Suspiria, the horror classic crafted by Italian director Dario Argento, has received excessive analysis and praise, but after revisiting this memorable film last night, I’m going to post my take on it. This production not only delivers the requisite thrills and chills, it’s unquestionably a stark and vivid feast for the eyes. Allegedly, Suspiria was one of the last Italian flicks to be filmed in Technicolor, and Argento – not unlike his contemporary, Mario Bava – masterfully utilizes the chromatic elements of the throwback film technology in a way that’s exhilarating and effectively sinister. With a backdrop often shrouded in red (and sometimes green and blue), Argento presents a twisted, bright-colored, otherworldly nightmare that’s unique to the often black-and-grey world of horror.
The well-cast heroine, Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), arrives in storm-swept Munich, and makes her way to nearby Freiburg – where her new ballet school resides – via cab. The storm still raging, Suzy arrives at the school just in time to see another young woman making a screaming, dramatic exit. Suzy fails to make it to the door before it’s slammed shut, and a hysterical voice on the intercom denies her entry. Returning to the cab to find lodging for the night, Suzy notices the other woman frantically running through the storm. The scene switches to the escapee, who makes her way to a trippy, red-layered apartment building where she finds refuge from a friend. Unfortunately, she and her female companion each meet a grizzly demise by an unidentified killer.
Suzy returns to the school the next day, and is greeted warmly by Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) and introduced to to various students, including vivacious Olga and red-headed beauty Sara (Stephania Casini), as well as her domineering dance teacher. Initially, Suzy rooms with Olga in her funky pad, but a sudden dizzy spell in her first dance class (brought on by the school’s food, maybe?) leads to Suzy’s forced residence at the school. A beautiful, doe-eyed waif, Suzy seems to be in a sticky situation, but the “american girl” (as she’s often labeled) has a healthy curiosity and determination. America, fuck yeah!
Suzy’s suspicion leads her to compare notes with Sara, her new dorm room neighbor. As it turns out, Sara was very close with the opening scene’s escapee, Pat. Suzy – struggling daily to remain awake for long stretches after consuming her special diet administered to her on physician’s orders – attempts to recall the screamed clues Pat shouted as she fled the school. Sara, as it turns out, was the intercom’s disembodied voice that advised Suzy to go away on her initial visit to the school.
Pat, we discover, had made strange discoveries about the school, and shared her notes with Sara. One of the most pivotal clues occurs on a night the girls’ rooms are infested by maggots. Happily, the school authorities arrange for beds to be setup in the practice hall for a white sheeted, red lit slumber party. One of many male fantasy scenes Argento expertly displays. Bravo, Mr. Argento, bravo!
From a silhouette behind them, Sara recognizes a wheezing snore as that of the school’s enigmatic, unseen Directress (another discovery of Pat’s, who heroically did a lot of clue-finding legwork before her unseemly death). Soon after, on the night Sara discovers her notes have disappeared and Suzy once again succumbs to an early deep sleep, the red-headed beauty is chased into a batch of razor wire and viciously murdered. Which is a shame, since I really started digging her. In the meanwhile, another sympathetic character – of course, he’s blind for fucks sake! – is unceremoniously eliminated by his suddenly possessed seeing-eye dog. There’s some evil shit going on.
Undeterred, and completely unconvinced of the school’s lame explanation of Sara’s disappearance (“Yeah, she – uh – left early this morning! Damn, you think she would’ve left a note or something!”), Suzy seeks out the advice of a psychologist she knows and another colleague of his. She’s told the school was initially a place of occult studies as well as dance. Additionally, the founder was a high level witch, a Black Queen. The psychologist’s professorial colleague also advises Suzy that a coven of witches cannot survive without their queen.
Abandoning her special diet, Suzy capitalizes on her new lucidity and ramps up her investigation of the nefarious school and it’s residents, like a horror film damsel should. Using the clues Sara provided her and recalling Pat’s exclamation of a “secret” and a “blue iris”, Suzy drifts through the thunder-storm-lit, haunted environs and finds a secret panel (hell yeah!) in Madame Blanc’s office, which is opened by turning a blue iris wall decoration.
She stumbles upon the witches’ coven in their lair, which includes Madame Blanc, the dance teacher, the food-lacing cook, and Madame Blanc’s goofy, Little-Lord-Fauntleroy-looking nephew. She overhears their plot to destroy her and in an attempt to flee, uncovers Sara’s mutilated body and the hidden chamber of the wheezing Directress. Believing the snoring silhouette is indeed the coven’s queen, Suzy arms herself with a metal quill from a statue in the chaos-filled room. The Directress disappears and re-animates Sara’s corpse to kill Suzy, but the lightning from the storm outside reveals an outline of the invisible apparition, allowing Suzy to stab her in the neck. Turns out the Directress was indeed the crone-like founder of the school, and her status as the recently dispatched queen of the coven begets all hell breaking loose. Suzy is the lone escapee as the school goes down in flames.
An element not yet touched upon is the effective and intense soundtrack performed by the horror score outfit Goblin (collaborators of Argento’s in his other features, like Deep Red). Mostly, the score is reminiscent of the disturbing, repetitive riffing from the soundtracks of the Exorcist and Halloween. They accent the instrumentation with screaming and howling vocals, a spine-tingling caterwaul that heightens the suspense, whether a violent act is committed or not (Argento toys with the audience early and often). They must’ve had a blast with this haunted house recording.
All and all, a fantastic trip skillfully executed by Argento, who has never produced a more celebrated film. Two thumbs up out of two!