Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Final Girl Film Club - Suspiria

Cody is endeavoring to write about all of the Final Girl Film Club entries he missed over the years. The movies will be covered in the original Film Club order in most cases, while some of the articles will be posted to coincide with certain dates.

Cody and Priscilla get colorful about Suspiria.

Seeking to perfect her ballet studies, American dancer Suzy Bannion has enrolled in Germany's Academy of Freiburg, the most famous school of dance in Europe. And immediately upon her arrival, her stay in Germany turns out to be a living nightmare.

Stepping out into a dark and stormy night complete with strong winds and lashing rain, Suzy manages to catch a taxi to the academy. When she reaches the school, a highly agitated girl rushes out of the building as she approaches the door, and then the voice on the call box tells her to go away. As she's driven into town to get a room for the night, she sees the frightened girl who exited the school running off through the woods...

The girl on the run is Pat Hingle, who has been expelled from the school for improper conduct, and when she seeks shelter at a friend's apartment, it's clear through their conversation that she is keeping some sort of frightening secret about the academy. As she prepares to settle in for the night, Pat is suddenly attacked by a muscular, hairy armed figure who pulls her through a window from outside and proceeds to brutally murder her. She's stabbed multiple times in the chest, for one strike of the blade we're even shown a shot looking through her chest to see as the knife directly pierces her heart. That's not enough for her killer, who then wraps a cable noose around her neck and drops her through a stained glass skylight. The falling debris from the skylight kills her friend as well...

Returning to the academy the next day, Suzy is allowed in and shown around the place by teacher Miss Tanner and Vice Directress Madame Blanc, although she's informed that the head Directress is travelling abroad. At first, the school arranges for Suzy to stay with another student who lives in town for a fee of $50 a week, but then Miss Tanner attempts to reverse this decision and offers her a free dorm room. Well, Suzy has already befriended her new roommate, so she declines the room... And then strange circumstances force Suzy into the dorm room, as she gets weak during dance practice and collapses with blood running from her nose and mouth. Clearly, it's better for her health that she stay at the school.

Suzy continues to have bouts of fatigue as her time at the school goes on and more strange occurrences happen around her. She comes to find out that none of her fellow students have ever met the Directress, but one girl she befriends does know what the Directress's very creepy, ragged snoring sounds like... And they hear that unique snore one night... Maggots rain from the ceiling on an entire floor of the academy. A peaceful seeing eye dog turns vicious. More people end up dying.

As the strangeness gets overwhelming, Suzy seeks answers and finds that the school was founded in 1895 by a woman named Helena Markos, who was said to be a witch and was called the Black Queen. Thinking back on her passing encounter with Pat Hingle, Suzy begins to piece together the words she heard Pat saying. Those words could be the key to figuring out the mystery of the academy.

Directed by Dario Argento from a screenplay he wrote with his longtime girlfriend Daria Nicolodi, Suspiria is one of the most highly regarded horror films of all time, it's often ranked among the best of the genre and is the top favorite of many a horror fan.

Which makes it hard for me to write about this movie, because I'm not a fan who can extol its virtues. Certainly the movie is masterfully shot, with fantastic, colorful cinematography by Luciano Tovoli that makes it wonderful to look at, and it has a great score by the band Goblin, but the colors and music alone do not make the film interesting enough to hold my attention throughout the running time.

The basic idea, a ballet school run by evil witches, is good, but with the way it's told it just does nothing for me.

I've always felt like there isn't enough ballet dancing in the movie. Maybe less than 2 minutes total showing people actually dancing, and we barely see Suzy do it at all. I'm not saying it'd be crucial for the movie, but since the story revolves around a ballet school, there should be more of it. Another thing that is a little weird, to say the least, is the fact that everyone in Germany speaks English.

I don't like or care about the characters, and the extended sequences of them walking around while Goblin blasts on the soundtrack just provide moments where my mind can wander off to something else.

My favorite things about the movie, by far, are the gorgeous sets and designs. So many rich, bright, bold, unexpected colors, patterns and designs. It's almost too loud and busy, but somehow it's simply marvelous. It really fills the screen in a very positive way. I've loved that aspect of the movie ever since I first watched it, which was only a few years ago.

My first attempt to watch the movie was not under ideal circumstances - after years of hearing about it and being unable to find it, I chanced upon a VHS copy for sale for a cheap price at a truck stop in Kansas. I tried to watch the movie on a tiny TV in the sleeper cab of a semi truck roaring down the road and was quickly completely lost, I had no idea what was going on in this movie. Subsequent attempts at viewing it have been in better environments, but the movie has still never pulled me in.

The red paint blood and the nasty maggots/bugs that seem to be a regular thing in a lot of Italian horror movies really don't do it for me. It could also have done without the narration at the beginning. The use of red, green and blue lights can be very atmospheric sometimes, but almost too much at others. Like when they all spend the night in the big room at the Academy, the use of shadows is nice, but all the red combined with the score just gets to be too much.

Lead actress Jessica Harper, who starred in Brian DePalma's awesome horror/comedy/rock musical Phantom of the Paradise a few years earlier, is a likeable screen presence, but the character of Suzy Bannion is just a bland, blank slate.

There is an oddness to all of the characters, some of which is held over from the fact that Argento and Nicolodi originally envisioned the academy students being no older than 12. Argento was talked into casting adult actresses after being told that the film would be less marketable if it featured such young girls being brutally murdered and/or falling into strands of razor wire. However, he didn't rewrite the script to reflect the age of the actresses, so the movie retains the fairy tale-esque feeling he was going for, but that's also how you get scenes where a grown woman delivers the line "names which begin with the letter S are the names of snakes" as an insult and another grown woman (named Sara) takes it so personally that she sticks her tongue out at her tormentor repeatedly.

There's no substance to the characters. They do act like they're 12, so there's kind of a gap in terms of dialogue and attitude. It doesn't match the normal behavior of women in their mid-20s. Maybe if the girls were around 16, it would've worked better without being too brutal.

The music of Goblin completely overwhelms the film, and when I saw the movie in a theatre last year, projected on 35mm, the dialogue was soft but the score was so loud that it was almost painful.

Speaking of things in the film being too loud and busy... that defines the score. A bunch of banging noises and weird sounds should not mean great score. To me it's the opposite, and it's such a relief when it subsides. Sometimes I wonder how I'd feel about the movie if it had a different, less "in-your-face" score. I bet I'd like it more.

While I can agree with Suspiria's fans that it is quite an artistic achievement, the story isn't told in a way that is appealing to me, so it's not one that I choose to watch.

Suspiria isn't one of my favorites, though I do enjoy watching it sometimes and wish I could have the opportunity to watch it on the big screen. Definitely not for the score - I bet that'd make me want to step out of the room - but for the amazing set designs and architecture of it all, it must look even more beautiful that way. Overall, I feel like it could've been executed better.

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