By Michael Roberson
Ask someone to describe Dario Argento’s Suspiria, and the first thing they mention will likely be the colors. Suspiria’s film print was one of the last to be struck in the Technicolor imbibation process (also used by The Wizard of Oz, another famously colorful film about witches), and so its colors pop off the screen in a way that feels curiously alien. This has contributed to Suspiria’s status as a cinematic experience like none other, a movie like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Lawrence of Arabia that begs to be seen on the biggest screen available. But Suspiria’s status as one of the most visually sumptuous of all horror films belies its pure, terrifying hostility.
These seemingly competing aspects of Suspiria’s identity go hand-in-hand; it is a machine designed to drive you into sensory overload. Over the opening credits, the music box melody of its main theme (courtesy of Argento’s frequent and essential collaborators, Goblin) underscores fairy tale opening narration detailing Suzy Bannion’s acceptance into Germany’s Tanz Academy, a prestigious dance school. Refusing to let us get a grip on this comforting storytelling technique, Argento fades out the narration, abruptly replacing it with a cacophony of clattering and wailing. We’re introduced to Suzy as she leaves the airport, and as the doors slide open the theme fades back in on the soundtrack, signalling her entry into another world. She steps out into an intense rainstorm and desperately hails a cab, attempting in broken German to communicate her destination to the cab driver. Nothing supernatural or even overtly scary has happened yet, but as we see her in the back seat of the cab, wide-eyed, soaked by rain and bathed in unnatural blue light, she seems profoundly isolated.
That isolation is a cornerstone of the Giallo genre in which Argento made his name. Giallo films frequently deal with an expatriate in an unfamiliar country, someone who doesn’t speak the language and is regarded as suspicious by the locals. Suspiria ramps up that sense of cultural isolation considerably. Arriving at the academy, Suzy sees another student, Pat, run terrified from the school, and is brusquely turned away by a voice over the building’s intercom and left out in the pouring rain. When she gains entry to the academy the next day, she is preyed upon financially by the other students, who extort money from her to borrow dancing shoes and other necessities. Almost immediately after moving in with one of her fellow students, Suzy mysteriously falls ill and is moved into the Academy living quarters against her will. Everything about her surroundings seems calculated to keep Suzy on edge.
The viewers know that Suzy is right to feel that way—we witnessed just what Pat was so afraid of in one of the most shocking and delirious sequences in horror cinema. Seeking refuge at a friend’s apartment, Pat is attacked there by a shadowy figure with glowing yellow eyes. Amid the frenzied wailing of the soundtrack, the killer takes her to an attic bathed in neon pink lighting and stabs her to death, the murder captured with a vicious attention to detail. In one of the film’s most shockingly memorable images, we see a close-up of the blade piercing Pat’s exposed and beating heart. It’s an image as arresting and surreal as the razor slicing the eyeball in Un Chien Andalou, and just as much an assault on our expectations of the visual language of film.
The assaultive power of cinema is further represented by one of Argento’s pet themes, the violent, destructive power of art. As Pat dies, she throws her head back through an ornate stained glass window in the ceiling, the yellow broken glass framing her head like a grotesque parody of a halo. As she falls through the window, the broken glass crashes down and slashes her friend to death. The image of a work of art used as an instrument of death is a recurring one for Argento; his first film, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, features a sharp-edged piece of modern art used as a weapon, as does his 1982 film Tenebre. This preoccupation goes beyond the visual arts—Tenebre centers around a novelist being stalked by a killer who shoves pages from his novels in the victim’s mouths, and Argento’s last great film, 1989’s Opera, features an opera singer, who at one point turns a recording up to punishing volumes to fend off her would-be murderer, using music itself as a weapon. Argento denies the audience the refuge they seek to find in art, always revealing its sharp and dangerous corners.
This overwhelming atmosphere extends to the film’s unique mise en scène. Argento isn’t afraid of his sets looking like sets—indeed, he shows them off in all their improbable glory. The apartment building where the first murder takes place is a bizarre art deco nightmare, covered in jagged diagonal edges in a garish pink-and-green color scheme. There are almost no natural colors in Suspiria, only artificial ones, and they clash shockingly. Characters often wear clothing that clashes with their backdrops, and the entryways between rooms allow one room’s vibrant color scheme to bleed into another. These clashing, vibrant color schemes put us into Suzy’s uneasy mindstate as she navigates the academy, which reacts to the characters and their actions like a living organism. When Suzy takes ill, it is in the harsh glare of “The Yellow Room”, and thereafter when she is in her own room, she is lit in queasy yellows and greens. This lighting almost never has any visible source—in one of the film’s most striking images, the students at the academy have to sleep in the gymnasium due to a bug infestation, and as the headmistress turns out the lights, the room is lit with an inexplicable pink glow.
These unnatural visual elements, though frequently beautiful, are one aspect that makes Suspiria so frightening. One could argue that all horror movies are an attempt to convey a nightmare on film, but Suspiria pushes this almost as far as it can go without abandoning narrative filmmaking altogether (Argento’s follow up film, Inferno, pushes this inscrutability even further, and is almost completely incomprehensible as a result). Cinematographer Luciano Tovoli’s camera roves slowly and deliberately, always finding unconventional places to land, such as in a slow zoom past two characters into their own distorted reflections in a window. The camerawork is also not above playing tricks on the audience, as in a scene where a simple pan seems to conjure a pit of razor wire out of nothing.
Many filmmakers have copied the elements that make up Suspiria’s awe-inspiring aesthetic—bright gaudy colors, ornate set design, and prominent synthesizer-driven soundtracks. But few have been able to get to the core of inexplicable terror driving everything in Argento’s masterpiece. Every once in a while, a Nightmare on Elm Street or a Prince of Darkness comes close, but Suspiria captures something truly unique within the horror genre. And while modern critics might describe it as a visually enticing work of art, Argento knows that within beauty can hide something sharp and dangerous.