Reviewer's note: Originally I was going to review The Cat O' Nine Tails, Argento's second film, however I rented the film through Netflix, which unfortunately has chosen to do business with independent distributor Westlake Entertainment. The version of CONT that I saw was sub-DVD quality: it looked like someone had copied an old VHS recording onto a DVD. It was also the American cut, so it was nearly 30 minutes shorter than the restored Anchor Bay release. Because my copy was missing entire scenes and was poorly edited to get an American release in the early 70's, I am not reviewing the movie in the form I saw it in. If you rent any of the films mentioned on this month's YSM reviews on Netflix, be warned that you may be getting a vastly inferior quality DVD.
Suspiria is such a success that it hardly qualifies as camp filmmaking to look at the recognition its received in the past 30 years. The Village Voice named it the #100 movie of the past century, it regularly appears as a token Italian entry on "best horror" lists, and even got referenced in a subplot in an episode of The Office this season. But while the movie is an incredibly creepy supernatural success story, it still fits solidly in the camp-friendly world of Argento's oeuvre. From the creepy children to the emotionally stunted female protagonist to Argento's appearance as a black-gloved figure, it's everything we've come to know and love from the filmmaker.
Our story begins as young dancer Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) makes her way to a school in Germany on a stormy night. Outside the incredibly creepy school, she sees a near-hysteric girl shouting something that's obscured by the thunder. We follow this freaked out newcomer as she stays the night at a friend's apartment. But before we understand exactly what she's so scared of, she's brutally murdered in a way that involves some serious window-smashing.
Suzy comes to school and meets the staff, including the incredibly stern Miss Tanner and the interim head of the school Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett, a veteran actress who had been appearing in films for 60 years). Suzy meets the other girls, including the unpopular Sara (Stefania Casini), and moves into a flat with an older girl. She rejects an offer from the staff to move into a recently opened up room, but after a bizarre run-in with the stern-faced cook and Blanc's incredibly creepy nephew, Suzy feels out of sorts as she's dancing, culminating in her passing out, hemorrhaging blood.
Suzy wakes up in the dorm that had been offered earlier, and finds her stuff has been moved into the room. She feels fine and learns a little about the school's bizarre hierarchy from Sara, when maggots randomly start falling from the ceiling. This forces all the girls to sleep in the gym. The staff volunteers to spend the night sleeping on cots too, but Sara's not sure of their motives.
What follows is a paranormal trip down the rabbit-hole: two more characters are gruesomely murdered, a bat gets punched, and Suzy must discover the school's secret, with a little help from a paranormal psychologist played by Udo Kier.
Honestly I don't have that much to say about the plot. It's not reinventing the wheel from a narrative perspective, but Argento movies aren't great because of their plots. Argento is far ahead of his time from a cinematic point of view. The lingering creepiness and unnerving quality of the dance academy calls to mind The Shining, a film that was released three years later and with a far larger budget. Suspiria sucks the viewer into this bizarre, terrifying universe, full of bright colors, creepy staff members, and terrifying children.
The film holds the distinction of being the last film to be colored in the old "technicolor" style. Argento takes advantage of this by having a number of impossibly saturated colors, particularly reds, that make the whole film feel like a bad trip. The Goblin score perfectly fits the unnerving narrative, and the main theme is incredibly catchy. It's stylish, it's scary, and it does so while retaining all of the tropes we associate with our favorite creepy Hitchcock!
Psychiatrist (Udo Kier): Bad luck isn't brought by broken mirrors, but by broken minds.
Blind Man: I heard you! I'm not deaf! Get it?! Not deaf!
Pat Hingle: Secret ......................... Iris!
Black gloves? Yes! Look for them in the scene where Sara climbs through a window!
Goblin? Yes! It's Argento's second collaboration with the band, and maybe their most memorable theme.
Cruelty to animals? A dog is driven to madness, and a bat is squashed with a stool.
Window-related death? Yes, in incredibly ornate fashion.
Creepy children? Yes, the only child in the film.
Nepotism? Barely! Daria Nicolodi appears at the airport, but her biggest contribution is a screenwriting credit, as the film is at least in part inspired by Daria's grandmother, who fled a dance academy when she learned it was run by witches. Daria also voices an important character late in the film.
Overall Argento-ness? 6/6. Any more Argento-ey and it would have an angel tattoo on its groin.