Director: Dario Argento
Stars: Jessica Harper (Suzy Bannion), Stefania Casini (Sara), Eva Axén (Pat Hingle), Udo Kier (Dr. Frank Mandel), Alida Valli (Miss Tanner), Barbara Magnolfi (Olga)
Suspiria comes crashing at you like a mad, galloping racehorse. From the cacophonous drum roll that kicks in from the very first frame of the opening credits, Dario Argento presents us a macabre attack on the senses. It is truly one of the most spectacular combinations of sound and image in cinema history, and amongst the most captivating and disturbing horror films of all time.
An awkward, brief narration during the credits lets us know the most basic set-up, that Suzy Bannion has travelled from America to Germany to attend an illustrious ballet school. Immediately she is beset by sinister forces. Even as she steps from the sluicing airport doors out to the taxi rank there is a palpable sense of foreboding. Then soon after, the ominous deep red dance academy looms into view, huge and fetishistic. The way the camera pushes menacingly toward it? Everything spells out depraved fairytale.
Those raucous drums return as we follow fellow student Pat Hingle through the woods and into one of the most astonishingly decorated apartment buildings ever seen. It’s as if she lives in a pop-art Escher painting. She is crudely murdered by a demonic presence. Her roommate is powerless to stop it, and, ultimately, a gruesome victim herself. And all the while the hypnotic, battering prog-rock score by Goblin, alternated by ghostly whispers and even the shriek of “WITCH!”
And that’s just the first 13 minutes. Subtlety is not Dario Argento’s strong suit.
Few, if any films, grab the audience by the throat the way Suspiria does, and it is this sheer visceral force that makes it a must-see, provided you’re not at all squeamish or faint of heart. This is a garish, bloody, over-the-top affair. Explicit and, at times, almost unbearable in its intensity. But that is why it is a success. There are weaknesses abound. The plot is about as sturdy as a water-logged box of tissues, the acting is frequently wooden, even amateurish. And its clear Argento never attended a dance lesson in his life.
Yet, Suspiria is astonishing. Style over substance? Definitely. But what style! Argento’s rich reds, blues and greens bleed from the screen, thick and oily. The surreal colour changes from scene to scene only enhance the atmosphere. The sequence in which Suzy’s roommate Sara flees an unseen menace only to get caught in a room filled with razor wire* is, honestly, fucking ridiculous. But it’s thrilling in its dementia. The sickest form of eye-candy. And checkout the wallpaper in Olga’s apartment. How often does the interior design upstage the screen actors?
Goblin’s music, recorded before filming even commenced, is as high in the mix as the dialogue or sound design, as important a feature to the final film as Luciano Tovoli’s lush photography. But Argento juxtaposes the pummelling score with moments of eerie silence. Before her notorious death-by-razor-wire, Sara stacks luggage to reach an escape route in almost unbearable silence (this scene, incidentally, is incredibly reminiscent of one in Lucio Fulci’s excellent surreal 1970 giallo Lizard In A Woman’s Skin – itself another must-see).
But Argento was not just a master of the graphic and blood-splattered. His mastery of suspense is often overlooked. The sequence in which blind man Daniel and his dog are tormented in a vast courtyard provides ample proof. You know something’s coming, but what? The same can be said for Suzy’s discovery of the coven’s secret lair at the film’s close. Her petrified creep along a forbidden corridor prefiguring Ellen Ripley’s by two years.
It is easy to see why Argento was (and still is) accused of misogyny. Suspiria at times plays like a twisted exercise in finding unseemly ways for its female characters to be tormented and killed. Yet Argento’s male characters are uniformally pathetic. Either ineffectual, effeminate or hampered by disability. Even in ghostly sequel Inferno the men are constantly lacking. And equally prone to terrible deaths.
Argento’s film is a fairytale, perhaps the sickest ever conceived. Note how high the door handles in the dance academy all are, purposefully reducing the women down to seem adolescent. For decency (a strange word to be using here), the characters are all portrayed by grown women, but this is really a tale of lost children tormented by the wicked witch.
So whilst Suspiria may have all the substance of an hour of late-night MTV music videos, and even Udo Kier can’t reel off enough awkward exposition to make the slapdash narrative sit right, it still ultimately lives on as a hypnotic masterpiece of horror. A masochistic battering of the senses. A carnival of the grotesque. Watch it at night, preferably during a thunderstorm. It’ll set your pulse racing like few other films. More effective than a thousand modern horror pictures.
*WHY IS THERE A ROOM FILLED WITH RAZOR-WIRE IN A DANCE ACADEMY? WHY?????