“For Suspiria I was inspired by… everything that German Expressionism means: dreams, provocations, unreality, and psychoanalysis.”–Dario Argento
DIRECTED BY: Dario Argento
FEATURING: Jessica Harper, Joan Bennet, Allida Valli, Stefania Casini
PLOT: Suzy, an American ballet student, is accepted to a German dance academy, but when she arrives there one stormy night she is denied entrance and watches as a young woman flees the school and runs into the forest. The next day she returns and is admitted to the academy with apologies, but she soon falls ill and becomes too weak to practice with the other students. After a series of bizarre occurrences and disappearances, Suzy becomes convinced that the faculty and staff of the academy are not who they pretend to be.
- Suspiria (concerning the “Mother of Sighs”) is the first and most notable of Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy. Subsequent installments are Inferno (1980, about the “Mother of Darkness”) and Mother of Tears (2007). The idea of the Three Mothers came from opium-addicted English writer Thomas de Quincey, who invented a myth of three witches analogous to the three Fates in his collection of fantastical essays Suspiria de Profundis (“suspiria” is Latin for “sighs”).
- Argento originally wanted the story to feature a school of girls in the 8-10 year age range, but producers balked at the idea of showing gruesome murders of children. Although he cast adults to play the roles, Argento left in some childlike dialogue, and actually raised the doorknobs on the set so that the actress’ would have to reach up to turn them, as if they were children.
- Argento has said that the color scheme for Suspiria was inspired by Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).
- In an early scene in the taxicab Argento’s scowling face can be seen momentarily reflected in the glass that separates the driver and the passenger; the effect is nearly subliminal.
- Suspiria was one of the last films made using the Technicolor process.
- Argento co-composed the remarkable soundtrack, performed by the Italian progressive rock group Goblin.
- Rumors of a remake have been circulating for years. A project entitled Suspiria is currently listed as “in development” on the IMDB, scheduled for a 2012 release. There are reports that Italian producer Marco Morabito has confirmed that David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express) will direct. Earlier rumors speculated that Natalie Portman would play the lead.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Isolating a single indelible image in the movie is an impossible task; Suspiria shapes its surreality from the play of supersaturated colors on the baroque walls of the dance academy, and from its impossible, unnatural lighting schemes. The colors as a whole are indelible; there are perhaps a dozen impossibly lit individual shots (scenes that look as if they were inked by a demented gnome) that together form an impression of a world gone luminescently awry. The image of Suzy posed in front on a neon peacock as she enters the witch’s chamber, with a background column glowing an improbable scarlet from an unseen light source, is as a representative an image as any.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Although there are plenty of “weird” (in the sense of “uncanny” or“ occult”) occurrences in Suspiria—such as the rain of maggots—it’s the stylized sensual elements, the brilliantly unreal cinematography and the relentless unnerving score, that catapult the movie out of the realm of ordinary supernatural horror and land it in its own unique fairy tale nightmare realm.
Original international trailer for Suspiria
COMMENTS: Suspiria is more an assault on the senses than a narrative; it’s Gothic horror atmosphere, squared. The occult script is somewhere between serviceable and average. Some sequences serve little purpose other than to fill up time and give the audience a breather between the intense set pieces. A potential love interest for Suzy is introduced, with no follow up. The matrons who run the academy drug the aspiring ballerina at night, but it’s never clear precisely why (other than to lend a drugged, dreamlike feel to the events that follow). One short small scene, easily missed anyway, that provides the reason behind the murder of the blind piano player, was apparently snipped from early US prints, making his slaying seem gratuitous and unmotivated. The movie is not as weirdly senseless and thoroughly illogical as some contemporary critics initially accused it of being; but, in the best tradition of the European fantastique, it values mood and emotional effect over plotting. If I were to lay out the story of Suspiria without the accompanying sound and visuals, it would seem simplistic and insubstantial; add in the music and photography, which converge with the film’s dark themes in a miraculous way, and the movie leaps rungs from an ordinary horror into something unforgettable.
The relentless, pounding, yowling score (by the band Goblin) is our almost constant companion in the film, and a huge part of its success. The main theme is childishly simple, a music box fugue of fourteen repeating notes which are gradually embellished with tribal percussion; the simple progression is then layered unpredictably with mutated vocals and inhuman, hellish synthesizer effects. Sighs and hisses alternate on the soundtrack with silences that become sinister because we are anticipating the next aural onslaught. The noise wells up at the viewer from some crack in the earth below which a demon is throwing a dance party in celebration of the onscreen victim’s imminent demise. Perhaps the odd spotlights of purple and green and blue and orange that appear out of nowhere, the walls that glow blood red, and the lightning that flashes lavender are just the party lights from the same fiendish festival streaming through that same crack into our world. Regardless, the combination of the pulsing score and the parade of unearthly color combines to create the nightmarish space that is uniquely Suspiria.
