Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Names of Snakes

No way am I going to only talk about bad remakes happening, but just as Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA is screening at Cannes in celebration of its 30th anniversary comes word that it’s in line for a remake. SUSPIRIA has always been, love it or hate it, a true original. It's such an example of a work that could only have come from its own creators that anyone who seriously attempts a remake can only be a person who has no respect for or understanding of the original in the first place. The tale of Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper), a ballerina who has arrived in Germany to study at a famous dance academy only to discover that it is a front for a coven of witches, the film has never been my favorite Argento but is probably his most famous work. With vivid images that have been printed on old three-strip Technicolor and extreme gore that took years to be seen in this country unexpurgated, narrative coherence is not what the film’s after. More like the logic of a fairy tale is more accurate. The style is taken to the extreme here and has always seemed to me as a rare example of an ultra-gory horror movie that can also be taken as an art film. The tagline for the American poster is still famous: “The only thing more terrifying than the last 12 minutes of this film are the first 92.” It’s always struck me as somewhat ironic that the climax of SUSPIRIA is actually one of its least effective sections. After the impact of the sonic and aural imagery that has followed, particularly in its first fifteen minutes, it’s like Argento could never figure out the best way to get out of it. Fortunately, the expression on Jessica Harper’s face as she walks out of frame at the very end comes close to making up for this.

Those are some of the elements of SUSPIRIA that stick with me. The gore is there, the scares are there, but with them are also such hypnotic moments as the camera follows Harper as she tries to dance a simple routine. We follow her as she glides across the room going back and forth, getting weaker as she goes, almost unable to stop as much as she seems to want to, until she finally collapses on the ground. There’s the scene where Harper and Stefania Cassini silently swim late at night discussing the plot in an eerily silent pool. And, of course, the immortal line, “I once read that names that begin with the letter S are the names of snakes…” The wide-eyed Harper is a perfect choice to follow through this strange and unusual world. She’s the human presence here and helps bring that humanity to an otherwise increasingly illogical story. Joan Bennett and Alida Valli, all smiles and formalities, seem more and more evil with each viewing. What will probably happen is that everything that makes SUSPIRIA memorable—yes, even the maggots—will be jettisoned in favor of a pedestrian horror film with witches. The style that Dario Argento brought to SUSPIRIA is unlike anything else and any attempt to copy it will simply be a copy—a tenth generation one, at best.

But there’s no point in getting upset about this. All it means is that another bad movie will get made. It’s the weekend, I should just relax. I wonder what time Tiki Ti opens.

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