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Suspiria (July 28/02)

Suspiria, by director Dario Argento, is a so-called "classic" horror movie that even critics who ordinarily shun the genre (Leonard Maltin, for one) respect and admire. But one can't help but wonder what all the hoopla is about, as the movie is generally a dull and badly dated affair.

As the film opens, an American ballet student (Jessica Harper) arrives at a prestigious German dance school with the intent of learning from the best. Her first impression of the school isn't exactly a good one, though, as she spots a student mumbling to herself and running into a nearby forest. That same student is found dead the next day, brutally tortured before finally being murdered. Harper tries to ignore this by focusing on her studies, but soon finds herself distracted by a variety of bizarre incidents. As she digs deeper into the sordid past of the school and of the people running it, she finds herself getting closer to danger.

There's no denying that Suspiria is stylishly directed. Argento, still a relative novice at that point, certainly knows how to compose a shot and fill the frame. But all the visual artistry in the world can't compensate for a lousy script. The characters are barely fleshed out and the whole situation just isn't interesting at all. Okay, this school is in fact a coven for witches…and? It probably doesn't help that the subject of witches is about as intriguing to me as horticulture, but still, the material could have been elevated if the execution hadn't been so flawed. As the lead character, Harper manages to give a good performance but never creates a person worth caring about. Like one of those ballet dancers trapped inside a music box, she's pretty to look at and not much else. As for the supporting characters, there's a blind guy that's fairly interesting but he's dispatched rather quickly.

Argento is known for his sequences of gore and Suspiria doesn't disappoint there. Though there only a couple of such scenes, they're certainly the highlight of the film. Example: the early death of that student that Harper witnesses leaving the compound is brutal and exciting, but in no way indicative of what's to follow. The whole middle section of the film is essentially exposition, with Harper learning about the school's history and about the bizarre past of the head mistress.

Still, this is a great flick to just look at. Simple sequences, such as when all the girls are forced to bunk in the gymnasium after an insect infestation, are eye-catching in all the best ways. However, no matter how well shot the movie is, it doesn't change the fact that the subject matter isn't exactly compelling. But Argento would go on to much better things, and Suspiria certainly proved that he was a director worth watching.

out of

© David Nusair