Is this cult film really a classic?

This one was hard to review. On the one hand, I love it. If I looked at it from a non-critical standpoint, merely watching it for entertainment value alone, then its campy excesses and beautiful mise-en-scene and cinematography make it exciting and aesthetically stunning. However, if I was to look at it from a critical standpoint then it fails fundamentally on almost every key filmmaking level. And since my reviews are written from a critical perspective, I will be viewing Suspiria in a more cynical light.

A major issue with this film is the writing. Director Dario Argento, whilst a man with heaps of enthusiasm and passion for his art, suffers from the same issues as many other less established foreign filmmakers. Like Claudio Fragasso of Troll 2 or Tommy Wiseau of The Room, their scripts expose their tenuous grasp of the English language. This is just one of a vast list of examples of an awkward exchange:

Olga: Susie… Sarah… I once read that names which begin with the letter ‘S’ are the names of SNAKES! Sssss! Ssssss!

Sarah: [sticks her tongue out at Olga] Mmmmmmm!

Olga: Ssssss!

Argento tries to capture a playful tone and to mimic how people naturally interact. The lack of oversight on the script, however, means that Argento’s shortcomings as a writer are laid bare. It just seems off, and when you add the fact that everyone, without exception, can’t seem to act, it sounds even worse. Not one single character gives a powerful, convincing performance. Maybe the stilted dialogue was too much of an obstacle to overcome, but when you’re trying to create an eerie, brooding atmosphere, such consistently jarring performances and interactions really do break any tension.

The needless excessiveness also further erodes the atmosphere of the film. The grandiose, bold score feels removed from the film. Scores are commonly there to guide our emotions, whereas here it merely assaults the senses. It’s far too bombastic, and never seems to fit the tone of the film. When people talk about Suspiria, however, there is one thing which is unanimously lauded. The use of cinematography and mise-en-scene. The bold colours and vivid imagery throughout the film really do create a visually sublime experience. Somehow though even this is in a way a negative. The film’s ‘story’ is paper thin, with any narrative substance or character development almost non-existent, and the over the top score and visuals further distract us from and detract from whatever shreds there are of a coherent narrative.

When talking about unnecessary excesses, it would be a crime to ignore the gore. I’m perfectly okay with gruesome cinema and film’s which push us out of our comfort zones, but only if it’s justified and isn’t just there for shock value. I also understand that certain expectations come with a Giallo film. Gore is a necessity for most fans of the genre. But in this film, it just feels forced. I don’t think Argento fully understood what he was trying to make. This film functions more effectively as an art film due to its eye-catching visuals, but Argento seemed to be non-committal. He should’ve embraced his artistic vision, but he throws in these sporadic, overly long, jarring and silly death scenes, and this throws the pacing completely off. It seems like he chucked in some out of place violence to pacify hardcore horror fans. Argento really shouldn’t have compromised.

Despite my major issues with the film, I still think it’s a worthwhile watch. It’s incredibly entertaining, and you’ll rarely find yourself uninterested. The visuals alone make it watchable and unique. If you can go into it understanding that it isn’t perfect then you’ll probably manage to appreciate it. It’s endearing if you can disarm your critical faculties and ignore its large list of failures. I fully understand why this film has such a huge and hugely passionate following. I can’t contest its status as a classic, even if I can contest its status as an outright quality film.

★★½

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