Posted on Thursday, February 4th, 2016 by Jacob Hall
(Welcome to the /Film Movie Club, a new semi-regular feature where we delve into some of our favorite movies, focusing on films that lie a little off the beaten path. Today: Dario Argento’s Suspiria.)
Some movies benefit from being watched at a particular time, in a particular place, while you are in a particular mood. Suspiria, Dario Argento‘s 1977 horror masterpiece, is a gripping and unsettling experience in any context, but it practically demands to be watched in the dark, on the biggest screen you can access, with the sound cranked up as high as you can bear. Oh, it it helps if you start watching if after midnight, so you’re just tired enough to wonder if you’re actually seeing what you think you’re seeing.
That last part isn’t necessary, but when I recently settled in for a late night repertory screening of Suspiria, I found myself instantly battling fatigue. The result: one of the most memorable movie-watching experiences of my life, where Argento’s film merged with my susceptible, dreary consciousness to create the ultimate experience of inhabiting a bad dream. But even without that extra help Suspiria plays like a nightmare – logic plays second fiddle to a world where bad things happen to good people for reasons that are intentionally vague and maddening. You can’t argue with the visions of an uneasy sleep.
An Atmosphere of Menace
For a film that wraps itself in a cloak of mystery, only allowing you the occasional peek at its twisted interior — and then often only so it can show you its fangs — Suspiria‘s story is fairy straightforward. Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) is an American ballet student who travels to Germany to attend a prestigious dance school. But the school is not what it appears. People start dying. Things go to hell, sometimes in the most literal sense.
Argento slaps you in the face with its unpredictable and unforgiving world within just a few minutes. The only scene in the film that seemingly takes place in our world – a world that follows some set of recognizable rules – is the first one. Suzy walks through an airport terminal, the camera tracking her, occasionally cutting to the glass doors that mark the gateway into her new life, her new home. For the only time, the soundtrack is subdued, the colors natural, and the landscape mundane.
However, this simple door is a portal. Once Suzy walks through it, she has entered a dreamscape. She has crossed through some kind of unknowable threshold and this new land instantly greets her with a terrible rainstorm. Cabs swerve to avoid her. The driver who does pick her up is unfriendly, harsh. Harper, wet and miserable and scared, has no idea what she’s done to deserve this. And she doesn’t take shelter in the terminal. She can’t take shelter in the terminal. You can’t will yourself to wake up from a nightmare.
Suzy’s welcoming is our welcoming, too. In “real life,” Suzy would have noted this rainstorm from the plane. She would have had transportation organized. She would have had her act together. Yet, Suspiria doesn’t take place in real life. It takes place in the realm of nightmare, where everything that can go wrong, goes wrong. Argento establishes an atmosphere of menace in these opening scenes and refuses to let up, establishing a rhythm of constantly increasing dread.
Every scene in Suspiria is unwelcoming. Every scene is defined by poor decisions by characters who should know when to turn back, when to not investigate that secret room or that mysterious person. This film is outright hostile, but like your worst nightmares, there is no escape. You can only wake up. You can only wait for the credits to roll.