Dario Argento seems to be the kind of talented director who needs to be kept on a very short leash. Argento's latest thriller, a ridiculously self-indulgent spree of satanic bogeymannerisms entitled "Suspiria," virtually self-destructs in the opening sequence. Eager to menace the audience from every sensory direction, Argento doesn't so much create and sustain an illusion of terror as invite you to marvel at his garish ingenuity, at the spectacle of a filmmaker who can't resist overstylizing and upstaging his material.
Argento's first feature to reach here, "The Bird with the Crystal Plumage," demonstrated considerable and sometimes terrifying facility with composition, cutting and atmosphere along with an equally striking lack of sophistication at contriving a mystery plot. I missed his intervening credits, including the exquisite-sounding "Four Flies on Gray Velvet," but "Suspiria," now at area theaters, suggests rather hysterically that Argento hasn't forgotten or learned a thing.
Actually, curiosity about Argento's progress, or lack of same, attracted me far less than the presence of Jessica Harper, whom I consider one of the most distinctive and promising untapped talents among our younger group of screen actresses. Harper played the female lead in Brian De Palma's "Phantom of the Parody of a Chekhov scene - before joining Richard Dreyfuss in the humiliating "Inserts."
While "Suspiria" cannot be passed off as prestige employment, it proves a more presentable showcase than "Inserts." At least Harper looks and sounds like herself again; her slim, wistful appearance, reminiscent of the movie heroines of the silent period, and her soft, warm voice create a human aura that is fundamentally attractive and could enhance a sense of fear and identification in any reasonably intelligent murder thriller.
Ultimately, Argento doesn't require much from his actresses except wide-eyed fright and screaming jags, but somehow Harper avoids the worst of these excesses, looking only intermittently silly when her big brown irises begin darting too precociouly or when she must fend off attacking bats or dodge falling buildings.
Harper does provide one with an island of human integrity and sympathy in the middle of Argento's gothic hurricane. She evidently spurned a role in "Annie Hall" to do "Suspiria," but since Woody Allen meant her to play the role Shelley Duvall ended up with. Harper was probably better off taking the starring role with Argento. Cockamany as "Suspiria" is, at least it offers a thankless lead, which beats a thankless bit role.
The heroine, Susy Banyon, is a nice American dance student who travels abroad to pursue her studies at what is grossly misrepresented as a respected "tanz akademie" in Freiburg, Germany. It is, in fact, a front for a cult of Satanists and although the precise nature of the evil is kept under wraps for a while, it's apparent from the outset that sweet, demure Susy ought to take the first flight back home.Everything around her foreshadows disaster, from the exaggerated whoosh of automatic door mechanisms to a torrential exhibition by Mother Nature herself.
Susy's cab pulls up at the academy just as another young woman dashes into the stormy night. Seeking entry, our heroine is ordered to "Go away!" over the intercom. Although she is spared the audience's eye-witness experience of the grisly fate awaiting the mysterious escapee from the academy, Susy certainly learns about it the next morning. Moreover, the appearance and behavior of the academy's staff are scarcely calculated to inspire confidence. If Susy were a movie person, she'd know immediately that she'd stepped into a gaudily wallpapered descendant of the madhouse in "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari."
In other words there's no reason beyond sheer plot necessity for the heroine to expose herself to this particular milieu for more than two minutes. One can't deny Argento's technical ability to manufacture jolts, but he seems incapable of contriving a dramatic context that would make the jolts more enjoyable by virtue of being more discreet and credible.
Argento probably can't help himself. The mechanical aspects of cinematic terror must seem so seductive that he dosen't appreciate how hollow and preposterous his scare tactics may become in the last analysis.
Incidentally, the chief gorgons at the wicked academy are played by once-celebrated and beautiful leading ladies, Joan Bennett and * Alida Valli. I always think of such casting shocks as worse omens than any of the signs routinely disregarded or underestimated by the heroines of murder thrillers. It illustrates the inequity of the aging process as it's exaggerated on the screen. Actors can age without necessarily having to choose between retirement and horror-movie grotesques. Actresses don't appear to enjoy the same advantage.
Perhaps Jessica Harper can consider herself fortunate to have scraped bottom and come out alive at an early point in her career. If you think "Suspiria" is an unflattering vehicle, you obviously missed "Inserts."