Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Turn The Blue One

The word on Darren Aronofsky’s upcoming BLACK SWAN, a thriller set in the world of ballet with an apparently twisted bent to it, has been slipping out of the Toronto Film Festival where it recently screened and right now I officially can’t wait to see it. But, for now, I’ve been sitting here in L.A. with images of a certain other ballet-world horror film swirling through my brain since I saw it at the New Beverly over a week ago, wondering how the two films might go together in a double bill someday. The chance to see Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA projected in 35mm isn’t as common as it should be and more than most films offers a considerably different experience that viewing it on video in any format. Something just becomes different about it all when you’re being enveloped by those images on a large screen, those colors suck you in, that dreamlike nature becomes more prevalent and I get lost in those camera angles as well as all that perverse violence. The suspense at times feels dragged out to unbearable lengths to the point where I just found myself just sitting there watching it thinking, “This film is insane…This film is INSANE.” While completely loving every minute of it, of course.

I actually know someone who at one time had only seen the film on pan-and-scan video and hated it. Then one day he had just seen it in its full 2.35 Scope ratio for the first time to which his response was basically, “I get it now,” and he had become a fan. So when that kind of feeling is allowed to happen in a crowded theater it really takes hold. And to my surprise when we got to the second Argento film of the evening, DEEP RED which he made before SUSPIRIA, I found myself almost impatient with this film that I had seen and enjoyed many times in the past. In that film’s plot lead David Hemmings spends time looking for clues, investigating a children’s song, leading to an author who may have information, discovering strange drawings behind a wall and frankly after a film that pretty much dispenses with the rational, telling us that “magic is everywhere” this type of totally linear storytelling with pieces that barely seemed to fit together anyway just seemed a little too, well, ordinary in this context. At least for Argento. The beginning of the director’s now-legendary “Three Mothers” trilogy and written by Argento and Daria Nicolodi, SUSPIRIA has its problems, anyone who’s seen it knows that. Too much is never fully explained, some elements just seem to fall out of the movie and there’s always been the lack of real confrontation at the end with certain characters that have been built up which has left the ending as slightly unsatisfying for me through the years (you know, that famous tagline is right--the first 92 minutes are scarier!) but damn, those colors, those angles, those huge close-ups, those eyes of Jessica Harper peering in disbelief at everything around her. Who needs pure logic and spending a half-hour of screen time hunting down red herrings? Not SUSPIRIA. Not with everything that goes on in that frame.

As the opening narration tells us during the opening credits, ballerina Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper) has decided to perfect her dance studies in “the most famous school of dance in Europe,” choosing the celebrated academy of Freeborg. Things go wrong almost instantly from her arrival during a huge downpour and just as she is attempting to get into the school she has a brief encounter with a girl who soon after is brutally murdered under extremely bizarre circumstance. When she is finally able to enter the next day Suzy learns of the murder but also encounters a rather strange environment within the school as well as coming down with a strange sickness she is overcome with resulting her being shuttled from one bed to another. Even when she instantly gets well, strange things continue to occur and she soon becomes faced with the possibility that this dance academy with a staff that includes Academy Vice-directress Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) and ferocious instructor Miss Tanner (Alida Valli) may have something treacherous going on within the labyrinth of its walls.

So much has been written about SUSPIRIA over the years in terms of its fairy tale vibe and insanely violent murder scenes which go far beyond what you may expect that all maybe all you can really say about the experience is how the movie seeps into you while watching it. Details jump out of the frame when viewing it on the big screen right from the instant the opening credits crash to a halt with that cut to the board announcing the plane arrivals into Germany, local time. As Suzy Banyon makes her way through the airport towards those sliding doors, as if irrevocably bringing herself into this world of witches, I noticed a poster placed in several places, as if advertising a tourist spot, reading BLACK FOREST, almost like telling Suzy where this fairy tale she’s landed in is about to take her. And it makes so many shots and moments that I’m used to, that I always find myself waiting for, stand out to an even greater extent. Her entry into this world, via a horrendous rainstorm that seems to have begun solely as a warning telling her to leave immediately, is interrupted by the sudden departure of student ‘Pat Hingle’ (hey, what are you gonna do—played by Eva Axen) who disappears much like Francesca Ungaro does at the beginning of Bava’s BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, both beauties last seen running off into the darkness, both about to meet horrible ends. It’s pretty much true that SUSPIRIA’s first fifteen minutes really are the best, indoctrinating you into this Technicolor world in the loudest, most brutal way possible and with visuals that are almost too overwhelming for anything to possibly follow and have any effect (noticeably trimmed down in the American cut, by the way). Combined with that amazing Goblin score which feels like it’s enveloping every inch of the film and the theater (it almost seems wrong to simply call it the film’s ‘score’), giving it all a ferocious feel of total cinema that really is quite extraordinary, not something the film ever really lives up to again but at times the genuine delirium of it all comes close.

