Dario Argento’s “Suspiria”

Tribute poster by Horror-themed artist Joel Robinson featuring all of the major characters from “Suspiria”.

I have been aware of the reputation of this masterpiece of Horror cinema for at least 20-25 years, but have put off watching it because I didn’t think that I could stomach the violence. I have seen bits and pieces of it over the intervening years, but have never taken the time required to sit down with a good copy to see and judge its merits for myself—until now.

A friend of mine recently acquired several Argento titles on DVD and we have been watching them on his flat-screen TV and enjoying their weird stylistic idiosyncrasies and creative gruesomeness.  To date, I have seen “Cat o’ Nine Tails” and now “Suspiria”. “Cat o’ Nine Tails” was fun and interesting and helped introduce me to the Giallo film genre, but did nothing to prepare me for the sublime phantasmagoria of gruesomeness that is “Suspiria”.

One of the last movies to be filmed using the Technicolor process, it is a fairytale presented in a succession of nightmarish tableaus which leap off the screen in shocking primary colors. Like a nightmare, the plot is vague and full of iconic symbols and twists and turns which don’t always resolve themselves, but when all is said and done one is left with an overall impression of Argento having tapped into the sub-conscious wherein dwell the archetypal characters of the evil witch and the wicked stepmother, figures popularized by the likes of Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm in their fairytales of yore.

Spanish lobbycard featuring Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) with Sara (rt, Stefania Casini) just barely in the periphery.

In this case, the stepmother is more of a surrogate mother: the matronly Madame Blanc (former Dark Shadows materfamilias, the glamorous Joan Bennett), the Vice Directress of the Tanz Akademie, where our young heroine Suzy has traveled to study dance, but other things are afoot at the academy and two students are brutally murdered on the night of Suzy’s arrival and the staff seem strangely reticent to talk about it.

Italian lobbycard featuring the aftermath of the introductory murders of the fleeing student and her friend.

While most of her fellow students prefer to keep their mouths shut about the weird events happening at, or around the vicinity of the school, Suzy is not afraid to speak up and question the administration over their inaction in handling the situation, other than just leaving everything to the police and going on with business as usual. This puts the spotlight on her as odd events begin to happen to her seemingly conspiring to keep her sick, delirious, and where the staff can keep tabs on her.

German lobbycard showing Suzy surrounded by the school staff as she is attended to by the local doctor after her fainting spell in dance class.

After swooning and collapsing on the dance floor during her first lesson, she is taken to a room in the dormitory, which she had initially decided against doing (much to the chagrin of Madame Blanc) where she is fed a special diet and made to drink a full chalice of red wine so thick it almost looks like blood before retiring for bed. In her moments of lucidity, she begins to believe that she is being drugged to keep her from snooping around at night, and so she starts flushing her meals down the toilet. Armed with information and observations collected by her dorm neighbor Sara, who eventually “disappears” in a disturbing scene involving a room full of baling wire, Suzy begins to aggressively investigate the weird goings on at the school and the rumors surrounding the teachers extracurricular activities, especially the school founder and directress, Helena Marcos.

Promo pic featuring Sara falling into a storage room filled with razor sharp baling wire.

The remainder of the film is basically a series of elaborately staged murders by a mystery killer who is never quite seen outright, although once in a while a pair of bare, hairy arms is visible committing the respective crimes. In the first death scene a pair of eyes is also seen outside of a window, but the rest of the face is obscured by a dark shadow, the shape of which insinuates an executioner hood.

The murders are all elaborate and artfully staged with the camera lingering over each garishly lurid detail. As ghastly as some of the scenes are, one cannot help but admire the beauty in their execution (pun intended). Some seem gratuitous, like the murder of the school pianist, and some don’t make sense, like the death of the young woman at the beginning of the film who allows her friend to stay with her when she tries to flee the school after divining their dark secrets: how did she end up dead in the lobby when she was banging on hallway doors as her companion was being strung up from the skylight? Was it witchcraft? I believe that is the reason why the murderer is never shown, because it is an evil emissary of the Black Queen, but that is only my humble opinion and there is nothing in the film which blatantly depicts this. Even so, how else would a killer be able to hover outside of a bedroom window several stories high without being suspended from a rope and thus plain to the eye when the victim peered into the darkness which lay on the other side of the glass? But I digress…

The fey Pat enlists the aid of a lamp to see if she can spot the source of the disturbance outside of the window.

