Where she stops, nobody knows: Jessica Harper in 'Suspiria.'
[Originally published in issue number 56 of the Seattle Film Society magazine Movietone News, November 1977.]
As the credits of Suspiria roll, a voice, disembodied as any of the English-language ghosts who dub foreign pictures for U.S. release, supplies us with a little background information. It seems this American girl (Jessica Harper) is an American, and she's decided to go to Europe to study dance at some strange academy in Germany; to get there, she takes a plane, and when the plane lands at a German airport, she gets off it and then she's there in Germany. Well, yes: watch about thirty seconds of the movie proper and you learn all that for yourself. Why the helpful hints straining to be heard under the aural barrage of what will continue to be almost nonstop musical accompaniment by some group called The Goblins? Well, probably somebody at Twentieth Century Fox, after buying the film, noticed that it rarely made much sense on a scenario level and so hoped to start the audience off on redundantly sure footing before everything started going really haywire.
Is this a knock? Not at all. Anyone but the most hopeless addict to linear neatness and plausibility should be tastily beguiled and tantalized by Suspiria's cavalier disregard for making rational sense. I mean, if you have this coven of witches operating a dance academy and paying after-hours homage to a fire-blackened den mother who's supposed to have perished a hundred years ago, you don't make up the old dear's bunk on the other side of the curtain in the improvised dormitory where the girls are sleeping en masse (after these maggots have started falling out of the attic and into their second-floor sleeping quarters) and let two of the brighter students listen to her wheezing and speculate about her looming shadow a yard from their pillows. It's just not good strategy. But it's only later in the film that one learns who the wheezing shadow is; at the time, the presence is disquieting as hell, like a lot of other things that happen in the movie, in the zap-now, despair-of-an-explanation-later manner of so many classics of the Gothic novel. Maybe I'd have thought Dario Argento was copping out shamefully on his narrative responsibilities if I hadn't happened to consider that literary analogy while the film was in progress. Or maybe I wouldn't have. For one thing, Argento is careful to tip his hand early on, by locating the dance academy on a cul-de-sac named Escherstrasse (it may not be a cul-de-sac but his camera placement suggests that), and then staging the first big shock scene in a nearby apartment complex where the architecture and decor create lots of Escher-like effects and get us used to being disoriented about what's in or out, up or down, possible or impossible.
I didn't see Argento's generally-well-received The Bird with the Crystal Plumage a few years back, but on the strength of the evidence here it seems safe to peg him in some of the same stylistic territory patrolled by Bernardo Bertolucci. Like Bertolucci he has a penchant for playing with almost palpably forceful sectors of pure color: Jessica Harper and other menaced young ladies at the academy back out of hot yellow beams into engulfing blackness, then back a bit too far and find themselves licked all over by glacial blues and poisonous greens that are neither light nor shadow. Indeed, a color clue provides the key to unlocking the fiendish mystery Argento has concocted - and it makes more sense than almost anything in the script. -RTJ
© 1977 Richard T. Jameson