The quiet moments of the movie can be the most disquieting; that’s when Argento’s chill atmosphere gets its chance to seep into your bones. The movie begins by touching base with reality. Over dark credits, a narrator explains that Suzy Bannion is traveling to the Academy of Freibourg to attend the dance school, but his “normal” voice is already fading out at the end of his sentence, overwhelmed by Goblin’s screeching. We see a shot of an ordinary arrival and departure board at the airport, but as soon as the camera pans away we notice that the faces of the travelers are bathed in an unnatural, sickly pink glow from some neon source just out of frame. Suzy (Jessica Harper, who has a childish prettiness and a barely pubescent ballerina’s build) looks concerned as she totes her luggage; the music box theme plays in tiny snatches, blocking out the sound of the airport’s announcements, as if she is hearing it in her mind. We see the pistons that operates the airport’s sliding glass door sliding like knives, and we’re suddenly outside in a downpour; the wind assaults Suzy’s hair and Goblin cranks up the volume. Suzy manages to hail a cab, but the world around the young American is more foreign than Germany. Everything is bathed in strange light; the taxi drives her past fountains whose waters spout green, yellow and purple water. The red droplets that splash past her window look like blood; and her wet face, when it’s hit by the filtered red light, looks covered in blood, too. Her efforts at small talk with the driver are met with indifference; subliminally, a scowling face flashes on the glass that divides the cabbie and passenger. The taxi’s headlights knife through a black forest of tall, narrow trees to he dance academy, an imposing art deco edifice gilt in gold, where she sees one of her fellow students fleeing the school. In five minutes, Suzy has traveled from the normality of the life she once lived into an ominous new world. Almost nothing has happened, but the feeling of dread is so thick it’s almost visible as a cloud.
The killings, though heart-pounding, almost feel like a relief from the oppressive atmosphere: it’s a comfort to know that there’s a reason to fear. There are only three murders in the movie, though they’re weighty enough that we end up thinking we see a lot more carnage than we actually do. The first assault, which caps the intense opening 15 minutes, is considered one of the most terrifying kills in horror movie history (it ranked #24 on Bravo’s “100 scariest movie moments” list). With its closeup of a knife slicing into a beating heart, no gorehound can complain it’s not explicit enough. The second murder, involving a blind man hearing fluttering wings while transversing an empty Gothic square with his guide dog in the middle of the night, is equally atmospheric and perhaps even more memorable. When Suzy’s nosy school chum flees unseen presences in her sheer white nightgown and lands in a conveniently placed pit full of razor wire, the homicides are complete. Each one of the trio stands out in the memory as an expertly realized shock set piece, but although the kills are sadistic and extreme, Argento shows a paradoxical restraint and taste in limiting himself to these three episodes: there’s just enough grue to satisfy the audience’s bloodlust, but not so much that the killings blur together or stroke the slasher mentality. The slayings are almost an interruption to the far more disturbing mysteries Suspiria is plumbing in its quieter moments; they’re conventional scares that help the viewer put a face (of sorts) to the otherworldly dread.
Critics tend to point out the fairy tale structure of Suspiria: the ingenue ballerina is a Gretel tricked into a gingerbread house where a hungry witch awaits her. That’s a rich symbolic vein, but often overlooked is the mythological motif of the journey into the labyrinth. Suspiria invokes the name M.C. Escher, the artist of labyrinths, impossible geometries and mental paradoxes (at one point the famous Escher print where birds turn into fish serves as wallpaper, and the academy itself is located on “Escherstrasse”). Suzy embarks on two significant journeys in the film: one near the beginning where she travels from the outside world (the airport) to a hermetic interior world (the academy); at the end of the movie she takes another trip from her dorm room through a maze of corridors to a secret room deep at the core of the labyrinth where evil awaits. Both these journeys are filled with dread and foreshadowing of the horrible discoveries that await. The action in Suspiria takes place almost entirely in enclosed spaces, in rooms and hallways. (In dramatic contrast, the blind man’s killing at the midpoint of the film takes place in a magnificently open public square; but the heroine isn’t with him at the time). Suzy rarely journeys outside the walls of the academy (the staff strongly discourages such transgressions by its students); the only scene she acts in the out in the open air and natural sunlight is purely expository, and in fact the most cinematically conventional sequence of the movie. Suspiria depends on its interiors, the carefully controlled and decorated environments dreamt up by Argento. This intense internalization suggests a drama inside the mind of the heroine. When Suzy takes her final journey near the film’s end, moving from the exterior rooms inward to through a maze of secret windowless rooms and corridors, the suggestion is she’s traveling inward to confront a hidden malignancy.
