunny yellows. Even amidst all the horror and bloody violence, Suspiria is beautiful to look at. If Vincente Minnelli and John Carpenter collaborated on a film, it would like Suspiria.
The reason I'm rambling on about how pretty Suspiria looks is to bring up another point about Argento: for all the praise he receives for his art direction, he is frequently criticized for lacking subtlety, and his movies often get slammed for pedestrian stories that are sometimes aided by the visuals, but sometimes not. This brings me to a question I've been mulling over for quite some time: why is it so hard, if not impossible, for directors to have it both ways and have a balance of style and substance? I'm aware that can't always be the case, and it usually depends on the story the directors and screenwriters want to tell, but why can't they have their cake and eat it, too?
Too many movies, in an attempt to be taken seriously, I guess, are saturated in brown, beige, or any boring neutral out there. Likewise, if movies do have color, that's often directly proportional to how stupid or shallow they'll be. Suspiria, alas, falls into the latter category. It looks glorious, but it has an unoriginal, by-the-numbers story, clunky plot devices that would get you kicked out of any decent creative writing class, and cardboard cutout characters played by actors who seem baffled as to what they should be doing. Suspiria is like that pretty, vapid classmate who inspires the backhanded description, "She's nice, but…"
Suspiria tells the story of fresh-faced American Susie (Jessica Harper) who arrives at a prestigious ballet academy in Germany during the type of rainstorm that only happens in the movies. She spies a bedraggled, hysterical young woman stumbling out of the school and mumbling incoherently. Susie is understandably perturbed by this, and is further perturbed when the poor girl, whose name is Pat, is reported dead the next day. We get to see how Pat died, and, well, it brings to mind the type of music videos Tipper Gore would campaign to be yanked off the air ten years later.
That's only the beginning; in time, Susie has to contend with creepy servants, enigmatic teachers, maggots that fall from the ceiling, the blind pianist getting mauled and eaten by his guide dog, and her roommate Sarah mysteriously disappearing. When Susie gets in touch with Sarah's shrink (Udo Keir), she learns the school was founded by-gasp!-a witch and that-gasp!-they might still be carrying on her dirty work!
Yup, Suspiria is basically your average, run-of-the-mill, hidden witches' coven story, nothing more, nothing less. Yes, it has the kind of stylized violence that would make Quentin Tarantino weep with envy, and it feels years ahed of its time in terms of visuals and editing, but that doesn't make up for the fact that Suspiria holds few surprises and clumsy storytelling. For instance, when Susie arrives at the school, a mysterious voice on the intercom tells her she's a stranger and to go away. Later, Sarah reveals to Susie that she was the voice on the intercom, because she was upset at Pat leaving. Normally, this would be a bom bom BOMMMMMM! moment, but it isn't. There is no shock or suspense, it is handled in a matter-of-fact fashion, and it contributes nothing to the story overall. What was Sarah hoping to accomplish? Who knows? Is she part of the evil coven? Nope, she's still Susie's friend. What was the point of that exchange? How should I know?
It doesn't help that the characters are one-note at best. I wanted to be invested in Susie's plight, but she's so drab that I just couldn't. I'll admit I've only seen Jessica Harper in an episode of Starman and as Mark Linn-Baker's utterly forgettable love interest in My Favorite Year. For all I know, maybe she's an amazing actress, but I have yet to see her in a project that shows her talent. I think she's part of a line of scruffily attractive brunettes who become "It girls" in each generation, but, because of Hollywood's preference to more polished blondes, have stars that burn fast, then cool to a soft glow just as quickly: Ali McGraw in the 60s and 70s, Jami Gertz in the 80s, and Jordana Brewster in the 90s and 2000s.
Back to the main gripe, which is that Suspiria has too many questions that are left unanswered. Mind you, I don't take issue with films that don't answer all your questions, as long as it's thought-provoking as a result (Todd Haynes's Safe comes to mind). But, sweet mother of Moses, Suspiria is just a silly slasher movie that looks like a music video, it's not supposed to be thought-provoking! Come on, Dario Argento, you're not exactly making The Vanishing here! How was Susie able to pick up what Pat was saying, even though it was pouring down rain, they weren't that close together, and Pat wasn't even speaking that clearly? Is the guard dog possessed by the coven, or is he an evil entity unto himself? Isn't it a little distracting how some of the minor characters are made up to look like cartoon villains? And, most importantly… what in the ever loving hell is the coven doing at that school?! Are they harvesting souls? Sacrificing virginal students? Trying to get new recruits? What are they doing there? What was the point of that dumb little conflict of whether Susie lives in an apartment or at the school? The other students aren't being randomly picked off, they're only in danger if they start investigating the strange events! Other than that, they're perfectly safe! For that matter, why have a ballet academy as a front? Wouldn't it make more sense to meet in private so as not to arouse suspicion? I mean, missing students and violent incidents at a prestigious dance school aren't going to go unnoticed! People aren't that dumb and oblivious!
See why most slasher movies leave me cold? Suspiria might be better than your average slasher flick, but that isn't saying very much. If you have a higher tolerance for style completely devoid of substance, then maybe Suspiria will hold your interest more than it held mine.