Some films are simply better on the big screen. You can certainly admire the craft of 2001: A Space Odyssey on a 22" computer monitor and the pair of tinny speakers that came with your circa-1995 soundcard, but you're not going to feel the impact of the movie that way. Not many horror films demand this treatment, but if there's one from the genre that definitely deserves the kind of big-screen, theater-sound experience lavished on such classics as 2001 or Lawrence of Arabia, it's Dario Argento's Suspiria.
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The power of Suspiria isn't in its story, which is a semi-coherent mess about a girl who finds her elite ballet school is actually run by a coven of witches. You won't find its appeal in the kills, which are both bizarre and inexplicable but lack the kind of visceral, stomach-churning detail that makes your stomach turn over in recognition and empathetic terror. What makes Suspiria special is its atmosphere, and you simply will not experience it properly while sitting in front of a TV set.
Experience is the key word here. In a theater, you do not watch Suspiria the way you do other films: You feel it. It invades your sensory sphere and replaces your normal points of reference with a skewed and unnerving set of alien sensation. Imagine the final sequence of 2001, only less cheesy, more horror-themed and far more intense. Now imagine that lasting nearly the entire runtime of the film, punctuated by a bare handful of "normal" scenes. If you are imagining something weird and disorienting, even delirious, you are on the right track.
Visually, Argento suffuses the screen with bright, primary colors -- especially red -- throughout the film. The way he shoots the architecture of the school and sequences his scenes, the place takes on a surreal, dreamlike quality. The scenes themselves, in typical Italian horror movie fashion, are often more than a little disconnected and not always strictly comprehensible, but where in most films that destroys the flow of the film's story, here it simply adds to the sense of unreality.
Paired with this odd visual approach is the unrelenting, incomparable score. Composed and performed by the legendary Italian band Goblin, in collaboration with Argento, the score is more integral to the film than perhaps that of any other horror movie ever made. If you replaced the music from Jaws with something else, the film would no doubt lose some of its impact; replace the score of Suspiria and the movie would, for all intents and purposes, cease to exist. The score, with its waves of distorted guitar sounds, throbbing synthesizer rhythms and inhuman-sounding voices, does as much work to build tension and terror as the visuals, and the film as a whole should probably be considered a collaboration between Argento and Goblin.
The combined result of all this could easily be called psychedelic, as it generally results in an altered state of consciousness. That's probably not quite right, though, unless you're looking for the kind of dark, demented experience that most psychonauts would undoubtedly call a "bad trip." Better instead to compare it to a nightmare, or perhaps a fever dream, the kind of sweaty, disturbing rush of images and sensations that awakens you from a heavy sleep, alone and afraid in the dark, relieved to find yourself merely in the grip of some illness rather than stuck in the hellscape created by your malfunctioning brain. Of course, after Suspiria, you'll find yourself awakening in a theater, surrounded by other horror fans, but the sense of relief will be the same. It's a special film and, more to the point, a special experience. Like the warnings on TV say, don't try this at home. You will be disappointed. Do it in the theater, or not at all.
Find me on Twitter, where I tweet about geeky stuff and waste an inordinate amount of time: @casciato.
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