Suspiria

(Dario Argento, Italy, 1977): Giallo maestro and former Sergio Leone screenwriter Dario Argento’s global reputation was forged here, in a movie about an American dance student (Jessica Harper) who arrives at a remote German academy presided over by Joan Bennett and Alida Valli and prone to providing fetchingly sinister settings for all manner of unnerving nastiness. The young women of the school — who are, almost without exception, as unpleasant as the imposing divas running the place — are being stalked, mutilated, murdered and placed on conspicuous display. As in all Argento movies but here more blatantly and elaborately than ever before, the deaths themselves function as numbers: they are executed as show-stoppers to be watched and enjoyed for their own sake, and the formal fastidiousness with which they are mounted is presumed, like so much else in the movie, to take spectacular priority over everything else. One presumes this because, considering the ravishing mastery with which Argento deploys his formal skills — one of the earliest instances of Steadicam; an Antonioni-esque colour palette tweaked by the three-strip Technicolor printing process; a soundscape (provided by Argento’s house band Goblin) suggesting a door left open to hell; and an overall ambience of predatory menace that installs itself from Harper’s opening-scene arrival at an airport during a blue-tinged rainstorm — there’s no other reasonable explanation for the fact the movie makes about as much logical sense as the ravings of an inmate in Dr. Caligari’s home for the theatrically deranged. There’s witches at work here, guide dogs who inexplicably (but shockingly) turn on their blind masters, evil presences not exactly hidden behind rear-illuminated screens; sudden conflagrations and explosions of glass; spooky Val Lewton-ish swimming pools; and corridors that seem to bend, stretch and take on depth and colour at will, or at least at the will of pure dream projection. But that, needless to say, is precisely the point and perverse splendour of Suspiria, as confident and sure-handed an exercise in pure dream logic as you’ll find this side of David Lynch, Jean Cocteau or — Argento’s stateside soul-mate and doppelgänger — Brian De Palma. I personally have always found the movie far more impressive and entertaining than remotely scary, but that too is perfectly permissible under the circumstances. It’s a show, but what a show. Clearly the movie most indebted to the director’s beloved Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, by way of Fritz Lang, Antonioni, Hitch and (I suspect) even Helmut Newton, Suspiria is the classic fairy tale filtered through near-postmodern gothic self-referentiality, and fun if you’re willing to simply hop in that blue-soaked cab with Harper and take the deep psychic plunge. (Also provided you’re willing to accept the director’s, and the Italian horror movie’s in general, predilection for the artful destruction of imperilled runway models.)  A remake, directed by Italian filmmaker Luca Guagadnino (I Am Love), is to be released later this year (2017), and I’ve little doubt it will be both as visually fetching and more logically coherent than Argento’s original. And, like so many international re-makes of horror movies made during the genre’s high tide of the ’70s, it will likely not do much more than remind us that tide has long retreated over the historical horizon. Besides, the kind of technical skill and dream-logic so innovative in Argento’s heyday is merely Filmmaking 101 rote today, and the original’s take-away sense of pervasive, anything-goes weirdness is something that simply can’t be replicated. You, and it, had to be there. Besides, the only re-make Suspiria logically demands is one that steps up the show-stoppers and renders them as the dark-side Busby Berkeley numbers they’re almost begging to be anyway. Little Red Riding Hood by way of Daphne du Maurier 42nd Street: What a musical Suspiria would make. (Anchor Bay)

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