Director: Dario Argento
Starring: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci, Miguel Bose, Barbara Magnolfi
When Dario Argento’s Suspiria was first released in 1977 it received a mixed reaction from critics. They claimed it was a cheap imitation of The Exorcist with bad acting, too much gore and unintentionally funny moments. Over the years Suspiria has gained a cult following and is now considered one of the horror classics of the 1970s and a must see for Italian horror fans. The critics who harshly criticised Suspiria when it first came out, couldn’t be more wrong. Suspiria is an almost perfect horror film and should be as widely known and recognised as The Exorcist, The Omen and Halloween as one of the best of the 1970s and an undeniable classic of all time.
Argento wrote and directed Suspiria, after travelling through Europe. It was inspired by this, as well as the essay Suspiria de Profundis by Thomas De Quincey, a piece on memory written while under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs. He took this idea of the occult, hallucinations and his love of fairy takes and wrote Suspiria. Suzy, the main character played by Jessica Harper (Little Women, Phantom of Paradise) was based upon the classic fairy tale character Snow White.
Suzy, an American ballet student travels to Germany to attend an exclusive ballet school. Upon arriving at the school, in torrential rain, she isn’t permitted entry but is told by someone that they don’t know who she is. Everything from the beginning is a bad omen for her and foreshadows what’s to come. All of this punctuated by the evocative, aggressive and abrasive score by Argento’s regular collaborator prog rock band Goblin. The music is loud, haunting and powerful. It’s a great score and can be listened to outside of the film with the same unsettling and creepy effect. One of the best horror scores ever composed and can be clearly seen as an influence on John Carpenter’s work. While Suzy is travelling to shelter for the night, she sees one of the other students, running away from the school in the rain. Later that night the student is murdered in a brutal and gory fashion.
The next morning Suzy returns to the school to be admitted straight away. There is confusion about where she is staying, whether with one of the other students or at the dorm rooms. It’s clear that the deputy head mistress wants her in the dorm rooms, for unknown reasons. After fainting during class, Suzy finds her belongs moved to the dorm room and is prescribed a nightly meal and glass of wine, that sends her to sleep. There is something not right about the school and Suzy isn’t the first one to notice. The terror and suspense builds slowly to the horrific final act.
The opening sequence, the airport in the rain and arriving for the first time at the school, sets the tone for the film. With the overpowering score and the foreboding and uncanny tone, it’s obvious that things aren’t what they seem. Everything is unsettling and this builds slowly throughout. While there is a moment of extreme gore and violence in the opening, which many critics have ripped the film apart for, this isn’t for the whole film. It’s not a gorefest horror in the style of Saw or Friday the 13 that would come after Suspiria. The true terror comes from the slow building tension through the unsettling scenes and brilliant camerawork.
Every shot of Suspiria could be framed and hung as art. The nightmarish set-design with its use of bright and vivid primary colours give everything a stylish and unique look. It cinematic in a way that makes everything seem unhinged and unsettling. Argento was inspired by the bright colours of Disney’s Snow White and used older techniques when developing the film to create the lush and vivid colours that pop off the screen. Every room in the school, are all lit with a bright a deliberate colour, feel like something out of a dream and that there is secrets underneath. This is further focused on with the motif of mirrors and reflections. Certain rooms are shot with a symmetrical imagery, characters only appear in mirrors, and one of the big reveals later in the film is focused on through the mirror in the room. It feels like there is a hidden world just underneath the surface of the nightmarish world we are seeing.
A lot of the early criticism of Suspiria focuses on the acting. For the most part the acting is perfectly fine, it’s not outstanding but it never fails to be believable or watchable. One of the reasons of this I believe, is the way Italian films were shot during the 70s. Each actor spoke in their native language, with the film later being dubbed into different languages. For the English release, some of the characters are dubbed in English from Italian, while others including Jessica Harper spoke English on set. This isn’t always noticeable but does add to the nightmarish quality of the film when words don’t sync with those speaking.
Suspiria is a tense and horrific film. All the way through it builds to the final sequence perfectly and once that starts the film doesn’t back down. From the moment Sarah, played by Stefania Casini (Lontano da dove) is chased through the school, signally the beginning of the end, you’ll be on the edge of your seat entranced in the hypnotic quality of Argento’s masterpiece.
The film is perfectly shot, each camera angle and movement perfectly and deliberately framed. From its horrific and gory moments to the impeccable and flawless set design Suspiria is a captivating and magical piece of art. It’s a masterpiece of horror cinema. The music by Goblin is one of the striking and creepiest scores of all time. The effects, while dated now, are fantastic and still look creepy and unsettling. (There are a lot worse from films made almost half a century later). The lighting and set design is magical and the final sequence is breath-takingly tense. The whole film is spectacular nightmare of horror.