GREAT MOMENTS IN CINEMA: THE FIRST 20 MINUTES OF “SUSPIRIA” (1977)

THE “FIRST 20 MINUTES OF ‘SUSPIRIA'” is, in actuality, 13 minutes, 36 seconds long. But even director Dario Argento refers to the justifiably infamous opening to his magnum opus as the first 20 minutes, and if you ask a horror geek for the genre’s high points, you will inevitably hear the phrase, “The first 20 minutes of ‘Suspiria’” – probably first.

In fact, the reputation of “Suspiria,” by far Argento’s best film, rests largely on those first 13 and a half minutes, and for years I was inclined to see the movie as one that simply doesn’t live up to its opening. And, frankly, it really doesn’t. But I’ve come to realize that “Suspiria” is so singular that many of its set pieces, if seen first instead, would have had at least a similar effect on a viewer.

Even now, nearly 40 years after its debut, “Suspiria” not only remains the ne plus ultra of cinema fright for many diehard horror fans – its only natural predator is “The Exorcist” – it’s still unlike anything else any cineaste has seen or heard. From the cinematography and set design, the soundtrack and casting, “Suspiria” remains unique.

“Suspiria” is ghettoized, perhaps deservedly so, because it’s not a particularly cerebral movie; even if its premise – an ingenuous modern take on the fairy tale – is classical. Argento typically dumbs it down; a fairy tale has a simple plot; “Suspiria” doesn’t have one. It’s set in a ballet school in the German woods. Why? Don’t know. What are the witches up to? Not sure. One of its funnier moments is when Udo Kier, cast against type as a completely normal person, gets a few minutes to provide what little exposition is necessary.

Of course, the funniest moment in ANY Argento movie is the same scene. Argento’s early films generally pivot on a premise of speculative science so silly that it torpedoes the film dramatically, the most arresting case being the preposterous “Four Flies on Grey Velvet.” Hitchcock’s MacGuffins at least made sense. It works here – and, oddly enough, in the preternaturally inane “Phenomena” – only because Argento and writing partner Daria Nicolodi finally surrender to the supernatural.

Like all fairy tales, “Suspiria” has one real goal: to penetrate the collective unconscious and squeeze what really scares us – death, being lost, the dark, the other; being killed while lost in the dark among the others. The opening shot, an airport arrivals board, establishes the protagonist – Jessica Harper’s pixie dancer Suzy Banyan – as a stranger in a strange land. Immediately bathed in pink-and-blue light, she is miles from home, an American in a dark, provincial Germany only 30 years removed from the Holocaust.

Ahead, passengers leave the airport through the automatic doors. When they open, Goblin’s “Tubular Bells”-like theme slips into the soundtrack for the first time, but only until the doors shut. When Suzy finally trips the door’s trigger, we’re taken inside its machinery to see, in two quick shots, it willfully open the portal. It’s a brilliantly unsettling moment, pure cinema, as the eggheads call it – assigning intent to the inanimate. And it works.

For the next 10 minutes or so we’re assaulted by a series of off-kilter images. The lone pedestrian shot – a taxi pulling into traffic – unexpectedly moves out of frame to the river below, swollen by a rainstorm and unable to contain nature’s wrath. The shot is punctuated by two quick-cut close-ups of the storm drains, spitting the roiling turbulence back to the surface.

In his previous film, “Deep Red,” Argento so successfully hid the killer’s face in an ugly cacophony of mirrors and bourgeois rococo that this one great set piece holds together an otherwise stupid movie. “Suspiria” deliberately builds on this ability to visually startle and confuse the viewer. There isn’t a white wall or straight angle in the movie. The lighting, with few exceptions, is phantasmagorical. Every room, hallway, drapery seems arch – a successful articulation of what Lovecraft used to describe as “impossible.”

The imperfection of the actors’ post-production English only enhances this feeling, especially when the dialog is either deliberately stilted or poorly translated; the great Joan Bennett plays her part as if she’s in a Douglas Sirk movie, and “The Third Man” beauty Alida Valli is a revelation as the stridently butch head mistress.

Neither Bennett nor Valli are in the first 20 minutes, though, which should indicate the rest of the movie is worth your time. But for sheer, breathless cinema, nothing in the movie or elsewhere is able to match the opening, which culminates in a violent diorama of death not dissimilar to the one in “Taxi Driver,” released a year earlier.

It’s, you know, scary.

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