I’m pretty secure with my tastes in scary movies, and because I try to approach stuff on a film-by-film basis, it means I don’t often think in terms of genre. Sure, there are some things on which I’m going to be a harder sell than others (not really a big fan of slasher films, for example), but I try to think about movies as individual pieces of work, rather than examples of a larger style, and not get bogged down in not being sufficiently familiar with a particular style or not. That said, I am aware of particular gaps in my horror film education, and as an aside to all the other stuff I do, I’m trying to familiarize with particular genres or periods or directors with whom I feel like I should be more familiar than I am. I don’t purport to be an expert, but sometimes I feel like I should have a better general knowledge of horror film than I do. One of the genres with which I am pretty much completely unfamiliar is giallo, so I thought it'd be good to educate myself by starting with one of the classics. Namely, Suspiria.
Suzy Bannion is a ballerina from the United States, who has been invited to study at a prestigious ballet academy in Germany. Upon arriving at the school (in the middle of a downpour), she passes a young woman leaving in some state of agitation. The door attendant claims to not know who Suzy is and tells her to go away. She glimpses the girl running through the woods as she drives away in her cab, and we follow the girl to a friend’s apartment. She’s upset about something - terrified, in fact. She doesn't have anywhere else to run.
As it turns out, this dance academy is full of secrets, and the young woman who ran pays a terrible price for her knowledge.
in the classic sense of the word - the mood is generally foreboding and overwrought, there’s an ingenue, and a mysterious, imposing structure (in this case a dance academy), filled with strange people with secrets of their own. What sets this film apart is a level of violence not usually found in gothic stories. It isn't especially realistic violence, but what’s signified is certainly explicit enough to be a departure from traditionally gothic horror. I can see how in its time it would be a potent combination for filmgoers new to the idea.
Where Suspiria really works to me is, in fact the way that realism and restraint is, at every level, pretty much pushed out the window along with the poor girl from the introduction. Everything is pushed to extremes sufficient to place it somewhere in the realm of pop art visually and opera narratively. Everything is shot in garish color and deep shadow, with a lot of vivid reds (and I do mean a lot of vivid reds), blues and greens, to a point that looks blatantly artificial. This movie is deeply, deeply stylized. Every location is ornate and almost overdecorated. Given, part of this might have just been the aesthetic of the time in which the movie was made (Europe in the 1970s), but every location leaps off the screen in some way. Even relatively monochromatic scenes blaze with pattern and texture. It’s so artificial that it almost feels like everything is taking place on a set - not even a soundstage, but almost like a theatrical set, which heightens the sense of unreality communicated through the dislocation that Suzy feels among her fellow students, thrown into this strange situation. Even the blood looks less like blood and more like tempera paint, which both fits the palette and continues to communicate this idea that nothing we see is meant to be taken as literal, everything is just a representation, a signifier.
Against this artificiality, the explicitness of the violence is a little surprising, and the juxtaposition of the high style with gross-out moments of stabbing and throat-cutting and mauling is interesting. It somehow manages to be stylish, gross, artificial, and hysteric all at the same time, not feeling exactly like anything else I've seen, while still making clear to me the ways in which it has influenced other films I have seen. Gilderoy in Berberian Sound Studio is as much a stranger at sea in a foreign country as Suzy, dealing with equally rude and opaque people, working on a film that itself is cut from entirely the same cloth as this, and Saw begins to make a lot more sense if we think of it as a North American filtering of the giallo sensibility.
The story is a little spotty, but it almost doesn't matter because what there is is communicated so broadly and at such a pitch that the feeling sells it more than any neatly structured plot would. It's made clear by the end what the secret of this academy is, but without really communicating why the specific things that happen are happening. It’s more the case that a lot of creepy shit is happening and hey, here’s why. That the film doesn't seem overly concerned with making perfect sense sort of helps it in a way. It's more just a framework on which to hang a lot of weird shit, and I have to say, despite how dated this film is in terms of its effects work (ameliorated to a degree by the way the fakeness sort of adds to the whole thing), there are some very striking moments. It may not have survived the decades with its original power fully intact, but the way it pushes itself into the red (in all sorts of ways) with the utter confidence that it’s barreling full-tilt towards batshit insane, it's still a singular statement.
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