I have a lot less respect for my fellow fanboys now. Suspiria, the allegedly classic horror film from Italian horror master Dario Argento, is awful. Calling the writing sophomoric raises it a couple of grade levels from where it really is. The direction veers from brilliant – when the blind pianist walks through the vast, open courtyard in the middle of the night, it’s the one truly frightening, suspenseful scene in the film – to juvenile – the close up of the knife in the heart, to name just one. The acting – or maybe I should say “acting” – makes Denise Richards’ performance as Dr. Christmas Jones in the Bond flick The World is Not Enough seem positively Oscar-worthy. Although give the actors credit: They were given absolutely nothing to work with when it came to the script, and some were not speaking their native language. And the special effects … well, yeah. I don’t expect cheapy 1970s horror effects to be great, but I do expect the director not to actually draw attention to how awful they are every step of the way, unless you’re going a funnier route, a la The Evil Dead. The only consistently good parts of this film are the soundtrack provided by the Italian band Goblin, and the intensely colorful set design, making the school and the surrounding city a huge part of the film to the extent that I sometimes found myself ignoring what was actually happening on screen to absorb the surroundings.
But my reaction is that of a 40-year-old man seeing it for the first time. As a kid, would this have creeped me out? And I don’t think it would. I know if I showed it to my kids – ages 9 and 11 – they would have laughed, if they paid attention at all. They’ve seen scarier, more attention-grabbing drama on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Hell, my kids have seen more terror on episodes of the TV series Goosebumps.
It’s bad. And not good enough to be good bad, either.
Black Swan, 2010
Black Swan is everything Suspiria is not: Suspenseful, methodical, intense. Every shot director Darren Aronofsky selects has purpose and serves the story, such as the brief but telling shot of the broken ballerina spinning on Nina’s music box. Argento seems to throw shots together simply because they’re “unique.” In the scene where Suzy seeks guidance from a psychiatrist, the oddly framed over-the-shoulder shots, the shot of the reflection of the talking pair and the absurd shot of the psychiatrist from the ground where it is his small head in front of a big blue sky are unnecessary and indulgent. Where Argento bathes his film in color with little or no discernment, Aronofsky sticks to black, white, gray, brown, picking and choosing brighter colors for specific purposes: Using the pink in Nina’s room to convey immaturity and innocence, reserving red for the explosive look in Nina’s eyes when her madness and passion come to life, as well as for the blood of Nina’s rampage that spurs the final act of the film. Argento’s actors wear their emotions on their sleeves until they become an overused accessory. Natalie Portman’s Nina is shut off from her emotions, bottling her passion up until it explodes, then keeps attempting to tamp it back down until she can control it no more and it runs wild. Black Swan‘s script builds a story of madness around the physically demanding schedule of dance, diet and discipline of the ballet world. Suspiria could have been set at a girl’s school, a winery or a supermarket, because ballet plays no real role of import in the movie.
Is it unfair to compare Black Swan and Suspiria? Well, yes, to an extent, largely because Portman’s paycheck for Black Swan probably could have paid for Suspiria. However, Aronofsky has shown his ability to be brilliant despite his budget on three separate occasions: Pi, Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler. Sometimes it’s less about budget, more about having a clear vision. And that, ultimately, is where Black Swan succeeds and Suspiria fails.