The sets are also fascinating to look at although in any other forum they would probably be considered ostentatious with art-deco buildings painted in bright primary hues sporting colorful multi-paneled stained glass skylights and windows and every room painted a different color.  In one bedroom a section of M.C. Escher’s “Sky and Water 1” (1938) is reproduced throughout the midsection of the wall. In fact, there is even a street sign for “Escher Strasse” in one of the scenes, which could be a fortuitous coincidence or a subliminal tribute to the artist. In another scene, several of Aubrey Beardsley’s 1893 illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” adorn partition screens in a room which contains a mural full of Beardsley-esque curlicues and adornments. In the dormitory hall, which is painted a deep red color, art nouveau window treatments top every bedroom doorway, and baroque murals appear in various lounges. It is almost too much for the eye to take in and this creates a sense of unease and artificiality which lends to the dreamy quality of the pace.

Art Deco lobby of the building where the first murders take place.

Miss Tanner receiving Suzy into the Tanz Akademie; notice the blue velvet walls.

Girl’s Dormitory hallway with red walls and Art Nouveau window treatments in the doorways.

Now, even with my limited experience in the Giallo genre, I did see some similarities to Mario Bava’s “Blood and Black Lace” (1964), which, historically speaking is the first really significant Giallo picture. Argento conspicuously does not mention it once in the interview on the DVD bonus disc from Blue Underground, and instead sites Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” as the major influence on the look and color scheme of “Suspiria”. That may be, but I think he is perhaps at the very least subconsciously in debt to Mr. Bava as well. Not only are they both landmark pictures in the genre which make heavy use of color filters et al, but they both take place in places where there are plenty of gorgeous young ladies to kill; the former takes place in a modeling agency while the latter unfolds at a dance school. It is also interesting to note that Argento enlisted the help of both Mario Bava and his son Lamberto for the Suspiria sequel, “Inferno” (1980).

A scene from Mario Bava’s “Blood and Black Lace” (1964). Notice the red mannequin to the left with the black wig. Possibly an omen of things to come, she figures prominently in the background of several scenes in the movie.

Speaking of young women, Argento supposedly wanted to have his stars all cast between the ages of 8-10 years old, but the producers wouldn’t have it, so he got the youngest adults he could hire between the ages of 16-20 and had them act very childlike gossiping and fighting like children as in the scene which introduces Suzy to her new classmates. Olga, a lovely brunette with fulsome lips and long black hair, sidles alongside Suzy and Sara who seem to be getting cozy together, and she says “Suzy…Sara…I once read that names which begin with the letter ‘S’ are the names of snakes! Ssssss!” This prompts Sara to stick out her tongue as they go back and forth hissing and mugging at one another with Suzy stuck between them looking bemused and bewildered.

Left to right: Sara (Stefania Casini), Suzy (Jessica Harper) and Olga (Barbara Magnolfi) in the infamous “Snakes!” scene.

Another trick to make the girls seem younger was the tactic of putting door handles at face level so the girls would have to reach up to open the doors, thus giving the illusion that they were smaller.

Suzy enters the room of the Black Queen.

When petite and doe-eyed Suzy goes to confront whatever evil lies beyond the secret door, she seems so tiny and frail, but she is also spunky and determined and rises to the challenge when she finally meets the school directress, Helena Marcos, the wicked witch of our tale.

Rare frame featuring Suzy stabbing the witch, which is not actually shown in the final cut of the film.

Lastly, I almost forgot to mention the harrowing soundtrack by Italian prog-rockers Goblin, which relentlessly rattles and sweeps throughout the film. Their inspired use of bouzouki, celesta and percussion with interspersed vocal whispers provide an unsettling aural landscape that compliments the jarring nature of the visuals and helps maintain the tension which permeates the atmosphere for the film’s duration.

French pressing of the original soundtrack by Goblin.

In fine, although its merits lie more in the visual aspect of the film and less on the plot, I do believe that “Suspiria” deserves its place among the great masterpieces of Italian Horror cinema.


2 Responses to “Dario Argento’s “Suspiria””

  1. when I saw it the first time, it was extremely disturbing – but great. Thanks for sharing the poster art 🙂

  2. Martin Parsons Says:

    Lovely opinion piece! (Just to say that you DO see the friend at the beginning run into the lobby before the skylight falls)

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