Dario Argento’s most famous movie is Suspiria, not least because it was the easiest to market overseas and was made in the English language. Argento became the “godfather of giallo” in the 1970s thanks to The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971), and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1972), leading to his international breakthrough with Deep Red (1975). The latter inspired a number of US filmmakers, most notably John Carpenter with Halloween (1978), and Argento’s follow-up Suspiria once again breathed fresh life into the horror genre.
There’s such a simple story to Suspiria it can be encapsulated in maybe a couple of sentences, but it’s not a movie you experience for rich characterisations and narrative complexities. Argento himself works on the belief that “cinema of prose” is where you never notice the camera, while the “cinema of poetry” is the precise opposite. Suspiria is a work of indelible poetry, as you’re never in any doubt you’re watching something artificial that gleefully wants to push buttons and see you respond.
New York ballet student Suzy Bannon (Jessica Harper) flies into the rainswept German town of Freiburg, nervous and alone in a foreign land, to continue her dance training at the prestigious Tanz Dance Academy. After witnessing a student behaving strangely outside the school’s entrance, seemingly running away, Suzy’s unnerved to later discover this girl was brutally murdered by a dark figure wearing black gloves (that classic signifier you’re in giallo territory).
One might expect this murder to fuel a great deal of the story, or heighten the levels of concern in Suzy and her classmates, but it’s merely one odd moment of many to come. After making friends with roommate Olga (Barbara Magnolfi, dubbed by Carolyn De Fonseca), Suzy’s introduced to the Academy’s vice-mistress Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett, in her last screen role) and formidable dance instructor Miss Tanner (Alida Valli), before slowly coming to realise this place holds dark secrets that may involve a long history of witchcraft.
Suspiria may sound like a murder-mystery with supernatural overtones, but if you’re looking for solid answers and a villain to be unmasked you’re in the wrong place. This is really just loose connective tissue, giving Argento opportunities to create “fear at 400 degrees” through his signature use of fluid camerawork, baroque set designs, atmospheric music that often drowns out everything else (composed by Italian prog-rock band Goblin), and vibrant Technicolor that make it feels like every room’s light bulbs have been painted in various coats of primary colours.
It’s hardly believable a German dance academy would look this way, but it’s undeniably gorgeous to behold the ornate architecture with blood red walls and stained glass windows. If nothing else, Suspiria is a feast for the senses thanks to cinematographer Luciano Tovoli, not to mention a reminder that horror movies can be unnerving without relying on darkness and shadows.
There are many interesting aspects to Suspiria. I’ve always thought the thrust of the story, about a “stranger in a strange land” exploring a mysterious European building, discovering its supernatural secrets hidden therein, evokes Englishman abroad Jonathan Harker trapped inside Castle Dracula. Suzy’s even delivered to the academy by means of a foreign “coachman” through a thick forest. There’s also a fairy tale atmosphere at times (Snow White and the Seven Dwarves being a touchstone for Argento), with a dose of Alice in Wonderland once Suzy starts to explore her new surroundings.
The witches of the story are the teachers, who prey on their younger students after drugging them, and the girls’ youth is subtly accentuated by only casting flatchested women who might be in their late-teens but have a much younger and more naive vibe about them. Apparently, the movie was first intended to be made with girls aged eight to ten, but the producers weren’t comfortable making a movie where such terrible things happen to children of that age.
If I have any complaints about Suspiria it’s that there’s rich territory here to explore deeper (particularly the overtone that some of the girls are lesbians), but Argento doesn’t delve too deeply into much of that. Maybe it was difficult enough getting a film with this much violence against women made in the late-1970s, without making the sexual components more prominent. It’s also notable how few male characters there are, as the few men we see are there for exposition, generally much older, in one instance notably ugly, and in another conspicuously blind. There’s also not much of an emphasis put on the academy’s raison d’etre, to teach young women to become world-class ballet dancers.
I wouldn’t say Suspiria is as frightening and bizarre as it must have felt to audiences 40 years ago, as tastes and style has evolved enormously over the decades. Other horrors built on its sense of abstract weirdness, so we’ve become accustomed to its headfuck vibe, the violence isn’t as shocking, and it misses some storytelling opportunities that likely encouraged Luca Guadagnino to remake his fellow countryman’s masterpiece this year. But some distance has certainly helped make Suspiria feel even more peculiar, as one’s never quite sure if certain moments feel strange because of that decade’s production limitations, or because Argento is intentionally fooling with us. Maybe that helps counter of the moments that will now be seen as a little sloppy, technically speaking - like the obviously fake snout of an attacking dog, or a fat bat that flies in through a window and flaps around the room on a piece of fishing line.
Still, while its ability to shock has been diminished, Suspiria remains a towering achievement for the time, a very influential evolution of the supernatural horror genre, and just a wonderful time capsule of late-’70s Euro-horror.
Cast & Crew
director: Dario Argento.
writer: Dario Argento & Daria Nicolodi (based on ‘Suspiria de Profundis’
by Thomas De Quincey).
starring: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci, Miguel Bosé, Barbara Magnolfi, Susanna Javicoli, Eva Axén, Alida Valli & Joan Bennett.