Looking back at Dario Argento’s Suspiria

Dario Argento’s Suspiria really is a one-off horror movie. Sarah looks back at an Italian classic…

They should use Suspiria to demonstrate how amazing the Blu-ray format is. When I first saw Suspiria, years and years ago, it was on a rented videotape, and it was muddy and kind of inaudible and just not very exciting. It didn’t even seem to make much sense. So when I finally saw it on Blu-ray, it was a revelation; a completely different, and much more intense experience. Suspiria is an incredibly beautiful film – not in terms of its themes or intentions or anything like that, it’s just amazing to look at. It might be the best-looking film ever made. I fell in love.

All of Dario Argento’s movies from the 70s and 80s are stylish, but Suspiria, released in 1977, tops the lot of them. Right from the very beginning, it’s stunning. Over the opening credits (which are just a simple white font on a black background) a narrator tells us Suzy Bannion, a talented dancer from America, has chosen to attend a dance academy in Germany. The film starts at the airport, but it’s unlike any airport you’ve ever seen in reality; although it’s empty, and clearly closed, it’s bathed in vivid neon shades. Suzy, played by the gorgeous and waifish Jessica Harper, steps outside in the torrential rain, hails a taxi, and is driven through the similarly brightly lit streets; one moment the rain is red, then it’s green, then blue.

Virtually every scene in the movie is like that. The lighting is inexplicable, completely unrealistic, and in many scenes there’s absolutely no source for the light, nowhere it could be coming from. But it’s beautiful. Argento paints every scene with light; it makes Suspiria even more striking to watch now, when we’ve gotten so horribly used to every film being thoughtlessly daubed with teal and orange. By comparison, Suspiria looks like another world.

The production design is incredible, too. One of the girls’ bedrooms is painted salmon pink, with an Escher-esque motif of birds and fishes painted on the walls. The outside of the ballet school is red, or pink, depending on the lighting, and covered in ostentatious gold trim; inside, it’s all sharp geometric shapes and swirly stained glass windows. The headmistress’s room has another Escher-style mural, this time a cityscape of impossible staircases, with trellises and embossed flowers mounted on the walls. The secret passage Suzy discovers is hidden behind blue velvet drapes, and the corridor itself is black and gold. Nothing in Suspiria is there by chance; it’s all been meticulously, and gorgeously, designed. (As soon as I own my own house, I’m stealing every detail of the decoration from this film; it’s like interior design porn.)

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Perhaps because it is so incredibly stylised, Suspiria has been frequently dismissed as a film of images, a stylish mess without a coherent plot. Actually, the plot makes perfect sense, but it’s pretty lightweight. Basically, Suzy rocks up at an amazing-looking ballet school just as another girl is leaving, apparently upset. (She’s on her way to get murdered.) She overhears snippets of the conversation, but not enough to make sense. Suzy tries to get into the school, but she’s turned away.

When she returns the next day, there’s a murder investigation going on, and everyone is weird and hostile to her. After an encounter in a corridor with a scary-looking woman and a creepy kid, she heads off to ballet class, but faints, haemorrhaging blood from her nose and mouth. More creepy stuff happens, there are more murders, and eventually Suzy takes it upon herself to investigate. Turns out the school is being run by a coven of witches, and there’s a dramatic showdown between Suzy, the head witch, and the reanimated corpse of her roommate. Roll credits, the end. It’s scary, but not in a made-you-jump kind of way; the murders are gory, but the film’s real power is its ability to create a growing sense of unease. It’s perhaps better described as creepy rather than scary. It gets under your skin.

Initially, Suspiria looks like it’s going to fit the standard giallo mould: there’s a murderer, some dead girls, and a foreigner who’s out of their depth, stuck in the middle of it all. There are some striking similarities to Argento’s previous film, Deep Red (or Profondo Rosso, to give it its Italian title), particularly because in both stories, the protagonist sees something early on that turns out to hold the key to the whole thing, if only they could remember it. Both films also give away their ending very early on, if you’re just paying enough attention – you’re shown the murderer right at the beginning of Deep Red, and Suspiria gives everything away in its opening song.

