Days of Anime 2020: Witch!

I was afraid of Suspiria. Everything I heard about it made me excited: stark production design, ultra-saturated colors, prog rock, witches terrorizing a school. But while I love horror stories and weird freaky stuff, horror movies are a challenge for me. I can’t handle jump scares. Extreme blood and gore effects make me nauseous. Sure, a year ago I’d seen the film Noroi and loved it–but that movie was 95% creepy atmosphere and 5% shocker. I didn’t know what might happen if I flipped that quotient around and went for 95% shocker, 5% atmosphere. Could I take it?

As it happened, I could. I’m not sure what changed. Perhaps it was the upcoming election, and the knowledge that living in 2020 was worse than any horror movie–and could become worse still. Maybe it had been so long since I’d tried to watch a horror film, that I’d underestimated my own endurance for scares. Either way, one night in October I started on a horror movie kick with John Carpenter’s Halloween. The next day, I watched Suspiria.

The first five minutes of Suspiria are incredible. A young woman walks towards the exit doors of an airport. The doors open, we see a close-up of its mechanism click like the blade of a guillotine, and the opening bars of the film’s bizarre theme song blast through as the blowing wind throws the heroine’s hair back. The pounding rain deforms the city lights and signage into a sea of primary colors. The headlights of the taxi shines like the eyes of an animal through trees, as the soundtrack howls “Witch!” And bookending everything, another young woman runs frantically through the woods, pursued by something just out of sight.

Then there’s a very elaborate death scene. This is one of the first things that comes up when folks talk about this movie, and to be fair it is very striking. What surprised me is how much talking came afterwards. This is the real horror of Suspiria: the dialogue. The film isn’t so much a rollercoaster as it is a seesaw, incredible highs swinging into banal lows where characters banter about nothing. This has little to do with plot or character: Halloween’s plot is aggressively functional, the characters archetypes, but the film is efficient. Suspiria is not efficient. Why introduce a character who owns an apartment where the heroine can stay for the foreseeable future, only to throw her out in the very next scene? Why have a scene late in the film where the heroine consults a psychiatrist regarding the terrible events taking place at her school, only to be then approached by an occultist who gives a completely different explanation?

The sequences that put single characters in murderous rooms and corridors still work like gangbusters though. The substance of the film is in the walls of the school, the obsessively wrought bric-a-brac, the cheeky visual references like the film’s second victim leaving a German beer hall to die at a fascist monument. And the stark red and blue lighting! The music! Suspiria reminds me of a meaner, less empathetic Hausu; it is a filmic death trap in which young girls are chewed up by beautifully wrought production design, while the musical score points at the corpse and yells (as explanation) “witch!” Especially the very ending, where an invisible witch is screeching at the main character that “your death waits beyond this door!!” is hilarious nonsense that even so feels as inevitable as a nightmare.

The other horror of Suspiria, I came to realize, is how much Yuri Bear Storm references this film. I’d heard already about the hallways of the school in YKA being inspired by those of the dance academy. But Kureha shooting a bear statue being such a specific homage to a one-off visual gag in Suspiria’s climax really threw me for a loop. Even chords from Yuri Kuma Arashi’s soundtrack appear to me to be directly lifted in spirit from Goblin’s work, in the same way that Mawaru Penguindrum’s soundtrack riffs directly on Laura Palmer’s Theme from Twin Peaks. Folks call Kunihiko Ikuhara an original, a director with avant-garde ideas. Having watched Twin Peaks and Suspiria, I’m starting to think of him as more of an arranger: somebody with an eye for destabilizing popular genres with his own aesthetic influences. I’m beginning to wonder what other context I may be missing…

I’m not complaining, mind. If you’re going to pay homage to a film, you might as well do it with Suspiria. A wild, sadistic, deeply uneven movie that (in bright, singular moments) is an unforgettable blast.

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