The (in)famous Dario Argento, master of the giallo genre is back, as gory and flamboyant as ever.
“Suspiria” takes place on a private ballet school in the Black Forest of Germany. It is a gothic looking place in a gothic looking town, but an otherwise harmless looking place. As Susan Bannion (Jessica Harper), an American student of ballet, arrives at night, in torrential rain, a girl is running away from the school, mumbling incoherently. Susan is refused entry to the school. Shortly after we see the escaped girl getting horribly killed by a demonic looking creature in one of the goriest openings to a movie I ever saw.
That sets the stage pretty well.
When Susan arrives at the school the next morning, everything looks neat and quiet and completely harmless. The teachers are a bit old school, but that is to be expected. Susan is befriended by one of the girls, Sarah (Stefania Casini) who is convinced something sinister is going on at the school. True enough, strange events start happening: Maggots raining down from the roof, the blind pianist getting killed and eaten by his dog and Susan getting so sleepy in the evenings…
When Sarah also goes missing, Susan is truly alarmed and discovers that the ballet school has a past involving witchcraft. From there it gets pretty wild.
The most powerful element of “Suspiria” is not even the wildly gory parts, but the very strong, saturated colors and backlighting though blankets and windows. The otherworldly and psychedelic effect of this sets a stage for an environment where literally anything is possible. The soundscape goes along well enough, but probably better in the day. The visuals however were clearly adopted by David Lynch and for long parts I felt I was watching Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks. To begin with it feels exaggerated, as if to create a cartoonish or expressionist environment, like “Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari”, but the further we get into the movie, the more I bought into this scenery.
Unfortunately, “Suspiria” was never able to entirely shed the cartoonish, or amateurish, feel, at least to me. Part of that was the over-the-top goriness, but more than anything the ridiculous dubbing. The tenor of the voices was so disconnected from the actual scenes that I had the impression of voice actors sitting in a cozy room reading up from a script while drinking coffee. It had the not-intended effect of making me giggle over the misfortunes of the characters rather than being horrified.
It is not as if the movie does not try, though. So many scenes are set up to be almost intolerable to watch so you want to cry “STOP!”, and with proper dubbing it may have worked. Instead, it often became comical, and it made me wonder if I should have watched it in Italian language instead.
I am not a fan of gory movies and I do not feel thrilled about people getting chopped to pieces, but I will grant that “Suspiria” is very inventive at building up a mysterious parallel universe and I will give it points for that. And some extra points for the laughs the ridiculousness of it generated.