(1977) Directed by Dario Argento; Written by Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi; Starring: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini and Flavio Bucci; Available on DVD
Rating: **** ½
What’s It About?
Dario Argento is responsible for creating some of the most distinctive films in the horror/mystery/suspense genres, establishing his distinctive style in Tenebre, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Deep Red. Unfortunately, these high points have frequently been offset by an inordinate number of mediocre titles. While his overall career has been inconsistent, Suspiria is generally regarded as his undisputed masterpiece. Admittedly, my first impression of Suspiria wasn’t very positive. After my initial viewing, I wondered what all the fuss was about. The film seemed slow and pretentious – just the sort of thing that film students loved and everyone else disliked. But I didn’t realize at the time that it had planted a seed in my unconscious. Like an album that gets better during repeated listenings, I found that the film revealed its true nature during successive viewings.
Simply put, Suspiria is the depiction of a waking nightmare. As with most Argento films, story or narrative coherence take a back seat to mood and atmosphere. There’s often little room left over for logic. The plot for Suspiria could easily be summarized in one sentence: A young American woman travels to an exclusive dance academy in Germany, only to encounter a coven of witches. Jessica Harper plays the student, Suzy Bannion, with wide-eyed innocence. She’s trapped in a hostile, alien place where she doesn’t belong, lorded over by a staff with dubious intentions.
Luciano Tovoli’s stunning cinematography helps maintain an unearthly, disturbing tone throughout. Argento wanted Tovoli to use Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as a guide to his film’s color scheme, which seems oddly appropriate, given Suspiria’s fairy tale-like quality. The film prints were also printed with outdated 3-strip Technicolor equipment to further accentuate Suspiria’s unique look, which is dominated by lurid reds, blues and greens. There’s nothing subtle about the movie’s expressionistic approach, which relies heavily on the juxtaposition of expansive sets with extreme close-ups for shock value. Even the gruesome deaths (an Argento staple) have a bizarre poetry, in a Grand Guignol sort of way. Blood flows freely in several scenes – I’ll leave you to come up with your own Freudian interpretations.
A great deal of Suspiria’s creepy atmosphere can also be attributed to the unnerving experimental score by Dario Argento and Goblin (who would go on to do the music for Dawn of the Dead the following year). Eerie voices, loud noises and strange instruments combine at a droning, relentless pace to weave their way under your skin. It’s one of the most memorable horror scores of any age, and I’m left to speculate whether the film would have been half as effective without it (The music alone merits an extra star).
Why It’s Still Relevant:
In a time when few modern horror movies are genuinely scary, it’s worthwhile to reflect on the aspects that make Suspiria so effective. Argento realizes that simplicity works best, preying on our subconscious fears about the terrors that lie in the dark. At some point, the viewer finds it virtually impossible to be a passive participant, once the movie’s macabre charms take hold. It’s a film that’s experienced as much as it’s watched, akin to walking through a haunted house attraction where dread lies at every corridor’s twist and turn. Suzy is our unwitting tour guide through this nightmarish edifice, with her little-girl-lost persona.
Suspiria represented the first of the “Three Mothers” trilogy (continuing with 1980’s Inferno and concluding with 2007’s Mother of Tears), although the latter two movies have never been regarded in the same esteem. While Dario Argento’s career has appeared to suffer a downhill slide over the years, he clearly captured lightning in a bottle with Suspiria. This is an example of the director at the top of his game, when ambitions and ability intersected positively. Although he never quite returned to this level of greatness again, he achieved with this film what many other so-called horror maestros have attempted and failed to create – a strangely beautiful and unforgettable cinematic experience.