Suspiria (1977)

Dario Argento | 1hr 39min

As brutal as the gore and carnage may be in Suspiria, Dario Argento’s assault on the senses in his Technicolour cinematography and imposing set pieces is more confronting than anything else we witness. The film is brimming with subtextual readings of fascism and sexuality, and yet the Italian director is no slave to his subject matter. Instead, he constructs one of the most audacious displays of stylistic horror to emerge from the genre since its cinematic inception, breaking from the tradition of dark, dreary aesthetics by reinterpreting its expressionist roots through an entirely different filter altogether – one that tunes into the striking contrasts of opposing colours rather than low-key shades of black and white. Most predominantly, conflicting neon tones of red and blue battle it out across Argento’s wildly violent mise-en-scène, lighting up this vibrant German dance school and its ugly, demonic heart.

These hallways make for magnificently frightening sets, both in their intense lighting and architectural design.
Argento carving out this giant trap through isolating, claustrophobic frames such as these.

Suzy’s arrival at Tanz Dance Academie is not a welcome one, as she is immediately met by another student running away in the rain, muttering obscure words. By the end of the film we will have learnt the meaning of the clues “secret” and “iris”, but until then we are strung along a series of mysterious hints and murders, many of which hold little significance other than an immediate, visceral impact. In other words, Suspiria operates on dream logic, where a maggot infestation and a room full of barbed wire exists for no other reason than reaching deep into our subconscious and drawing out our deepest, most disturbing fears. On this primal level, the Hitchcock influence is immense, particularly in the suspenseful sequences of various characters wandering long, haunted corridors, many of which are ruptured by terrors emerging from the most unexpected places.

Running beneath these images of sensory and symbolic significance is a high-pitched, eerie score from progressive rock band Goblin, ringing out like an inescapable music box where ballerinas are manipulated, trapped, and forced to dance to the point of exhaustion. As each victim runs towards their grisly fates, its frantic pace keeps driving up our anxiety, flooding the atmosphere with a psychological terror that matches Argento’s wandering tracking shots and unnervingly fluorescent hallways. His disturbing sound design refuses to let up even when the music is absent, reverberating in a seemingly never-ending drone of disembodied echoes, and in one particularly haunting scene becoming a rattling, raspy snore emerging from the silhouette of the sleeping headmistress on the other side of bright red drapes.

Haunting silhouettes surrounding these school girls as they sleep – a masterful display of cinematic lighting.

Even as Suspiria begins to move into extreme violence, realism is the least of Argento’s concerns, as he focuses his camera on rubbery skin being torn and bright orange blood spilling forth from his victims. One particularly monstrous figure whose skin is peeling off in coarse, grey flakes is horrifying to look at from a wide shot, but even more so when we cut from its gaping mouth, to its rolling eyes, to its trembling, clawed hands in a montage of extreme close-ups. Of course, all of this serves to corrupt an innocent fairy tale world of ballerinas and adventures, plunging us into a hellhole that is only revealed for what it is when it goes up in flames, destroying both witches and schoolgirls alike in an image of infernal punishment.

There are no throwaway scenes here. Even the rehearsal room is visually striking in its yellow walls and stained glass.
Dazzling Art Deco designs in the entrance hallway.
Inspired set choices all round, this M.C. Escher wall art visualising the trap these characters are caught in.

Indeed, this is a bold experiment in stylistic horror that Argento doesn’t spare any effort in fashioning according to his very specific Art Deco-inspired vision. The yellow rehearsal room with stained glass windows, the red, black, and white geometric shapes of the cavernous entrance hallway, the massive mural of stairs and doorways that look as if they have been ripped straight from the mind of M.C. Escher – this school is a piece of architecture built to look like an inescapable trap, and then when the fluorescent lights are added to this aesthetic, it becomes even more confounding. Even the world immediately outside this school seems to exist beyond the natural realm, as a storm rolling by flashes through windows in similarly vivid colours as those which wash its interiors. Virtually any director who has worked with neons, from Nicolas Winding Refn to Gaspar Noe, has credited Suspiria as a major influence, particularly those who have also worked to destabilise our sense of security. But in working within Italian Giallo cinema, Argento effectively delivers a colourful electric shock to a film genre otherwise known for its dreary aesthetics, mapping a carnal nightmare onto a fable of witches, magic, and dancers.

Hellish imagery in the academy’s fiery destruction, as Suzy runs away in the pure, cleansing rain.

Suspiria is currently streaming on Kanopy, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

2 thoughts on “Suspiria (1977)”

    1. That’s an interesting hypothetical, it is quite possible. I’m not confident it would beat Diane Keaton in Annie Hall but she could very well be in the conversation.

      Like

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