Throughout the 1970s, Dario Argento produced a string of excellent films that helped cement Italy’s place on the horror map. Among the best of these movies was the 1977 film Suspiria. Building around a relatively simple and straight-forward story, Argento managed to create a moving canvas on which one stunning image after another was displayed. At times, the story takes a back seat to the shear artistry of the film, but unlike some movies that are all flash with no substance, Suspiria uses the vibrancy of the surroundings to draw us in to the world Argento creates and add to the mysterious and otherworldly nature of the events that we witness.
Suspiria tells the story of Suzy Bannion, a talented young ballerina who travels to Germany to perfect her craft at one of the most respected dance academies in the world. Arriving on a stormy night, she travels to the academy only to meet with a panicked young girl who flees from the building without explanation or any seeming cause. Suzy is later to learn that after leaving the young woman was murdered, and soon she beings to suspect that something sinister is taking place in the dead of night somewhere deep within the bowels of the academy.
Any discussion of Suspiria must begin with Argento’s exquisite use of color. Suspiria has to rank as one of the most beautiful movies ever filmed. The brightness of the images we witness helps to add to the fantasy like quality of the movie; it is simply difficult to imagine this kind of vibrant color in the real world. One can begin to predict when a murder is about to happen simply by looking at the set. When the colors fade, someone’s life is likely to vanish as well. It may seem as though I am overemphasizing a trivial aspect of the film, but a picture truly is worth a thousand words in this instance, and I highly recommend that even the most casual horror fan take a look at this movie. Adding to the brilliant visuals is a tremendous soundtrack by Goblin. A simple layered track echoes throughout the production and adds to the suspense of the proceedings while also emphasizing the mystical and dreamlike feel of much of the production.
Beyond being a work of film art, Suspiria is also a pretty good movie. Jessica Harper is in top form as Suzy and Alida Valli steals every scene she is in as Miss Tanner. Some of the other actors are less impressive, and provide wooden, forced performances. These instances, however, generally only involve characters with minor or brief roles, and are an annoyance at worst. The death scenes are also incredibly impressive. The first is a work of art unto itself—brutal, bloody, and brilliant—and caps what is one the best first 20 minutes in any horror film, primarily because it builds a level of suspense often reserved for the end of most movies. The terror begins right out of the gate, but not until Argento has peaked our senses with a delicious build up. Argento does not spend all of us brilliance on this first murder. In a later death scene, the use of shadow on a building façade both helps to obscure the true danger the doomed character faces while also reinforcing, and revealing to the sharp eyed viewer, the evil at the heart of the story.
This is not to say that Suspiria is a perfect film. The writing may strike the viewer as childish at times, and for good reason. Argento originally intended the film to be populated with 12 year old students, but the intense blood, gore, and scenes of violence lead to a decision to pursue older actresses. Despite this change, Argento did not order a rewrite, leading to some unusual and childish exchanges. Furthermore, viewers are advised not to think too deeply about the story. When the secret of the academy is revealed, an overly thoughtful viewer might well be led to ask, why a dance academy? Finally, the ending is somewhat weak. I was once watching this film with a friend who, while riveted throughout the movie, exclaimed “That’s it!” at film’s end. This is especially strange, given the tagline of the movie which reads, “The Only Thing More Terrifying Than The Last 12 Minutes Of This Film Are The First 92.” First of all, the movie is only 98 minutes long. Not real sure what happened to the other 6. And while I can certainly agree that the beginning of the movie is scarier than the end, that’s really not saying much. Taken as a whole, however, Suspiria is a superb film and tremendous entry into anyone’s horror collection.