Better known these days (and maybe for the rest of time) as Asia’s dad, Dario Argento is the last representative of Italy’s tenacious genre cinema—in his case, mannerist thrillers, known as gialli, and rhapsodic gore fests that might be called “surrealistico.” Confronted with Argento’s Suspiria when it opened here 32 years ago, New York magazine’s then film critic John Simon characterized it as “a horror movie that is a horror of a movie, where no one or nothing makes sense: not one plot element, psychological reaction, minor character, piece of dialogue, or ambience.” Basta!
Suspiria, which is being revived around town this week and the next in all of its wide-screen, Technicolor splendor, is a movie that makes sense only to the eye (and even then . . .). A naïve young American student named Suzy (the preternaturally wide-eyed Jessica Harper) arrives in dankest Germany to—what else?—study ballet. Stepping out of the airport, she’s greeted with a sudden gust of wind and then torrential rain; arriving at the doorstep of the Dance Academy Freiburg, she’s nearly knocked over by a hysterical student who is shortly to be dispatched in a bit of horrific, stick-and-stab Grand Guignol set to a jangling, cackling, ear-splitting score by a band called Goblin.
Suzy does find the Dance Academy—a uniquely cheesy amalgam of deco-mod and secessionist-bordello design, with birth-canal corridors of velvety red—a bit disconcerting. There’s an undeniably Kafkaesque quality to the institution’s meaningless rule, obscure geography, and wildly unhelpful employees. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the place is a snake pit, plagued by yucky maggot slugs and administered by a pair of scary harridans: the ferociously smiling Alida Valli and ’40s noirista Joan Bennett, channeling Edie the Egg Lady, in her final big-screen appearance. (Not that the outside world—where yodeling lederhosers do the Klapstanz on tavern tables and a blind pianist is mauled by his own seeing-eye dog—is any improvement.) In any case, the students are being driven mad (and beyond) because, as Suzy eventually discovers, the teachers are witches.
In the splendid extended finale, Suzy stumbles on the coven’s black mass, among other terrifying secrets—including the undead founder hidden away in a secret chamber. The movie climaxes with a fantastic light show of lysergic apparitions and exploding chandeliers. A veteran of Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theater, the deadpan Harper puts her training to good use, gracefully eluding the attacking furniture and skillfully dodging the imploding set, as she flees—arms protectively crossed before her face—out into the night.
Suspiria shows Saturday, September 5, at BAMcinématek, as part of a weekend of Dario Argento movies, and has a mini-run the following weekend, September 11 through 13, at Anthology Film Archives.