Suspiria (1977)


Director: Dario Argento

Starring: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Alida Valli, Joan Bennett, Flavio Bulci, Miguel Bosé, Udo Kier

Words – Nathan Scatcherd

It’s generally agreed that Suspiria is something of a touchstone in horror cinema. One of the better known giallo films (Italian horror/thriller cinema, commonly featuring slasher movie elements and darkly psychosexual themes) and considered by many to be Argento’s masterpiece, it’s a film of distinct fairy tale wooziness, charged with an unsettling dreamlike atmosphere as we follow young ballet dancer Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) inside the Tanz Dance Academy in Freiburg. She – and we – subsequently descend into a surreal Technicolour fever orchestrated by a coven of sinister witches running the school; a world bathed in primary colours and streaked with blood.

The film is perhaps best known for these striking visuals, making use of a widescreen anamorphic lens and deliberately heightened, over the top colour palette to saturate everything in vivid shades of purple, blue, yellow and – of course – lots of red. In classic giallo fashion, plot and characterisation take a back seat to overwhelming atmosphere; in this case, a sense of having disappeared into an inescapable dream of witchcraft and unravelling sanity.
The intensity of the colours keeps everything in a state of off-kilter unreality, while the fuzziness of the plotting and the strangeness of the (mostly dubbed) dialogue add to the sustained feeling of unease. Even during scenes where there are simply two characters talking to each other, the slightly offputtingly unnatural dialogue and the baroque, kaleidoscopic visual excess in every frame combine to keep everything just a bit ‘off’.

The film’s gruesome murder sequences are staged and shot like perverse art installations, Argento clearly thrilling in showing off some fairly nasty gore effects in albeit very artful fashion. The film is full of indelible images of nightmarish violence: an unfortunate victim trapped in a room full of barbed wire; a shot of a girl with a noose around her neck crashing through glass.
The film adheres very much to the giallo practice of mostly perpetrating its violence upon its female characters, although Suspiria slightly softens the dodgy misogyny of this by having the violence carried out not by a man but by other women; the coven who have taken Suzy into the school and who proceed to terrorise her while killing her new schoolmates.

Of course I have to mention the score, by Italian prog rock band Goblin. It’s been recognised over the years as a key component of the film, becoming a staple for horror fan record collectors, and it really is invaluable in helping to solidify the film’s enveloping weirdness.
The album opener (and title track) is a perfect audio representation of the movie’s strange power all on its own. Twinkling keys give way to warbling synths, ominous echoed percussion and unhinged chanting, and the effect is that of being put under a very deep, dark spell.

The new Suspiria, in cinemas this month, appears to be very much its own beast – a reinterpretation rather than a straight remake, using the framework of the ’77 movie but going off in a different direction with the material. It will be interesting to see how it compares to its namesake, considering how singular the ’77 Suspiria really is.