Italy | 1977 | Directed by Dario Argento
Logline: A young woman arrives at a prestigious ballet academy only to discover the school is actually home to a coven of evil witches.
“Bad luck isn’t brought by broken mirrors, but by broken minds.”
Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year Argento’s piece-de-resistance continues to break the minds of those jaded by the often anaemic and pedestrian entries in contemporary horror. I’m generalising, but there’s a reason why Suspiria is regarded so highly by connoisseurs of modern horror, and by those who wouldn’t normally think of themselves as horror fiends. The movie’s vivid atmosphere; so drenched in a dreamy, frighteningly effective realm, provocatively and dangerously close to that of a real nightmare, the fractured logic, the over-stylised use of ultraviolence, the stilted performances, especially that of lead Jessica Harper, they all add to Suspiria’s intensity.
Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper), a young American woman, arrives in Germany one dark and stormy night to attend a famous ballet academy. Literally upon her arrival a tragedy is unfolding, as a panicked student flees from the building muttering nonsense about irises and secrets. Shortly after said student is brutally murdered in one of modern horrors legendary set-pieces.
Suzy quickly befriends a couple of her fellow dance students; Olga (Barbara Magnolfi) and Sara (Stefania Casini), after being acquainted with the academy’s butch head instructor Miss Tanner (Alida Valli) and the head of the academy, the mysterious, elegant Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett).
One night Suzy and Sara discover that the teachers, whom they thought left the academy at the end of each day, are in fact retreating to a covert section of the huge building. There is something very strange going on, something very ominous, sinister even.
“We must get rid of that bitch of an American girl. Vanish! She must vanish! Make her disappear! Understand? Vanish, she must vanish. She must die! Die! Die! Helena, give me power. Sickness! Sickness! Away with her! Away with trouble. Death, death, death!”
Suspiria (which translates loosely as “Sighs” or “Whispers”) was the first part of Argento’s planned "Three Mothers" trilogy, dealing with witchcraft and the occult. It centres on the realm of the first of the Three Mothers; Mater Suspiriorum (represented in the movie as the founder of the academy Helena Markos), while the superb second, Inferno (1980), part deals with Mater Tenebrarum (Mother of Darkness), and the third part, Mother of Tears (2007), portrays the evil of the eldest, Mater Lachrymarujm (though the less said about that abomination of a movie, the better).
The original screenplay dealt with much younger students, aged no older than twelve, however the studio and his father (who was producing) insisted the girls be older so as not to provoke outrage from censors over young children and extreme violence. But the occasionally childlike dialogue and naïve behaviour of the students still reflects the original screenplay’s intent. Also, the doorknobs within the academy are positioned much higher than they should be giving the impression of children having to reach up to open the doors.
The element so closely associated with Suspiria’s production is the extraordinarily intense and resonating score by Italian prog rock outfit Goblin (credited as “The Goblins”), which Argento would have blasting at deafening volume on set during the shooting of the movie. But combined with those nerve-shredding chimes and exotic percussion is the Gothic production design by Giuseppe Bassan, and the striking cinematography by Luciano Tovoli (the film was printed using the old Technicolour 3-strip process and thus appears to be mostly shot in primary colours). These key elements, helmed by the feverish direction of Argento combine to make Suspiria a cinematic tour-de-force of innocence and brutality.
But it’s not the ultra-violence that makes Suspiria so unsettling - in fact the special effects make-up is not convincing and the scarlet blood looks more like bright red paint – but the use of light and shadow, the vivid pulsating colours (think artist Goya on acid), the throbbing, dissonant Goblin soundtrack, and the utter despair for the characters that they are trapped, which echoes in the mind and dances on the retina. The dance academy becomes a kind of black hole sucking those that eavesdrop, those that pry, those that dabble where they shouldn’t, into the very depths of Hell.
Few directors have ever managed to duplicate the same nightmarish intensity or clarity of surrealism that Argento achieved with Suspiria. Some have come close, but they’re either more abstract (David Lynch’s Eraserhead) or more of a genre hybrid (Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm). Suspiria will forever by regarded by the True Believers as the seminal nightmare film, the ne plus ultra of bad dreams.
A nostalgic foot note I feel inclined to share; the original VHS cover to Suspiria, depicting the hanging, blood-soaked corpse of victim Pat Hingle (Eva Axén), used to beckon to me every time I went to the video store as a pre-teen, but there was an anomaly about it; the strange title, the garish image; it seemed to push me away too. Eventually a friend of mine and I hired it and watched it late one night while we babysat my younger brothers. We were fifteen and the movie freaked the hell out of us! Now, more than thirty years later, finally, I have had the opportunity to see the movie on the big screen. Glorious.