Paranormal & Supernatural in Review: Suspiria (1977)
Director: Dario Argento
Writers: Dario Argento, Daria Nicolodi
Starring: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci
Release Date: 12 August 1977
Review By: Jeffery X. Martin
Synopsis: Suzy Bannion travels to Germany to perfect her ballet skills. She arrives at the Tanz dance academy in the pouring rain and is refused admission after another woman is seen fleeing the school. She returns the next morning and this time is let in. She learns that the young woman she saw fleeing the previous evening, Pat Hingle, has been found dead. Strange things soon begin to occur. Suzy becomes ill and is put on a special diet; the school becomes infested with maggots; odd sounds abound; and Daniel, the pianist, is killed by his own dog. A bit of research indicates that the ballet school was once a witches’ coven – and as Suzy learns, still is.
The 1977 film, Suspiria, didn’t turn me into a horror fan. It was the trailer. I was eight years old when I saw it for the first time, and I was immediately repulsed and fascinated. The title font that looked like pulsating flesh. That ominous voiceover. And what the hell was a suspiria? Was it a musical instrument? Could I buy one?
It wasn’t until years later that I finally saw Suspiria. It did not disappoint. There are a lot of people who don’t like the movie. You don’t have to search the internet too hard to find them. It’s not my job to disparage those folks or try to change their minds. After repeated viewings, surely in the triple digits by now, I still don’t consider myself an expert on the film. That would be presumptuous. But I consider it to be a glorious masterpiece, both bombastic and intimate, and best of all, terrifying.
I tend to think the recent trend of arthouse horror began with Suspiria. For example, notice the lighting. Garish reds and blues dominate the palette, particularly during the elaborate set pieces. Some sequences remind me of anaglyph 3D glasses. A woman crashes through a window and a neon red light comes on above her. There’s no reason for this, except insanely faulty wiring. During a scene in the school’s gymnasium, red light shines through a gauze sheet placed as a divider. The color itself becomes ominous, especially when shadows start moving about on the other side of the curtain.
Other directors have adopted Suspiria’s lighting for their own films. George Romero did it in Creepshow. Nicholas Winding Refn snatched it for, well, practically everything he’s directed, but particularly The Neon Demon.
The lighting enhances the bizarrely detailed set decoration. Walls leap out at the viewer, covered with Escher patterns and self-referential paisley. In the main hallway of the academy, a wall is covered with blue velour. Deep in the hidden tunnels of the school, hand painted words evoke both history and apocalypse. The sense of secrecy is tantamount to the power of the story, and both the lighting and design elements provide clues that may not be noticed until a second viewing of the film.
Italian movies are famous for their overdubbing. Sound isn’t recorded on set; it is all looped in later. People used to English or American filmmaking may be put off by that. Things don’t always sync up. In one outdoor scene, the greenery sways in the wind. The actors’ hair blows into their eyes. But there’s no sound of wind. It seems like a production mistake, but there also seems to be something else there. Who is to say it’s not the swirling of unseen forces, witches making their presence known without noise?
I might be reading too much into that.
It’s still interesting.
If the lack of sound in some scenes provides the unease, then the musical score by Goblin provides some of the most overt chills in Suspiria. Thunderous drums, delicate celeste, and the hideous whisper of the word, “witch,” blare their way through the speakers and into the listener’s subconscious. Harshness balanced precariously with subtlety, sometimes reflecting the opposite of what is happening on screen, is the hallmark of this score. It constantly keeps viewers unbalanced and unsettled.
While Italian horror is not well known for being logical, the questions that go unanswered in Suspiria feel intentional. Why is there a room filled with razor wire at a ballet school? I have no idea, but damned if it doesn’t play a part in one of the biggest shocks of the film. The razor wire room is never explained, but in the overall context, it makes sense. The dance academy is filled with secrets, presenting one face to the world, but concocting its own evil plans in the background. Why the hell wouldn’t there be an entire nightmarish room filled with concertina?
And with that one word, ‘nightmarish,’ we come to the true reason why Suspiria is so effective. It has all the logic and illogicality of a wretched fever dream. Characters that dwell in shadow, motivations that don’t always hold water, and sequences both surreal and shocking make Suspiria one of the best horror films ever made. It is the closest representation of an actual nightmare I have ever seen on the big screen. Bad dreams aren’t always cohesive or relegated to linear timelines. They’re always scary, though. Nightmares make us wake up in the middle of the night, pillow soaked with sweat, desperately scrabbling to regain our bearings between the real and unreal. Shouldn’t some scary movies follow that kind of labyrinthine dream logic? And why watch horror movies if not to be frightened?
For me, Suspiria works on a primal level. It encompasses the paranoid fear of hidden machinations. The witches who run the dance academy are the worst kinds of middle managers. It’s easy to see them as a retail management team, conspiring to fire the new employee for not selling enough trinkets. Then, there’s that score by Goblin, with its whispering and almost subliminal texture. Throw in some of the most gruesome murders ever filmed, and you have not only an excellent horror film, but what sits firmly as my favorite movie of all time.
Director Dario Argento transforms the classic fish-out-of-water trope into a grotesquely beautiful thing of its own with Suspiria. The movie isn’t afraid to get weird, slapping the viewer across the face with its own brand of fairy tale terror. When it’s over, you may not be sure what just happened. Maybe that’s the point. Suspiria lingers in the mind like an awful dream from the night before, ethereal yet seeming so real.
Jeffery X Martin is a pop culture journalist and horror author. His latest book, The Ridge, is available from Shadow Work Publishing through Amazon. Martin is a senior editor at the entertainment website, Biff Bam Pop, where his weekly article, Prime in the Dustbin, reveals the best things about the worst movies on Prime Video. His story, “Ready to Start,” was included in the St. Rooster Press anthology, To Be One with You. Martin lives in the dark, verdant hills of Tennessee with his wife, artist Hannah Martin.
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