September 10, 2008

Seen Between Fingers -- Chris Kelly Takes Argento's Ballerina Challenge

In this regular feature, wimp and noted horror non-enthusiast Chris Kelly reports back with his first-impressions of memorable scary movies. I decided that by suffering through two Hellraiser films, Chris had earned a break from the ordinary. It seems that Dario Argento's 1977 classic struck quite a nerve...

Well, score one for horror fans. As it turns out, I genuinely liked Suspiria. It is a frightening, engrossing, all-around well-made film. I'm still going to mock it, as that is my job, but I thought you should know that it comes from a loving place this time. Like when a ballet teacher makes you dance until you hemorrhage: she just wants to see you grow as an artist.

I knew from the first moment that I was going to enjoy this one. Before anything really happened, I was hooked in with the eerie accompaniment of Goblin's score. The music plays over the entirely mundane depiction of Jessica Harper walking hesitantly through a German airport. It's normal in every way, but the haunting chords and rhythmic open-and-close of the automatic doors highlight the tension of being alone in a foreign country in a palpable way. I was clenching my fists so tightly I almost bled, and this is before anyone in the movie has even considered razoring someone in the face. In general, the soundtrack is best used when nothing all that scary is happening: it's baffling how alarmed I became at the pointless story about an old lady snoring.

Harper's character proves to be a helpful foil during the film, because she behaves much as I would if I were thrown into a ballet school run by occultists. And that's the thing: no one is working too hard to put up a front here. Madame Blanc, who runs the school, exudes the kind of practiced politeness described by the neighbors of serial killers in televised interviews. Her best teacher, Miss Tanner, is built like a ham-hock in high heels with a voice like an automatic garage door. Pavlo, their servant, has a rapist's leer that is, despite assertions to the contrary, only worsened by his false teeth. These are the first three people Suzy meets at the school, and yet what is a person to do in these circumstances? I've met lots of creepers in my day, and the inherent politeness in most of us forces us to play along. Suzy's activities, sleeping arrangements, and food consumption are taken over in short succession, but it all seems so plausible. Who goes around accusing people of being witches? They're German artists, after all, which is probably the most airtight cover story they could have dreamt up.

Dario Argento knows that to scare people -- or at least to scare me -- you need to toy with expectations. It's not enough to surprise or shock; you have to undermine reasonable assumptions. There are few deaths in this movie, but the ones that are there are spectacular and sent me instantly covering my face and howling like a toddler. Surely if you're above the third floor, you can lock the door and rest assured that no one will magically teleport through your window! (You can't.) Of course when you jump to safety from a raised ledge, the floor below won?t be a teeming mass of barbed wire! (It will.) Certainly a blind man with his seeing-eye dog in an empty courtyard will be able to hear his attacker coming! (He won't). Every time you think you know what's next, you're wrong, and Argento is all too happy to rub your nose in it, allowing the camera to linger lustily on the gore that results from guessing incorrectly.

Another smart trick is to provide the viewer with only as much information as one of the protagonists would have. And bear in mind, Argento didn't stage this story at a MENSA retreat. Out intrepid investigators are distressed, perhaps brainwashed, definitely malnourished ballerinas: they're graceful as swans, with about the same cognitive capacity. The conceit works, however. We're given just enough input to pique our curiosity, but never enough to answer the questions being posed. Maggots are eating through the ceiling, people are disappearing left and right, and that horrible Miss Tanner continues to shoot white-hot hatred from her eyes, but everything terrible that happens is quickly glossed over by the faculty. The students are left to accept the propaganda or explore at their own peril, and it's unclear which choice is worse. As the film's finale proves, by the time you realize you're surrounded by witches, it's a bit late to be asking questions about their master plan. It's fight or flight, and the movie is positively triumphant in its ability to convey that dire anxiety.

And yet, the tension I felt throughout the film broke to laughter almost instantly as the credits began with the redundant announcement: YOU HAVE BEEN WATCHING SUSPIRIA. It was at this exact moment that I realized how silly the movie might look upon review. To truly grasp its level of nonsense, I had to try to explain the plot to a friend who had never seen it. Most of it sounded like this:

So wait, the witches run a ballet school?

Well, yeah.

But they kill all the students.

No, no, most of the students they just teach to dance. They only kill a few. Just the nosy ones, I guess.

So you're telling me that they legitimately teach lots of people ballet but occasionally kill with witchcraft?

Um, yes.

When the movie ends, the gaps in the story that seemed insignificant as people were dying suddenly seem glaring and insurmountable. What exactly were they feeding Suzy? Why did it make her tired? What was the deal with the maggots in the attic? Why did the directress sleep among the students and keep everyone awake with her vile wheezing? Do the witches really support their school through the occasional sacrifice of a student? Is that a viable business plan? Why are they so committed to the arts, anyway??

I recommend that you see Suspiria. Just turn it off as soon as it's over and never think about it again. You're much smarter than Suzy and her friends, and the burden of that intelligence will ruin the movie forever. And if that doesn't, the planned remake sure will.

Next week: David Lynch's Eraserhead


Tom said...

I'd be grateful if people started recommending films to spring on our intrepid reporter. Leave them in the comments, and if he hasn't already seen them for whatever reason, then I'll try to work them into the rotation...

Anonymous said...

I recommend Taxidermia.

vida said...

the wicker man