Style over content- there is, oddly enough, nothing wrong with that. Its what elevates some films to classic status – Blade Runner, for instance, was criticised back in 1982 for being all style and little substance, but that ironically defined the very thing it became most famous for, and what remains so impressive about the film to this day: sometimes style is everything. Such is perhaps the case with Dario Argento’s horror film Suspiria, which I have been a long time getting around to watching- indeed, seeing the remake/reboot beforehand.
Suspiria is all about style: its a horror film as arthouse movie, or maybe arthouse movie as horror film, if there’s a distinction looking at it either way. There is very little plot, pretty much non-existent characterisation. As a traditional film, it functions very poorly indeed.
As such, I have to confess I found it rather disappointing. I do believe a part of that is simply because I am so late to the party, the film being over forty years old now. When it first came out, when it was so new and fresh and experimental, such an assault on the senses, it might well have seemed extraordinary, and I can understand this reputation continuing for years, into its release on VHS and DVD. Certainly it has an atmosphere all its own, from its in-your-face, assault-on-your-eardrums score by Goblin, its garish colour schemes and rather surreal, other-worldly, dreamlike imagery. Back in 1977 and likely years later, it must have been astonishing, exhilarating, but to me it just seemed a little, er, irritating.
Which is my loss, I expect. I’ve just come to the film too late. Intellectually I can appreciate what it did/does, and why it is so revered, but I’m watching the film in 2020. It just doesn’t work in the same way it did back then. Its a bit like when I talk to people who have never seen Blade Runner; before they do so I have to caution their expectations a little, or usually, discussing the film afterwards, I have to confess that to appreciate how new and fresh and special the film still seems to me today, you really had to be there in 1982. Or perhaps in understanding the impact the first Star Wars film had in 1977. You cannot really divorce films from when they were first released, they are forever of their time. They can’t hold that same magic forever.
But it certainly is a beautiful film; most of the shots of the film are exquisite and visually it remains quite extraordinary. I was just a little disappointed that this was all the film really was. The violence/horror is mostly a ghastly, over the top orgy of gore and so self-aware and artificial its clearly shocking for shocks sake (circa what people were used to in 1977). Perhaps that’s the point of it, engineered to repulse, but I can’t say I was ever involved in any of it. Instead I felt outside of it, distracted by its technique and artifice: its a dream that never feels real, and in so doing it never really involved me.
If anything, the film made me consider a reappraisal of the 2018 Suspiria: I can see now, having seen the 1977 original, what that film possibly succeeded at. It wasn’t a remake, and neither did it try to mimic very much of the 1977 films style and atmosphere. Instead it took the basic plot and made a more routine, traditional narrative: something more cohesive. Back when I saw it I felt rather frustrated by it, and I doubt that watching it again I’d enjoy the film anymore than I originally did- it strangely enough has its own problems, as I recall, and all of its own quite seperate to those of the original. But maybe the 2018 film wasn’t as terrible as I originally thought, or certainly not quite as inferior to the original as I thought it might be. Both films are quite flawed, but I suppose that, considering its age, one can give the original some credit for what it did back then that made it seem so unique and ‘new’.
Mind, I’m hardly an expert on the horror genre, but for all the hype over Suspiria’s bold and garish visuals, I think some are forgetting the colour-drenched visuals of the best of the Gothic Hammers and much of Roger Corman’s Poe horror line of the 1960s. Suspiria in 1977 may have done it to a heightened and lasting degree, but certainly it had its precedents.