Suzy Banyon’s delayed arrival at the Academy is marked by her walking right into the frame when she reemerges the next morning, glancing all around at this world she’s completely unfamiliar with and there’s true strangeness felt at times in the framing of every shot (photographed by Luciano Tovoli) that seem somehow off in a way that can’t fully be explained and maybe it just comes down to how movies like this from this point in time will always be somewhat strange to me no matter how many times I return to them. When the camera tracks back and forth with Suzy as she is basically forced by Miss Tanner to do that “easy step” the viewer barely knows what is happening any more than Suzy herself does and watching the long, drawn out suspense sequences that more often than not end in massive bloodshed while sitting there in the theater, nothing to distract me with, at times it’s hard not to wonder if the suspense is ever going to end as tension is stretched to the breaking point. But I can’t stop watching it, lost in those shots courtesy of Argento’s deliberate style that envelop everything within them and you could make a whole art exhibit purely out of giant frame blow-ups of frames from this film with that extreme brutality melding into everything around it, just getting lost in one hallucinatory image after another. Complaining about the violence or even the very style of SUSPIRIA is like complaining about the thin script or all those rich colors or how deafening the music is or that they hired actors to say the dialogue. It’s an integral part of what it is. The way the legs of Jessica Harper and Stefania Cassini flail about in the pool as seen from over head during an extremely quite scene between the two, with the film itself almost getting hypnotized by the sight, stood out to me like never before on the New Beverly screen, until it was like that trance in itself was what the film was really about.

There is a slight vibe to the final section of Suzy alone in the academy which gives the impression that something has gone missing, making me think of THE EVIL DEAD in a ‘we lost all our other actors’ kind of way. That total isolation felt by the character during her final encounter with legendary witch Helena Markos after she remembers the secret of the iris that she has known all along certainly works better in a theater, with nothing else to pay attention to as you get lost in the intensity of all that production design. Suzy Banyon is given massive amounts of exposition that she isn’t really looking for by two different characters, one right after the other (the pragmatist followed by the believer) separated by a very high angle shot right out of NORTH BY NORTHWEST and how this relatively normal sequence is filmed adds to the strangeness as much as anything. Maybe it just comes down to how such movies from this point in time will always be somewhat alien to me, like the cut to that low angle of Udo Kier’s earnest psychiatrist when he says, “They were kind of wild ideas…” which always unnerves me somehow with the hollowness of the voice used to dub him.

What Suzy, the rare character in one of these movies who seems to react to all this oddness in a reasonable way, learns here from both men doesn’t aid her as much as it opens her up to the possibility that ‘magic is everywhere’ which gives her the wherewithal to confront this place populated by witches, mentally disturbed or not, once and for all. In addition to Kier’s speech reminding her how those drawn into this world that she is up against are certainly already damaged themselves (“Bad luck isn’t brought by broken mirrors, but by broken minds…”), once Suzy can accept the existence of that magic she can not only win, she can finally leave this bizarre place free and clear. That look on her face the last time we see her as she exits the frame always seems more like it’s expressing the feelings of Jessica Harper more than Suzy Banyon, reveling in how this Italian horror movie madness courtesy of Dario Argento can finally end. For some reason I always imagine that as soon as she exits frame with that smile the actress gets into a car and is immediately driven off the set, never to return. Once you’ve embraced that madness, it’s as if the only smart thing to do is just leave. The world it’s set in is insane, just as the film is insane. And since this is SUSPIRIA, that’s exactly the way it should be. It’s a masterwork of horror.

