I’ve long had a love-hate relationship with horror that’s increasingly been completely out of step with the reality of my movie watching experience nowadays. I’ll avoid some horror movies purely because of their legendary reputation; I think they’ll end up freaking me out, even though I know I’m too old and too rationally cynical to really be spooked any more (while kind of simultaneously wishing I could still be as freaked as I was when I was 12 and my cousins thought it would be hilarious to let me watch “A Nightmare On Elm Street”).
With the modern remake on the horizon, I figure it was time to bite the bullet and watch “Suspiria”, a film I knew very little about beyond its reputation as an iconic and influential touchstone of cinema horror. Feeling brave, I even watched it on my own.
Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), an American dancer, arrives to study at a prestigious German ballet academy but comes to realise the school is a front for something altogether more sinister amid a series of ghoulish incidents and grisly murders.
Less a horror film and more a kaleidoscopic tone poem, “Suspiria” feels like something you experience rather than watch. A cineasthete’s technicolour dream, it’s super bright and aggressively loud, blasting the soundtrack by Italian prog-rock group Goblin at you to the point where you can almost see the sound.
Garishly coloured, even the plentiful blood is a distractingly unrealistic scarlet, but it feeds into the neon nightmare that Argento envelops his cast in, contributing to the fantastic grotesquery the characters are trapped in. Cinematically, it’s like the equivalent of the Lloyds building in London: everything is visible and obvious, every shot executed with obvious artifice and externalised intent. The performances likewise feel artificial and detached, not helped by the decision to dub in the dialogue separately and although they help build an increasingly hallucinogenic atmosphere, the visuals have similarly detached feel: nothing looks or feels real, the oversaturated, primary coloured lighting fails to disguise the minimalist sound stages and movie sets.
Curious, unsettling and deeply disconcerting, it may be an impressionistic tour de force but it never really manages to terrify.