Italy 1977 : Dario Argento : 95-97 mins

There have probably been weirder, artier, funnier and gorier horror films than Suspiria, but none have come anywhere near combining all of these elements to more dazzling effect than Argento’s masterpiece. But it isn’t enough to proclaim the movie as the best of its genre – this is a rare, possibly unique example of a genuine auteur remaining true to his own personal vision, while at the same time satisfying the demands of the commercial market. A major hit on both sides of the Atlantic on its initial release, Suspiria has enjoyed a long afterlife as a video and DVD favourite. But abandon all notions that great cinema must mean ‘well-made’ movies: Argento doesn’t worry about plotting, characterisation, acting, or making much sense, so neither should we.

The storyline, which sees American ballet student Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper) arriving to study at a prestigious German tanzakademie, only to discover it’s a front for a coven of murderous witches, is just an excuse for a series of outrageously stylish (and often remarkably bloodthirsty) set-pieces. Argento aims for, and achieves, total sensory overload: every frame is meticulously designed, with special attention paid to gaudy colour schemes, while the deafening, quadrophonic soundtrack transports the viewer into a disorienting universe, delicately balanced between horror and an unexpected but entirely deliberate absurdity. The multi-layered electronic score, partly composed and performed by Argento himself, put John Carpenter’s contemporary synth noodlings firmly in their place.

But you’ll search in vain for Suspiria among ‘ten best’ lists of the seventies – there’s no mention of Argento at all in any of Pauline Kael’s published volumes of criticism, and David Thomson omits him from all editions of his Biographical Dictionary of Cinema. There’s no denying his career has been, to say the least, erratic. But when he manages to make it all come together, as here, it’s hard to think of another director, of any era, in any country, who has used cinema with anything like as much invention, wit, and sheer technical skill.

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29th May, 2001

by Neil Young