It’s well known, to readers of The Lair that is, that I have yet to fall into the throws of passionate love with Dario Argento which seems to dominate the minds of many horror fans. Today however that day may well have finally arrived. I will admit my experience with Dario is kind of limited, and I have seen only a handful of his films, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Opera, and The Card Player. Of those, only one reached the above average point for me, and for that reason alone, I have spent far more time with the works of other Italian directors. Tonight’s film has changed my mind considerably, and I have had to reassess my priorities when it comes to Mr. Argento after seeing his film….
Susperia (1977) starring Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Ailida Valli, and Joan Bennett. Directed by Dario Argento.
Suzy Banyon (Harper) travels to Germany to attend a ballet school. She arrives on a dark and story night and is turned away from the school when she arrives. As she is leaving, she sees a girl running through the woods, the girl, Pat Hingle will die before the night is over, the victim of an unnamed killer. The next day Suzy begins her time at the school in earnest, and she soon is beset by many strange occurrences that lead her to question if the school is more than it seems.
The Bugg Picture
So this is the review where I make up for being under whelmed by Argento’s other films because, with Susperia, I was plenty whelmed. This was Dario’s sixth film, and perhaps his most well known and with good reason. It is an astounding effort not only of suspense and terror, but of cinematography, art direction, and acting. This is a film with precious few flaws, but there are some and I will surely get around to them so this review is not all peaches and cream.
First off I have to talk about the thing that will stay with me longest about this film. It is intensely beautiful. Making use of an incredible color palette, the likes of which I have never seen, Argento makes each scene a feast for the eyes. There were several scenes I ran back over a few times just to take in the subtle colored lights, the artistry of the set design, and the richness of the textures that permeate the shots. While I am sure much of it was created under Argento’s own careful eye, I have to give props to Giuseppe Bassan, the production designer who also worked with Argento on Deep Red (1985) and Tenebre (1982). As the look of the film’s setting is so integral to the stylish, atmospheric tone, his contribution to Susperia should not be overlooked.
Luciano Tovoli, who would also pair with Argento again for Tenebre, served as cinematographer for the film, and perhaps the only thing more important to the feeling of the film than its style is its look. The camera moves freely through the scenes in a style that feels improvisational while clearly being entirely thought out. The crisp camera work drinks in all the colors of the setting and the splashes of colored lighting, and it reminded me very much of Mario Bava’s work turned up to 11. As with Bava, the use of colored lighting never feels forced, but instead we readily accept it as part of this very creepy world.
Now you could have all the lighting and camerawork in the world, and if the acting did not mesh with it, you’d be left with a picture that was stunning to look at but without substance. This is no problem with Susperia though. Jessica Harper starred in the 1974 De Palma cult classic Phantom of the Paradise and would later go on to be the replacement Janet Majors in the Rocky Horror “sequel” Shock Treatment, star opposite Peter O’Toole in My Favorite Year, and cut a rug with Chris Walken and Steve Martin in Pennies From Heaven, but to fans of Susperia, she is surely the film’s grounding force. Her performance as the terrorized Suzy gives the film the guts it needs to fill the skeleton of feeling provided by the style and skill behind the camera. Harper is extremely believable, and it’s unfortunate that while she appeared in several other cult films, she never strayed back into pure horror.
Apart from Harper you also get some other gangbuster performances. Joan Bennett, veteran actress of the screen and over 380 episodes of the vampire soap opera Dark Shadows, chews the scenery as the rather strange headmistress. Aliada Valli comes across every bit as cold and strong as she did as the countess in Bava’s Lisa and the Devil. There is also a good, but brief performance by Uko Kier, and Stephanie Casini brings the requisite foolishness needed for her performance as Suzy’s friend Sara. I could go on at length about every performance because there were none on display that were not pitch perfect.
I will be brief about my one complaint about the film, and that is the special effects. Even giving it some slack for the time in which it was made, they looked terrible. The blood in the film was reminiscent of that lovely shade of orange which was used in the Hammer films, and while it was quite the burst of color, it struck me as off that Argento would go though all this perfect set design only to include blood no human being could ever expel. I have a feeling it may have been an intentional stylistic choice, but it was one I think he should not have taken. There is also a scene where a character is killed by a dog, and while the aftermath with the dog biting off bits of flesh to snack on is suitably disgusting, the actual attack itself left much to be desired as the dog puppet looked very little like the actual dog in the scene. These are nitpicky little criticisms I am well aware, but it was during the moments of violence I found myself most taken out of the film. For a film of the horror genre, I think this is important to point out.
The real hero of the whole project has to be the script by Argento and frequent collaborator/ muse Daria Nicolodi. It is a well written taut supernatural thriller that will leave the audience guessing. I for one hung on every word for some kind of clue as to what was going to happen next, but generally, I found myself surprised with what lay around the films ever tricky corners. Then you pair a great script and glorious photography with Gobin’s ethereal score, and Susperia becomes the most beautiful nightmare ever put to film. So yes, perhaps my love affair with the works or Argento has only really started in earnest, but now I can see what the fuss was all about.