Oct 20, 2016
Director: Dario Argento
Summary: Another seminal horror film; auteur director Dario Argento eschewed the increasing realism of 1970s horror for a fairy-tale landscape, bright colors, supernatural villains, and one of the most memorable soundtracks in film.
By 1977, horror had changed profoundly from the Hammer films of the ‘60s. Movies like Night of the Living Dead had adopted a cinema verité style, Last House on the Left had swapped supernatural creatures for human monsters, and Texas Chain Saw Massacre cranked the shock value all the way up.
In this world, Dario Argento was already a legend. Italy has a unique form of horror film; the giallo, a detective story containing many elements of realistic horror, and Argento was the unchallenged master of the genre. Starting with his directorial debut – The Bird With the Crystal Plumage – Argento had created a series of classic giallos, including the seminal Deep Red. His tales of everyman artists solving murders that perplexed bumbling police were as visceral in their violence as any American slasher film, but added fully-fleshed characters and spots of genuine humor.
Then, inspired by a story his grandmother had told him about a dance academy run by the devil, Argento wrote Suspiria. Whereas the giallo focused on character and plot, Suspiria was to be a visual and auditory experience, a dreamlike, almost surreal tale of supernatural terror.
Suspiria follows a young American ballerina who has been admitted to an exclusive dance academy in Germany. The night she arrives, another girl flees the school and is brutally murdered by an unseen assailant, and the viewer is introduced to two facts about Suspiria:
- This film is going to be gorier than you ever imagined.
- This film is going to be so beautiful you won’t be able to turn away.
Trading out realism for fantasy, Suspiria is a blinding array of stained glass, vibrant reds, deep greens, shining metal, and gently colored lighting. Every shot is composed artistically, frequently using severe camera angles to make the teenage students appear as child-sized next to their instructors. Argento even had special doors constructed to be used for the students, placing the doorknobs at shoulder-height. Corpses become part of mosaics, and blood is another paint in the palette. The plot becomes largely irrelevant; with most exposition and movement only taking place in short segments outside of the bounds of the school during the day, when the rules of color and proportion return to normal. Inside the school, things happen at a frantic pace, without rational explanation, only that it’s the power of the evil which runs the school, choreographing circumstances to create its desired outcome.
Naturally, the desired outcomes involve a lot of death, and Argento’s creativity comes to the forefront here. Argento eschews dramatic weaponry or hardware store nightmares for familiar sensations taken to extremes – small cuts and animal bites are among his favorite murder motifs. In Suspiria, these are additionally framed in the surreal colors and lighting of the film, combining the familiar with the fantastic in such a way that the viewer becomes willing to accept anything as possible.
This fantastic air is aided by the soundtrack. Argento turned to his collaborators from Deep Red, the progressive rock group Goblin, to craft a score for Suspiria. The resulting chiming theme, childlike in its simplicity, becomes a character in itself. The melody is instantly recognizable. With dialog being minimized, the music becomes the primary mode of audio communication, and Suspiria’s soundtrack is one of the most influential in horror history.
In the end, of course, evil is vanquished and good survives – doesn’t necessarily triumph, but survives. At least this particular evil is vanquished, as Suspiria is the first in a trilogy that spanned over three decades – Phenomena and Mother of Tears being the other two films. In between these supernatural films, Argento went back to his normal giallos, though with occasional forays into more artistic shots within the genre and a greater emphasis on color. Argento’s influence is felt throughout later horror, in the cartoon-like colors of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (which was produced by Argento, beginning a long partnership and friendship between the two directors), the surrealist lighting and familiar music of John Carpenter’s Halloween, and the embrace of the supernatural in the films of Clive Barker. As horror moved away from the camp of the 1960s and towards greater realism, Argento made a throwback to the German expressionist films of the 1920s while embracing the realistic violence of the 1970s. The combination is beautiful and horrifying, and that is why Suspiria is a must-watch for any fan of the genre.