Suspiria ★★★★★

52 horror film challenge 2019: 39/52.
No. 50: rewatch no. 6.

Why is Suspiria so great? It's not like it has many markers of a conventionally good film: anyone whose understanding of quality in cinema is rooted in Robert McKee or CinemaSins will find nothing of worth in it, and I'm happy declaring it not for them. Wikipedia has an amusing section of baffled early reviews, most of which describe it as being not about anything. One calls it an attempt to hop on the Exorcist bandwagon, which is amusing: I know 1970s European Exorcist rip-offs, and this, Senator, is no 1970s European Exorcist rip-off.

If I had to pick one word from one review that I felt was worth singling out as the wrongest word ever written about Suspiria, it would be from Bruce McCabe's Boston Globe review. Here it is:


It's not uneven. Look, I love Dario Argento. I've noted before that this love is not uncritical - quite the opposite, I regard his flaws and mis-steps with a clear-eyed, amused affection. If he was able to do something like Suspiria all the time, even this fireworks display would get tired. Normally when I watch an Argento film, even a great one, I expect a few things to go awry. There'll be some clanging lines of dialogue, or some exposition scenes that lack the dynamism and investment of the material around it. Most of the music cues will be good, but there'll be one that's so abrupt I'll imagine a comedy needle-dragging sound effect at the start and end of it. I'm not really bothered by these things, and sometimes he resists the temptation to include them. But I think you'll agree, it's a reasonable set of expectations to sit down and watch an Argento film with.

Suspiria has nothing like this. About twelve minutes in there's the most outrageously excessive stabbing in horror history, throwing in a close-up of the victim's exposed, beating heart being punctured. From then, literally no part of the film lets up. The score is pummelling, relentless prog. The lighting manages to avoid any even slightly realistic tone - it may be the first horror movie whose defining colour is neon pink. The danger is relentless, and the narrative is peppered with scenes as astonishingly violent as that inaugural heart-bursting. The nearest thing to an exposition scene is shot among the dizzying diagonals of a bright white modernist building, with an occult professor explains everything and nothing with the immortal line "Bad luck isn't caused by broken mirrors, but by broken minds."

And what is it all about? In the end, the hopelessness of the search for meaning is the meaning. Characters unlock hidden doors and uncover ancient conspiracies, but the only final truth is that the Three Mothers are more powerful and have more influence than anyone could possibly understand, able to bend anything from a ballet school to a German Shepherd into an instrument of their will. It's the only kind of ending that a horror film of this kind of totality can countenance. Before the release of Mother of Tears I used to fantasise about a third film in the trilogy which would reveal some occult temporal structure that would explain why these houses are such vorticies of evil, but the more I revisit Suspiria and Inferno the more I realise that's already inferred. The only explanation is the experience. No wonder it's so hard to write about.

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