It was an absolutely gorgeous print of the film screened at the New Beverly, of course the American cut which has been playing lately on FMC, here seen with the International Classics logo that Twentieth-Century Fox attached to it and missing some of the most extreme violence as well as a few other scenes. There was even some noticeable slight distortion presumably from the Technovision lens used to shoot the film that was amplified in certain shots (such as the initial wide shot of the first dance rehearsal) and it’s also present on the DVD now that I look for it. The international cut is what I’ve gotten used to by now through multiple viewings on VHS and DVD so the opening murder always plays a little choppy to me and the absence of the scene where Miss Tanner fires blind piano player Daniel over his dog supposedly attacking Madame Blanc’s nephew Albert feels like a loss (maybe Fox felt the brief beer hall scene was merely superfluous travelogue and I’m not sure if I have a strong opinion on that one way or another). Not only does it explain what eventually happens to Daniel but it’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to cut such an extreme Miss Tanner freakout anyway as well as one that offers even more of a feel of something genuinely wrong in this place.

And yet, for a film that seems to be all about its style it seems like almost a contradiction to say that there is no film without Jessica Harper’s performance, but that is absolutely true. There is no SUSPIRIA without Jessica Harper. This is one of a handful of films which make me want to worship Jessica Harper. Undeniably human in everything she does, moreso than just about anyone else in an Italian horror movie, trying to understand what’s happening to her in a totally rational way until there are no other options. I love Jessica Harper if only for that sideways glance she gives that final glass of red wine, making it clear that she’s fed up with the whole thing already. Stefania Casini is Sara, the other girl whose name begins with S and the one person at the school Suzy can trust, Joan Bennett and Alida Valli are each ideally imposing through their various intimidations, Eva Axen’s eyes almost are as big and noticeable as Harper’s in her brief role. Udo Kier is Dr. Frank Mandel though that’s obviously not his voice and Rudolf Schundler of THE EXORCIST as Prof. Milius is the one who in fact tells us that “Magic is everywhere.” Someone who gets one of the other most famous lines, a certain one involving snakes, is Barbara Magnolfi is the unforgettable Olga, obviously not using her voice either, who unfortunately disappears from the film by a certain point (although I did enjoy noticing her vamping about in the background of a shot before she’s introduced) and the actress appeared for a Q&A in which she indicated that she was in fact meant to be a witch in training and that the excursion to the Bolshoi opening night which we only hear about was at one point meant to involve an entire setpiece.

At the Trailers From Hell site there is a commentary by Edgar Wright in which he mentions the time a Cinespia screening of SUSPIRIA at Hollywood Forever was ruined for him by, as he called them, “lots of hipster dudes making snarky comments all the way through” turning an experience he’d been anxiously waiting for into something terrible. Sadly, Wright wasn’t at the New Beverly that night for this double bill, a screening which not only played the film to a packed house but to an audience made up of Dario Argento fans that clearly loved this film and remained open to the possibilities of its madness. I guess it’s just another reason why the New Beverly absolutely rules and Cinespia obviously, well, doesn’t. It’s gotten too crowded there lately anyway. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging the absurdity in SUSPIRIA—that seems to have been Janet Maslin’s response in a fairly decent review she gave the film in The New York Times in August ‘77 although she seems more bemused than anything. But if you go into the film willing to accept its delirium and all its ‘wild ideas’ through images that are both beyond beautiful and beyond rationale, ultimately providing a display of cinematic horror unlike any other, it can be a way of accepting that magic really is everywhere when you’re sitting there in a movie theater. It can make one more open to other strange films with wild ideas, leading to a whole new world and maybe even sometimes making it easier to laugh at the insanity of it all.

You have been reading the Mr. Peel’s Sardine Liqueur review of SUSPIRIA.


Mark Hodgson said...

I'd forgotten there was a shorter cut, though I don't think I ever saw it.

I saw it on 35mm in the 70s, censored for violence and the soundtrack was of course in fuzzy mono.

It still made a huge impact on me and I quickly grabbed the soundtrack. for years, it was the only Argento I'd seen.

I'd love to see a newly struck uncut print on the big screen though, you lucky man.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


The difference in running time in the Fox version that was screened and the DVD I have seems to be about 5-6 minutes, at least that's how all the listings have it.

Though I should say that as beautiful as it was, it wasn't a new print but rather a vintage print that from what I'm told came pretty close to being junked. Seriously, we owe Phil at the New Beverly a debt of thanks for rescuing this one.

