Movie Madness: “Suspiria” (1977)

“Suspiria,” a movie so colorful, so visually stunning, so masterful in its execution, that I almost didn’t notice how nonsensical and sort of totally dumb the whole thing was. I realize this is a beloved cult classic and that I’m no film critic, but movies aren’t just made for film critics, they’re also made for idiots like me.

I went into this movie blind. I knew nothing about the plot, Dario Argento, or giallo films in general. I just knew that it was considered an exceptionally beautiful film. Which it is. Argento was in control of every aspect of the story except for the story itself.

The plot centers around an American ballerina attending a prestigious dance academy in Freiburg. Suzy is fresh off the plane when spooky things start to occur. Mysterious snoring is overheard. Footsteps are counted. A bunch of food rots in the attic. Suzy gets a bloody nose. Oh, and also, some people are murdered, though no one’s all that concerned about it.

Yes, the first thing Suzy witnesses is a girl fleeing the doors of the academy and hoofing it through the Black Forest in the middle of the night. And when Suzy learns that the girl was brutally murdered just hours later, she isn’t concerned. Just mildly confused. In fact, mild confusion is Suzy’s primary method of handling trauma. Whether it’s a mysterious illness, a mysterious murder, or a mysterious derpy bat puppet trying to suck out her blood, nothing really gets to this girl.

Not that anyone else cares. Upon the grisly death of their former classmate, the other students shrug it off and say that the girl was kind of a bitch anyway. Even the police aren’t too hot to solve the case. I guess the world just turns a blind eye when single white females with rich parents are horribly butchered inside beautiful apartment buildings.

Now, I was a fan of the soundtrack, but if you’re trying to build suspense and you don’t want the audience to know that all the mysterious shit going down is being caused by a coven of mysterious witches, maybe don’t have the soundtrack hiss “Witch!” right when a mysterious old woman flashes some mysterious mirrored object in Suzy’s face, seemingly giving her a mysterious fainting illness/curse. I mean, were we supposed to pass that off as atmospheric? I don’t remember the soundtrack to “Rosemary’s Baby” too well, but I’m pretty sure that at no point did a vocalist shout, “You were raped by the Devil and now you’re carrying the Antichrist!”

You might say that the “twist” was not important, but given that overly long scene near the end in which Dr. Exposition informs us that witches are totally a thing and that a notorious witch founded the dance academy many years ago, I think Argento wanted us to be a little surprised. At the very least, he could have offered a coherent explanation for why this coven of witches needed to operate a dance academy in the first place. I was hoping there would be some kind of ritual they wanted to perform, some important and convoluted scheme that required Suzy in order to work (a la “The Wicker Man”). There was no explanation. Dr. Exposition mentions something about witches wanting to accumulate great personal wealth and then stumbles off to explain the plot in some other movie.

So, as you can see, I liked the film. Very lovely, very well-done, some genuinely scary moments, would probably never watch again.

Movie Madness: “The Cell” (2000)

Yesterday I watched “The Cell.” 15 years late, but it was a great movie. The CGI was dated as hell (though impressive for the year 2000, I guess) and Vince Vaughn played a stock character straight out of a police procedural, but Tarsem Singh knows how to create visuals and he makes you feel empathy for a serial killer. Not sick fascination, like Hannibal Lecter, but empathy. And most importantly, there’s no quantitative judgement on psychological pain. We don’t end with the traditionalist message, “Crazy people are just weak people who made wrong choices.” Madness is portrayed as a deeply intimate force that corrupts according to its own internal logic, turning innocents into monsters.

One of the most telling scenes in the movie is the part where Carl Stargher, the serial killer, is apprehended. The FBI’s got SWAT teams surrounding his house. The editing and the music assure us that some serious shit is about to go down. If it were Buffalo Bill in there, he would escape down an underground tunnel. This would have led to some claustrophobic pursuit in which Vince Vaughn or Hank from Breaking Bad was nearly-fatally stabbed.

Instead, after everyone’s done showing off their impressive storm trooper abilities, they find Carl passed out on the kitchen floor, unarmed and naked. He didn’t have a glock in the knife drawer. He didn’t have an exit strategy. He was scrambling for some pills and then he went into a coma.

American culture is fascinated by the evil genius, the remorseless killer that is always one step ahead of everyone else. I suspect this is because America genuinely and desperately wants to believe that brilliant assholes run the world and that these assholes can either make money like proper capitalists or they can turn women into skin suits like freaks. The sad fact is, much as Hannibal and the Joker and Kevin Spacey all make for interesting villains, they don’t really embody what it means to suffer mental anguish. So, hat’s off to you, Tarsem Singh. “The Cell” totally makes up for “Immortals.”