But while Deep Red is a proper giallo (a great one, too), Suspiria is a slightly different beast. The action in Suspiria is supernatural, which is unusual (though not entirely unheard of) in gialli; it’s more that Suspiria isn’t a mystery, and Suzy doesn’t really investigate anything. Suspiria is also, unusually, a completely female-centric film: it’s set in a girls’ school, so the hero, villains, and supporting cast are almost all female. There are a handful of men in the film, but all of them are sidelined in one way or another; as Argento put it in a 2009 interview, “One is blind, one can’t speak, and the other is gay. It’s the women who have all the power.”

But gender in Suspiria seems kind of beside the point. The film isn’t interested in telling a story of making a point so much as immersing you in a nightmare. The sequence in which the strict teacher forces Suzy to dance, even though she’s feeling unwell, is particularly feverish; Harper dances like her limbs are moving against her will, dragging her across the floor as if she’s a puppet. And the finale, with its exploding ceramic panther, is based on a nightmare Daria Nicolodi, co-writer of Suspiria and former girlfriend of Dario Argento, once had.

There’s something claustrophobic, almost stifling, about several scenes in Suspiria. Much of that is down to the music. Goblin scored several of Dario Argento’s movies, but the Suspiria score is the best known. (It includes that track that goes “la la la la la la la, la la la la la la la… WITCH!”) The Suspiria score doesn’t really work like a normal film score; it doesn’t build during scary scenes, particularly. It’s more like a non-stop musical assault.

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Right from the beginning, there’s a wall of sound – including that theme that repeats itself several times throughout the film – and it repeatedly builds to a cacophony, instruments squealing like they’re in pain, before quietening down, then building again, over and over. Maybe it’s for the best that Suspiria’s plot is so simple, because you need to pay complete attention to how amazing the film both looks and sounds. A convoluted story would just get in the way of your enjoyment.

There is more behind the story of the witches in Suspiria than is shown in the movie, though. Quite a lot more. Argento planned three movies, based around the mythology of the Three Mothers, characters from Suspiria de Profundis, a collection of prose poetry written by Thomas De Quincey in the 1840s. De Quincey created three Sorrows, to go with the three Fates and Graces: Mater Suspiriorum, Our Lady of Sighs; Mater Tenebrarum, Our Lady of Darkness; and Mater Lacrymarum, Our Lady of Tears. Suspiria, obviously, is about Mater Suspiriorum; Inferno (1980) is about Mater Tenebrarum (his film Tenebrae sounds like it should be this one, but it’s actually a giallo with no supernatural element whatsoever), and Mother Of Tears (2007) is about Mater Lacrymarum.

There’s another film that uses the same mythology, Il Gatto Nero, which was written and directed by Luigi Cozzi; that one concerns a pair of filmmakers trying to make a movie about Levana, a Roman goddess and companion to the Three Mothers, and accidentally summoning her in the process, but it’s pretty incoherent and not particularly worth watching. It seems like the deeper any of these films delves into the complicated mythology of Suspiria de Profundis, the worse they are; Suspiria, with its entirely straightforward plot, is by far the best of the Three Mothers films.

And it might be time for the world to rediscover Suspiria, because an American remake is on the cards. David Gordon Green, director of Your Highness and Pineapple Express, has been talking about making a Suspiria remake since about 2008, but it seems like it might finally be happening. Green is apparently due to start shooting in September, and he’s previously told Den of Geek that he’s going to be approaching the movie from the perspective of sound – he’s also bought the rights to the original Goblin soundtrack.

It seems kind of unbelievable that a remake would be able to match Suspiria’s particular magic; films just don’t look like that anymore. We’ve already seen what can happen when a director decides to remake a brilliant 70s movie without any kind of understanding of what made it special in the first place: you get The Wicker Man, starring Nicolas Cage.

But it doesn’t really matter. No matter how great or terrible Green’s adaptation of Suspiria might be, I’ll still always have the original, in all of its shiny Blu-ray glory. All together now: la la la la, la la la…

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