April 17, 2016

Suspiria (1977)
Grade: 75/100

Director: Dario Argento
Stars: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci

What it's about. Suzy (Jessica Harper) is an American ballet student who enrolls at a prestigious dance academy in Freiburg, Germany. On the night she arrives, she encounters one of the students, Pat (Eva Axén) is murdered off-campus shortly later. This does not deter Suzy, and neither does the academy's creepy staff, which includes mute servant Pavlo (Giuseppe Transocchi), blind pianist Daniel (Flavio Bucci), brusque teacher Tanner (Alida Valli), scheming headmistress Blanc (Joan Bennett), and Albert (Jacopo Mariani), Blanc's silent and effeminate preteenaged nephew.

Initially, Suzy lives off-campus with fellow student Olga (Barbara Magnolfi). But once the academy staff learn that Suzy has communicated with Pat, she is drugged and moved into academy housing. She rooms with Sara, a student obsessed with the mysterious noctural activities of the staff.

Things get weirder. Maggots fall from the ceiling, Daniel is killed by his own dog, and Sara is murdered. But by now she has given Suzy enough clues to launch her own investigation. From know-it-all Professor Milius (Rudolf Schündler), she gets the low-down on witches, and an evening's snooping confirms the worst. The staff are a coven of witches who are plotting to kill her, led by the undead spirit of academy founder Helena Markos.

How others will see it. Along with Deep Red (1975), Suspiria is the most famous directorial efforts by Italian horror filmmaker Dario Argento. Horror aficionados regard Argento in nearly the same regard as George Romero. But of course the movie is not for everyone: it has a loud soundtrack, poor dubbing, and violent deaths.

Classic cinemaphiles might be amused that two leading actresses from the 1940s, Joan Bennett and Alida Valli, are playing villains. Men of all ages might find wide-eyed Suzy comely, and she has plenty of screentime.

At imdb.com, the movie has a fairly high 44K user votes, and the user rating of 7.5 (out of 10) is also relatively high. The gender spread is marginal, but user ratings decline moderately and steadily with advancing age of the viewer, from 8.0 under age 18 to 7.1 over age 45. Older viewers might find the movie something of a letdown, lacking the requisite long chase scene. The confrontation between the heroine and assailant ends promptly.

How I felt about it. The story is mostly from the perspective of Suzy, which makes the motives of the witches confusing. Why are all these people killed? What is the motive, besides mere evil? Apparently, Pat and Sara knew too much about the coven, Pat's friend was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, and Daniel threatened to go to the police with what he had overheard. Suzy was on the list because she may have heard secrets from Pat or Sara.

Once the plot is determined, it makes better sense, although we wonder how the academy has lasted this long if they keep murdering their students. It can't be good for business. The maggots seem extraneous, and the expected romance between Mark (Miguel Bosé) and Suzy must have been left on the cutting room floor. We are cheated out of a knife battle between Suzy and the undead Sara (horror must be willing to go all the way), and the undead Markos is also dealt with abruptly.