In the justly celebrated opening sequence of Dario Argento's 1977 horror classic Suspiria, an American ballet student arrives at a German airport late in the evening, ready to be shuttled off to the most prestigious dance school in Europe. As she's about to exit into a pounding rainstorm, the automatic doors yawn and snap with a menacing hiss, and snippets of Goblin's aggressive score (a gothic fusion of twinkling keyboards, African drums, and whispered vocal taunts) sound a clear warning: "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here." With the waifish, doe-eyed innocence of a fairy-tale heroine, Jessica Harper unwittingly stumbles into Dario-world, a sadistic Eurotrash torture chamber leavened by sumptuous visuals and enough elaborately orchestrated set pieces to rival Brian De Palma. As distinctive in its painterly colors as Val Lewton's horror films were in their expressive swaths of black and white, Suspiria serves up a gorehound's feast of explicit mayhem. But never has gratuitous bloodletting seemed so ornately beautiful. On the gorgeous new DVD transfer, Argento's vibrant color scheme leaps off the screen like a '50s Technicolor musical, with sets and lighting design that fill the Cinemascope frame with bold reds, greens, yellows, and blues. Atmosphere and style dominate his thinking to such a degree that Argento (Deep Red, Tenebrae) can be forgiven for his inattention to niggling concerns like acting or storytelling. Loaded with expository dialogue—some of it laughable, some of it merely clumsy—the script overexplains its simple premise about a ballet academy with a secret history of witchcraft. The night Harper arrives on a scholarship, she witnesses a young dancer fleeing the school in terror, and finds out the next morning that the woman was brutally murdered in a neighboring dormitory. Her suspicions are heightened when she meets her fellow students, who are unusually petty and hostile, and a pair of schoolmarmish administrators (Joan Bennett and Alida Valli) who have a strange, conspiratorial relationship. With sights and sounds that aim for sensory overload, Suspiria converts vulgarity and excess into high art, escalating to a fever pitch on former Antonioni cinematographer Luciano Tovoli's eye-popping images and Goblin's assaultive score, which is available as disc three of a limited-edition three-disc set. On the mostly useless documentary that takes up disc two, Harper talks about how the confusion of playing scenes with actors who spoke variously in Italian, German, or English. But Argento atones for his apathy about the performances (all the dialogue was dubbed, badly, in postproduction) with one stunning segment after another, from the opening murder to a blind man haunted in a vacant city square to the stops-out climactic showdown. Long admired in cult circles, Suspiria stands as one of the most visually striking horror films ever made, and the high watermark of a first-rate splatter stylist.
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