The trip begins with Suzy wandering out of her room, following the memory of the footsteps she hears at night. She opens many doors, passes through many corridors, sneaks past many guardians (butcher knife wielding cooks and an ogreish Romanian handyman). She finds herself in the odd drawing room where a mural of an Arabian skyline full of arches and winding stairs, a lost city, is sketched on the wall; brilliant multicolored irises of blue, yellow and red are painted on top. Suzy finds a secret door and suddenly she’s in another corridor lined with blue velvet drapes; behind these she finds yet another winding hallway with occult symbols in gold leaf on the walls. There is silence, then the soft tinkling theme, then demonic whispering. She goes deeper and deeper, penetrating the labyrinth, and eventually finds her way into the very center, where she stumbles upon the diseased core of evil at the heart of the academy. Her journey has taken ten minutes of screen time; but she has walked from reality to the maw of Hell itself. Almost nothing has happened, in a plot sense, and yet these are ten of the most mysterious and frightening minutes ever put on film. The fear engendered by this journey eclipses the finale that occurs when Suzy confronts the ancient undead witch Helena Marcos.
The ending of Suspiria is an anticlimax, one of the few complaints that hold the film back from being an undisputed masterpiece. (Other complaints involve the acting, which is a valid criticism but not a fatal one, and the fact that the loosely handled plot points don’t always add up, which may not count as a negative if you’re looking for a weird outing). But the raw visceral power of the film is difficult to deny; Goblin’s pulsating drums and chants sweep you away on waves of sound into a nightmare. Argento caught lightning in a bottle with this movie; the visuals, music, and dark psychology merge unforgettably, and he never managed to successfully recreate this magical atmosphere in subsequent attempts. But Suspiria remains as the apex of Seventies Eurohorror and as one of the classic examples of the mysterious illogical power of the fantastique.
Eric Gabbard’s dissenting opinion: I had a hunch 366 would put Suspiria into his List of the 366 Weirdest Movies of All Time. Quite frankly, I was hoping I was wrong. At the risk of alienating Argento fans and initiating a slew of hate-filled comments, I have to say Suspiria and Dario Argento in general are vastly overrated. I know, I know… Argento is a horror icon and Suspiria is a masterpiece in horror cinema… blah, blah, blah. For the life of me I cannot figure out why! I’ve watched the movie three times now, trying to force myself into appreciating its godlike status. Well, its three strikes and you’re out at the old (horror) ballgame.
Before I begin to trash the film, I’ll tell you what I do like about it, because it isn’t all bad. First and foremost, it has one of the best musical scores ever put to film. The Goblin (credited here as “the Goblins”) soundtrack is fantastic! The eerie, relentless pounding and shrieks the band provides is the weirdest element of this film. The music is so effective that I think many people remember this film as being “scary” just because of it. It is demonic-sounding music, made much more frightening when a whispered chant of “WITCH” echoes through the speakers.
As far as Argento’s directorial talent is concerned, Suspiria is by far the most accomplished and taut work he has done. I have not seen any of his more recent pictures, but of his older “classics” I have seen five. Suspiria is the most polished and aesthetically pleasing. Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) has more going for it in the weirdness realm, but I didn’t care for that movie either.
The first sequence depicting a victim falling through a stained-glass ceiling with an abrupt hanging by telephone wire is a well-executed execution. The various Art Deco sets are a thrilling look at one of art history’s most visually arresting architectural periods. (I would personally decorate my entire home in the Art Deco style if I could). Lastly, Argento’s use of colored lighting is a nice achievement: he drenched many scenes in red and shoots one particularly innovative scene through a light bulb submerged in green. However, I must point out Mario Bava’s later color films such as Blood and Black Lace (1964) and Kill Baby, Kill (1966) came first and looked just as lush, if not more so.
Now, please hear me out as to why Suspiria does not deserve its praise and cult following. The acting is atrocious in many scenes. Sometimes bad acting works in favor of horror films by pushing it a campy or weird direction; here, it is just distracting. Jessica Harper, who plays the main character Suzy Bannion, is obviously trying hard to be convincing, but more often than not she is just ridiculous. Case in point is her first dance practice. She has just been blinded (cursed?) by a shiny object, and at first it makes her head jolt around awkwardly. Then she takes to feeling ill. She tells her dance instructors that she feels too weak to perform. Yet, those witches insist. So the stilted, feverish dance transpires and the bad acting comes through in her body language. Amazingly, she retains her balletic pirouette stance during this shoddy performance. The other actors give equally second-rate performances, and they all seem like they are trying their damndest not to stumble over the English language. In later scenes it drove me crazy when a few of the cast said the word “occult” as if it were two separate words (Ock-Cult).
