When one looks over the horror genre it’s impossible to ignore the influence that the Italian Giallo subgenre had on the North American film industry, good or bad, because even though those films were similar to American slasher films in the area of violence and exploitation they were often more lush and colourful than what you would find in their American counterparts and none more so than legendary director Dario Argento, the master of the genre, but it was with Suspiria that Argento stepped away from what would be considered traditional Giallo and move towards fully embracing the supernatural.
The plot of Dario Argento’s Suspiria is, at a glance, a rather simplistic one with its tale of a young and beautiful American ballerina named Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) arriving at a prestigious ballet school somewhere in rural Germany, one that just so happens to house a coven of witches. It’s clear from the outset that story structure was not important to Argento and as the film unfolds it raises many more questions than it could possibly answer – I’d say the ratio of questions to answers is about four percent – but one doesn’t sit down to watch this type of film for logic or intricate plotting. This movie is equal parts fantasy as it is horror with Suzy’s life taking a detour into the world of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, she literally drives through the Black Forest to reach the Tanz Dance Academy, and thus the idea that witches are running a ballet school isn’t all that farfetched.
It’s the dreamlike quality of Suspiria that will capture the hearts and minds of the viewer, with its beautifully saturated primary colours and the wonderful blend of gothic and art deco designs – Argento desired to capture the bold look of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves – and with the ethereal expressionistic aspects of the film’s overall art design, we find ourselves trapped in what could be a painting by either Hieronymus Bosch or M. C. Escher. Of course, as gorgeous a looking for as Suspiria is it’s also a ruthless horror film and Argento does not shy away from the gore and brutality of the genre. When Suzy arrives at the ballet academy she has a brief encounter with student Pat Hingle (Eva Axén) who screams something at her about “secrets” and “iris” before disappearing into the night. That poor girl is later stalked and killed by a shadowy figure in one of the film’s most cruel moments.
Aside from the supernatural horror aspect we also have a bit of Nancy Drew element thrown in here for good measure with Suzy and her roommate Sara (Stefania Casini) trying to figure out some of the mysteries surrounding the school. Who is the enigmatic directress of the school that no one has seen, and where do the teachers go every night? The footsteps that are heard during the night do not lead out of the building but deeper into the school, and with the creepy likes of Miss Tanner (Alida Valli), the head instructor, and Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett), the deputy headmistress running things it’s obvious something nefarious is going on.
The surreal and dreamlike quality of the film also highlights another facet of the film and that would be the darkly whimsical nature found in the classic story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. As Suzy journey progresses it can be rightly compared to that of Lewis Carol’s protagonist Alice as they both have fallen down a bizarre rabbit hole, one literal while the other a little more abstract, and Suzy’s experiences in Suspiria can be nicely summed up this quote from Alice “When I used to read fairy tales, I fancied that kind of thing never happened, and now here I am in the middle of one!” And like Alice, our poor Suzy runs into a series of oddball characters ranging from a weird kid dressed like Little Lord Fauntleroy, a blind pianist to a mute ogre-like manservant who brings her food that is obviously drugged. It’s this drugged nature of Suzy that can leave some viewers wondering if all the strangeness is nothing more than a drug-fueled hallucination or a dream-like Alice had under her tree. Regardless of one’s interpretation of the events, it cannot be denied that they are as bizarre as they are fascinating and worthy of the likes of either Edgar Allen Poe or Lewis Carol.
Visually there really isn’t anything quite like Suspiria but for those of you who are fans of Italian filmmaker Mario Bava it shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that he was a mentor to Dario Argento, and if you’ve seen Bava’s use of colour in such films as Planet of the Vampires and Hercules in the Haunted World it’s obvious where he got his inspiration for the bold use of colour and shadow that is found in films like Suspiria and Inferno. If you have seen Suspiria it should be noted that it has recently received a wonderful 4K restoration and the result is simply stunning and will leave any viewer gobsmacked at the film’s blend of horror and beauty.
“Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before” – Edgar Allan Poe.
Dario Argento’s Suspiria is nothing less than a full-frontal assault on the senses that wonderfully captures the nightmare landscape that haunts our childhood, but a visual feast for the eyes wasn’t enough for Argento so he also enlisted the aid of the Italian prog-rock band Goblin to compose a score that is practically relentless in its drive to keep you at the edge of your seat with unease and terror. Suspiria’s haunting theme and creepy music box-like motif are practically characters unto themselves and much of the success of the film is owed to this blend. This film may appear a little over-the-top at times, and even a little unhinged, but if you are a lover of horror, or simply a lover of great filmmaking then treat yourself to a viewing of Suspiria and enter a world like no other.
Note: When viewing this film it is very important to set aside such questions as “Why does a ballet school have a room full of barbed wire?”
Movie Rank - 8/10
The beauty of Dario Argento’s Suspiria cannot be undersold and it’s the wonderful nightmarish nature of this film that makes this a must-see and an entry in the genre that has clearly inspired many filmmakers that followed.