For most of its runtime, Suspiria builds. It increases suspense, it increases terror, it increases discomfort. Director Argento and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli shoot these long shots with slightly fish-eyed backgrounds. Combined with Giuseppe Bassan’s jawdroppingly awesome production design, the film gives the impression of having no depth. No perspective. The actors move in front of these flat backgrounds, which they may or may not interact with. It’s beyond creepy; it controls the narrative distance but also the narrative possibility. How can lead Jessica Harper interact in three dimension space if the shot is her in the foreground, but the background is flat.
Then she does and the discomfort increases. Not in the narrative, not through the off-putting Goblin (and Argento) score, but because she’s moving into a space where she shouldn’t be able to move. It takes time, each time, to readjust. Just a couple seconds, which is more than enough time for Argento to move on to the next discomfort acceleration.
He also plays with depth a little in the first half of the film. Foreground is sometimes less important than background, even though foreground takes up most of the frame. Then there are all the colors. Harper moves through a world of color, most often red (though blue eventually becomes big); red is, of course, the color of blood. It’s also the color of danger in Suspiria, something Harper doesn’t recognize, but the viewer does. It’s all about unsettling the viewer and Argento succeeds at it, scene by scene, frame by frame, for more than half of the film.
Then he gets impatient. He also relies way too much on Stefania Casini, who plays Harper’s friend. Casini is an inexplicable busybody, something Harper can’t quite acknowledge because it turns out she’s being doped into tranquility. They’re both students at an elite German dance school. Harper has just arrived. The film opens with her getting to school and seeing another student run away, out into a torrential thunderstorm.
That student (Eva Axén) ends up brutally murdered, something the viewer sees (along with a lot of Argento and Tovoli’s perspective flattening and a lot of blood), but Harper doesn’t. She’s just slightly bewildered by Axén’s behavior. Slightly. She’s got the intense dance school to deal with. There’s strict instructor Alida Valli (in an awesome performance) and abrupt headmistress Joan Bennett (in a decent, but certainly not awesome, smaller part), not to mention possible love interest Miguel Bosé. The non-teaching staff of the school is all peculiar Eastern Europeans (Harper’s a New Yorker) and Harper’s classmates range from snippy to downright vicious mean girls. Casini is the only nice one. But she too has her secrets.
Instead of returning to a calm after Axén’s murder, weird occurrences keep getting weirder and more deadly around the school. It’s one of the problems with Argento and Daria Nicolodi’s script. It makes no sense how the place could function without incident. Especially if Bennett is going to keep letting in busybodies like Casini and Axén.
More problematic is how Argento’s style changes as the film moves along. His composition is always strong, Tovoli’s photography is always good, Franco Fraticelli’s editing is always good, but once the film starts into exposition, Argento stops relying on the visuals. Harper’s story–getting to this weird school, being a fish out of water, getting sick–doesn’t have anything particularly ominous about it. Argento’s direction–and the narrative distance, which reveals quite a bit to the viewer (though not everything–like why does the creepy little German kid force an altercation with blind staff pianist Flavio Bucci’s guide dog)–they make Suspiria creepy. The music makes Suspiria unsettling. Not Harper’s story. She’s just naive.
When the film does shift its focus, just for a while, to Casini, things start going off track. Repeated, inexplicable stupidity mars an otherwise solid chase sequence. The pace changes. The script’s calls for suspension of disbelief get bigger; Argento has no time for gradual. Contrived becomes good enough.
He still lets Harper have a good performance, he and Nicolodi just don’t care about giving her a good character arc. The third act is a breathless race to the finish line, with Suspiria stopping instead of ending. It goes out on a shrug, Goblin and Argento’s score no longer one of the film’s greatest assets but its primary encumbrance. The film never recovers from making Casini the lead, even for five or ten minutes. Suspiria’s all dubbed–Harper, Bennett, Valli doing their lines for the English version–and it’s unclear if Casini’s performance is the fault of her or her voice actor. Even if she were better, her material’s all crap. After forty minutes of precise filmmaking and writing, Argento lets it go to pot.
The film does recover somewhat and, with a stronger finale, it would’ve been fine. But the finale’s not strong–and gets weaker as it progresses–leaving Suspiria a phenomenal exercise in filmmaking. And a disappointing contrivance as a film.
Directed by Dario Argento; screenplay by Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi, based on a book by Thomas De Quincey; director of photography, Luciano Tovoli; edited by Franco Fraticelli; music by Goblin and Dario Argento; production designer, Giuseppe Bassan; produced by Claudio Argento; released by Produzioni Atlas Consorziate.
Starring Jessica Harper (Suzy Bannion), Stefania Casini (Sara), Alida Valli (Miss Tanner), Miguel Bosé (Mark), Flavio Bucci (Daniel), Udo Kier (Dr. Frank Mandel), Eva Axén (Pat Hingle), Jacopo Mariani (Albert), and Joan Bennett (Madame Blanc).