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#18 - Suspiria
Dario Argento, 1977


A young American woman enrols at a prestigious German ballet academy only to find that there is something secret and dangerous going on.

One of the first scenes in Suspiria happens when a shell-shocked student, having run away from the ballet academy that serves as the film's main setting, tries to explain to a friend what's got her so jumpy. "It's useless to try to explain," she says. "It seems so absurd, so fantastic..." Within minutes of this exchange, they both die horrific deaths at the hands of some barely-glimpsed creature. This exchange (and the ensuing violence) encapsulates Suspiria perfectly - absurd and fantastic serve as accurate descriptors for not just the school's dark secrets but also the strange and wondrous variety of tones that the film hits in telling its tale of malevolent forces lurking within the academy's pristine dance halls. Admittedly, this means that a lot of what sticks out at first is how campy it all seems by modern standards - obvious dubbing accentuates bizarre dialogue, bright red blood accompanies gruesomely over-the-top deaths, and everybody from the actors to the musicians to the lighting crew seems to be working off the instruction to go above and beyond in every possible regard. It's understandable if one's initial response to Suspiria is to laugh at its all-encompassing hysteria, yet at the same time I don't think that automatically undermines the overwhelmingly sensory experience that Suspiria aims to accomplish through its simple but effective story of a wide-eyed ingenue (Jessica Harper) being targeted by the academy's authoritarian staff.

If there's one rule by which I judge a horror movie's true worth, it's that it's got to give me a reason to appreciate it beyond just being scary (assuming it manages to do that in the first place). This can manifest in any number of ways, but a key one would be conjuring a strong atmosphere through every tool at the filmmakers' disposal. In this regard, Suspiria is pure atmosphere. Everything about its mise-en-scÚne builds a world that is at the very least mesmerisingly off-kilter in its production design (most memorably in doorknobs being at the characters' eye-level) and at most an eye-watering kaleidoscope that synchronises perfectly with Goblin's creepy and frequently cacophonous score. It throws itself headfirst into a dark fairytale aesthetic that's perfectly emphasised by its garish colour scheme that splashes red and green and blue across the screen with reckless abandon, further highlighting that the inside of this academy exists at a severe disconnect from the protagonist's (and, by extension, the audience's) sense of reality. This only accelerates as she proceeds to either succumb to its supernatural madness or fight back against it and the strange collection of individuals that maintain it. Though she is weakened by those who would attempt to drain her of her life, it is her eventual gathering of inner strength and willpower that allows her to overcome her wide-awake nightmare.

It also helps that Suspiria keeps a steady pace that spreads its actual scenes of terror and murder out enough while allowing the creepiness of the situation to steadily build in the interim and wisely clocks out with a blast (thus living up to its tagline's bold claim that the only thing scarier than the last 12 minutes are the first 92 minutes). As such, while this marks five times through Suspiria as of writing and I'm not sure I find it all that scary at this point, I'm not about to deny its worth as a film. It's a legitimate curiosity that manages to strike out in all directions - funny, scary, arty - and hit enough of the right notes to make for a consistently compelling experience. In this regard, I would honestly compare it to one of my other favourite horror movies - Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. While they couldn't be much more different on the surface (one's a European tale of black magic rooted in ancient folklore, the other a distinctly American account of all-too-human cannibals that takes inspiration from true crime), I find them to be similarly well-versed in a particular type of horror that grabs the viewer with its opening narration and forces them to soak in the unnerving world of the film all the way until the credits suddenly hit like bricks. That's why they are both huge favourites not just as horror movies but as movies full stop.