by Steve Habrat
One of the most famous directors working within the horror genre is without question Italian filmmaker Dario Argento. Starting out as a film critic, Argento moved on to developing the story for Sergio Leone’s 1968 spaghetti western Once Upon a Time in the West before finally settling behind the camera in 1970 to create his own “giallo” thrillers and horror films. It’s safe to say that he had quite the career before 1977. After delivering a handful of well-received and expertly crafted horror outings (1970’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, 1971’s The Cat o’ Nine Tails, and 1975’s Deep Red), Argento released Suspiria, which has gone on to become the most popular film of his directorial career. Considered by many (including me) to be one of the scariest motion pictures of all time, Suspiria is best described as a glammed up horror film drenched in neon lighting and set to one of the most unforgettable scores in movie history. It’s extravagant beyond belief as it transports the viewer into a surreal funhouse of witches and demons waiting to cast their ghastly spells on anyone who stumbles upon their secrets. While spots of Suspiria are beginning to show their age, the film still stands as a terrifying work of genius, featuring a number of death scenes and demonic surprises that remain beautiful and brutal in all of their flamboyant fury.
Suspiria begins with American ballet dancer Suzy Bannion (played by Jessica Harper) touching down in Germany to study at a prestigious dance academy in Freiburg. After arriving very late at night, Suzy is turned away from the school doors by a mysterious woman on the intercom. Before hopping back in her taxi, a young blonde girl bursts through the door, shouts a message to someone standing just inside the door, and then bolts off into the night. Perplexed, Suzy makes her way into town to check into a hotel for the night. The next day, Suzy arrives back at the school to meet with vice directress Madame Blanc (played by Joan Bennet) and head instructor Miss Tanner (played by Alida Valli). Madame Blanc and Miss Tanner take Suzy around to meet some of the students and figure out living arrangements. After several attempts to get Suzy to live at the school, Madame Blanc and Miss Tanner agree to let Suzy live off campus with a student named Olga (played by Barbara Magnolfi). The next day, Suzy has a bizarre run-in with the school cook, who appears to cast a spell on Suzy that causes her to fall ill. After fainting the middle of her class, Madame Blanc and Miss Tanner move Suzy’s belongings into the school and insist that she stay in a dormitory under their care. After several more strange occurrences, Suzy and her new friend, Sara (played by Stefania Casini), begin to suspect that the school may be a front for a coven of witches.
Argento opens Suspiria on an extremely intense note, with a surreal double murder at the hands of a hairy demon that always remains just off screen (a smart move on Argento’s part). After the demon brutally stabs one girl to death to the point where the audience catches a glimpse of her still-beating heart, she is then dropped through a stained-glass skylight and left to hang in the middle of the grand lobby. Her horrified friend, who has been frantically banging on doors in an attempt to get her seemingly non-existent neighbors to help, happens to be underneath the skylight when the shards of glass plunge to the ground, leaving her a sliced up mess. We’ve stepped into a nightmare world complimented by demonic “la-la-la’s,” chiming lullaby bells, and hair-raising shrieks of “WITCH” by the progressive Italian rock group Goblin. The architecture and the lighting schemes are all embellished, with harsh splashes of red and blue illuminating the screen like Satan’s lava lamp. It’s a surprisingly pretty smear of color and horror that warns us that we have left the comforts of the real world far, far behind. Despite being in the middle of a massive apartment complex, there is no one around to save these girls from this rampaging force signified by Goblin’s chilling electronic score. You’d think that all this commotion would draw the attention of someone, but we’re on our own in this glowing witchcraft realm. This is only the beginning, as Argento plans to keep us feeling hopeless for the entire duration of the film.
Argento guides the dreamlike horror from the baroque apartment complex to the glittery walls the ballet dance school. With its exterior painted up in bright red and decorated with gold gargoyles, the school possesses a menacing look in broad daylight—it’s a satanic castle dripping with blood and crawling with demons. Inside, the walls are either glittery blues or glowing reds, with slanting windows, a gold staircase railing that seems to be melting on the heads of our characters, and some of the ugliest wall art you may ever see. It’s a world where maggots suddenly rain from the ceiling, disembodied raspy breathing can be heard behind a curtain, and random rooms packed with razor wire patiently wait to claim their next victim. You have to marvel at the amazing set design, even if it is an interior decorators worst nightmare. The surreal supernatural atmosphere also roars to life within these halls, the camera taking the POV of a creeping force that is brought to life through Goblin’s alien score. When an unseen tormentor with a straight razor terrorizes one character through the school halls, no student dares peak their head out of their dormitory to see if their help is needed. Is the whole school in on this? Is this attack a dream? Argento gives no clear explanation other than there are forces beyond our understanding at work here and sudden death lurks just around the glowing red corner. And somehow, that makes the events all the scarier.
With the set design and vivid lighting schemes stealing most of the thunder, you almost have to see Suspiria twice to pay attention to the near perfect performances. Jessica Harper is delicate and subtle as our curious heroine who notices that something is amiss about her new school. She wanders cautiously through the halls and dodges the wandering teachers keeping an eye out for anyone who dares snoop around. Bennet puts on a caring face as Madame Blanc, the vice headmistress who seems to overflow with motherly concern for her students. Alida Valli wears a frozen forced grin as the stern instructor Miss Tanner, a woman who undoubtedly has a nasty side just waiting to emerge at the right time. Stefania Casini is full of theories and suspicion about the rumored directress that is supposedly away from the school. Flavio Bucci turns in a sympathetic performance as Daniel, the blind pianist who is booted from the school after his seeing-eye dog is accused of attacking Madame Blanc’s young nephew. Well-known genre star Udo Kier also turns up in a small role as Dr. Frank Mandel, who provides Suzy with a bit of unnerving background knowledge about her new school.
With such a stunning opening that packs blood-curdling gore and scares, you’d think that Argento wouldn’t be able to top his magnificent commencement, but he does every single step of the way. Halfway through the film, you will gasp in horror as one character is attacked in a wide-open square, and the climax of the film will have you watching through your fingers as Suzy pushes deep into the bowels of the school to confront a coven of witches. With the suspense turned up as high as it will go, Argento then springs not one, but two monsters on us that will certainly have your knees knocking together. As far as flaws go, the most glaring would have to be the dubbing that was added in post-production. There is one moment near the end where the dialogue shoots high for evil, but it doesn’t have the impact that it should. Overall, other than the spotty dubbing in a few places, Suspiria is a shining example of demonic horror done by a man who knows how to simultaneously make you cringe in pain and shriek in horror. The Goblin score sticks in your brain like a splinter and you won’t be able to peel your eyes off the flowing string of shimmering images that are presented to you. Suspiria casts a wicked spell that will haunt you for weeks.
Suspiria is available on DVD.