Finally, I’ll pick on what makes Suspiria truly awful: the weak scare tactics involved. Good horror movies are remembered for inventive creepiness, the ability to make the audience jump or cringe, or for evoking an “oh my God” response when displaying physical or psychological evil. Many horror films from the 1970’s were excellent examples of this. Vintage Universal Studios monster movies exemplified what horror films should be, and their British equivalent, Hammer Studios, picked up where Universal left off. Italian giallo films, which originated with Bava, had an artful flair that gave birth to more gory exercises, eventually evolving into Euro-trash horror. Suspiria has nothing relevant to offer and Argento apparently never bothered to take cues from what was good about previous classic horror films that came beforehand. I’ll offer some examples of his folly: Maggots raining from the ceiling; gross for sure, but rather boring (at least until I heard a character off screen amusingly shouting “one got in my mouth!”). The mysterious headmistress of the dance academy, first seen behind a red curtain, sleeping. The silhouetted figure does seem a bit ominous behind that curtain until Argento decides to focus on… her evil sounding snore. “Listen to how she wheezes!” A death scene where a character inadvertently falls into a room full of barbed wire—no wait, it’s not barbed wire after all, it’s just plain old wire! She looks as if she is writhing in a mass of stretched-out Slinkys. Oh, and there is the ever-present cliché bat scene. It is slightly more convincing than the one in the (superior) The Abominable Dr. Phibes, but only because I couldn’t see the wire.
The logic to parts of the story is also baffling. Suzy and her roommate try to solve the mystery of where the coven of witches (I mean, dance instructors) go at night by listening to their footsteps. Just follow them! If they are that curious I’m sure they could attempt some sneakiness and trail them.
So as you can see, I am not a fan of this movie. These are just opinions and I’m fully aware that I’m not going to change the minds of fervent Argento followers; I just needed to vent because I feel foolish giving this movie three separate viewings looking for justification for its greatness. Once should have been enough to decide I wasn’t going to find any. I think I do want to own that soundtrack though.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…a horror movie that is a horror of a movie, where no one or nothing makes sense: not one plot element, psychological reaction, minor character, piece of dialogue, or ambiance.”–John Simon, New York Magazine (contemporaneous)
“Mr. Argento’s methods make potentially stomach-turning material more interesting than it ought to be. Shooting on bold, very fake-looking sets, he uses bright primary colors and stark lines to create a campy, surreal atmosphere, and his distorted camera angles and crazy lighting turn out to be much more memorable than the carnage.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
“Argento’s deliriously artificial horror film owes as much to Georges Méliès and German Expressionism (specifically The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) as it does to Jean Cocteau and Grimm fairy tales.”–Ed Gonzalez, Slant (DVD)
IMDB LINK: Suspiria (1977)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Dario Argento’s Suspiria: A Visual and Aural Masterwork – an excellent essay full of background information on Suspiria by J. Rhodes, written for an Indiana public television station
Edgar Wright on “Suspiria – International Version” – director Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) analyzes Suspiria‘s European trailer for Trailers from Hell
The “mother” of all horror movies: Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) – academic article on the film by Linda Schulte-Sasse of Macalester College discussing the film’s “gothic spaces,” the movie’s inverted relationship to Disney, and (less convincingly) it’s references to Nazism
The Buried Pleasures of Suspiria – Tim Lucas highlights a few almost subliminal images from the film, along with hidden references to earlier Argento movies
DVD INFO: Suspiria has had a long life on home video and has gone through many incarnations. The single disc edition released by Anchor Bay in 2001 (buy) contains only TV and radio spots, a “Suspiria” music video by a group called “Daemonia,” talent bios and a posters and stills gallery. They also released a 3 disc special edition (buy) containing with all the original featurettes plus a full-disc “25th Anniversary” documentary collecting interviews with director Argento, star Harper, Goblin, and many other cast and crew members; the third disc was a CD of the original Goblin score. In 2007 Blue Underground obtained the rights and released the current 2-disc edition (buy), which is equivalent to the Anchor Bay 3 disc special edition, minus the Goblin soundtrack. The import soundtrack can be purchased separately (buy soundtrack) but is an out-of-print collectible and therefore a bit pricey; if you want the music, looking for a used copy of the 3-disc edition may be your best bet.
Due to a yellowish cast on the print, Word on the web is to stay away from the 2007 “remastered” DVD issued by the Italian outfit CDE (visit Land of Whimsy to see comparative stills of the two prints).
[This movie was nominated for review by reader “Ropin’ Rodeo Nate,” who said “There are a lot of weird Italian horror movies that end up seeming kind of surreal (Pieces, The Beyond, Zombi 2) but Suspiria is the really notable one.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.]