Ben said...

What a great review. I was at The New Beverly, too, and it will go down as one of my favorite movie-going experiences.

I, too, was surprised that DEEP RED seemed a little mundane after SUSPIRIA's sensory overload (even though, don't get me wrong New Beverly, it was wonderful to see!) I'd love to see SUSPIRIA on a double bill with PHENOMENA, which I think is an underrated masterpiece (and maybe should have been the third Three Mothers movie...)

Jaime Grijalba said...

One of my dreams is to see this on the big screen, but I live in a country where this wasn't even released. So, yeah, haha.

Marc Edward Heuck said...

Here I am, wondering what more can be said about SUSPIRIA, and you found a great way to make it all fresh again! Looking back at the short piece I wrote in May about it, you've blown mine out of the water. Kudos to you!

It killed me to not be able to attend and meet Ms. Magnolfi. Glad to hear they were near capacity though, and respectful; gives one hope. Edgar Wright's horror story about the Cinespia screening was enough to make me renounce ever going to one of those events. I'm reminded of the old Yogi Berra quote: "Nobody goes there anymore: it's too crowded."

Hilly Blue said...

Marc sent me the link to this post and I'm so glad he did. I'm jealous that you got the big screen experience that I've longed for. A special thank you for recognizing Jessica Harper's contribution. She is a rare talent.

Unknown said...

Great review of a stone cold classic. Definitely my fave Argento film, alto, I do love THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE. As you point out, the insane score by Goblin, coupled, with the saturated color scheme of this film, really does create a hypnotic, dream-like effect which is what probably endears it to its many fans. Love this film.

Ned Merrill said...

I take it this was not the same gorgeous, true Technicolor print (from the UK) that toured around several rep houses last fall. That too was the shorter American cut, but it was absolutely breathtaking to see projected with its color never looking so garish and Goblin's music completely enveloping the viewer, as you also comment on in your fine review.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


Thank you very much for that and, yes, I should add as well that I was very glad to see DEEP RED once again!


Here's hoping you get to see it in a theater someday!


I am hugely flattered as well as slightly speechless by what you've said here, it really means a lot. Thank you for that. Sorry you weren't able to make it there, it was a terrific evening! And yes, as long as there are crowds at the New Bev for events like this one, it really does give one hope.


Very glad you enjoyed it! And, yes, I'm a huge Jessica Harper fan!


Thanks very much! And yes, I'm obviously a big CRYSTAL PLUMAGE fan as well. Just typing that out makes me want to go watch that film again right now.


I probably shouldn't speak for the exact lineage of this print but my impression was that it hadn't gotten to England. There were definitely comments during the introduction how it was much nicer than what had been seen at L.A. area screenings in recent years. It really was breathtaking.

Ned Merrill said...

Mr. Peel,

The print I spoke of was from the UK and, IIRC, it had a seal from the British ratings board spliced onto the film (at the head or tail, I can't recall). It was promoted everywhere it played in the States--BAM, Anthology, Gene Siskel Film Center, etc.--as being an archival true Technicolor 35mm print. It belongs to the National Media Museum in Bradford, UK.

Kris said...

Great article on this Italian masterpiece.

GTQO said...

I really love the fact that you love Suspiria as much as I do. I think it's one of my favorite films. All its tiny details are wonderful!

I particularly like the part where Suzy is talking to the psychologist and suddenly the camera makes that close up to their reflections. The first time I saw this i thought was odd but, by the fifth time I saw it, it all made sense. They are talking about magic at that moment and, simultaneously, Argento is giving us magic, cinematic magic! We can't see the camera's reflection but we can see Suzy's and the doctor's! I LOVE ARGENTO! He's brilliant.

Anyhow, I hope to some day watch it 35mm, just as you did. Sounds wicked... lulz

Thanks so much for spreading Suspiria love and doing it so wonderfully. It's the best type of love.

Staci Layne Wilson said...

Great review, and excellent commentary and overview. Where'd you find those screen-caps? Or are they yours? If so, I compliment you on choosing the ones with the most amazing photographic composition (there really is an art to still-framing, same as cropping).

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


Thank you so much for saying that, it means a great deal. They're not my screenshots and I don't remember where they come from but it can of course be a challenge to determine which ones work the best. With a film like this, you want to get it just right.