Suspiria (1977)

Italian director Dario Argento’s career peaked in the late 1970’s—and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. With the one-two punch of Suspiria, and a year later for his zombie collaboration with George Romero—Dawn of the Dead—Argento firmly cemented himself in film history. Both are still considered classics of the genre.

Suspiria, which tells the story of a young woman who moves to Germany to study at a prestigious ballet academy, doesn’t let the viewer breathe. From the very beginning of the film, when Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) arrives at the Freiburg airport late at night during a thunderstorm there’s a general sense of unease.

Argento is able to create this atmosphere through a number of techniques. Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, is the dizzying soundtrack by prog rock band Goblin. The music is hypnotic and repetitive throughout; Argento’s use of it has been a direct influence on other films—most notably American slashers such as Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980).

Harper’s wide-eyed expression throughout the film puts the viewer on edge, however, Suspiria’s use of lighting is its strongest quality. Much of the film feels like you’re watching a dream. Red is a popular color in the horror genre and this one makes excellent use of it. Reds clash with blues—shades fill entire rooms and splash each other on the character. The effect can be confusing as vivid primary colors dance upon grotesque scenes.

Suspiria is gory, bloody, grisly, violent—whichever adjective you prefer. It is that. Often referred to as the best “giallo” film to be released. The giallo subgenre refers to 20th century Italian horror movies and literature that had elements similar to those of crime and slasher films being produced in America. The word “giallo” is Italian for “yellow” and refers to the paper on which pulp fiction-type magazines were printed on in Italy. Supernatural elements were not typical of giallo films—this is where Suspiria departed most from the genre.

Following the success of Deep Red (1975), Argento grew tired of making giallos and decided to make his first foray into the realm of the supernatural. This deliriously artificial film owes as much to German Expressionism as it does to Grimm’s fairy tales. Weird things happen throughout Suspiria, to put it mildly. From service dogs killing their owners to maggots crawling through ceilings, the entire film is a slow, unnerving build to Suspiria’s climactic (and very supernatural) ending.

This movie is considered a cult classic for good reason. Echos of Suspiria can be found, not only in the slashers that were released in the years immediately following Suspiria’s debut, but up to today as well. Look to the lighting techniques in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011) and Neon Demon (2016), as well as the use of repetitive, haunting music to elevate simple scenes in It Follows (2014) and The Witch (2015), and you’ll find eery similarities to Argento’s approach.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of its release and few horror films—especially those directed by a foreign director—have endured in the way Suspiria has. With several horror reboots in the works for the next year, from The Mummy to It, one of the most promising is Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Suspiria. With a cast that includes Chloë Grace Moretz, Tilda Swinton, and Dakota Johnson as Bannion, here’s hoping the Italian director can do the original justice. 

Rating: 5/5 stars

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