It’s that time of year again! People dress up in silly/sexy costumes and put out ghost cut-outs and jack-o-lanterns and basically take all the balls out of Halloween. Well not here! You may remember last year I covered Jacob’s Ladder, a disturbing psychological horror film that served as a major visual inspiration for modern horror multimedia franchise Silent Hill (which has seen better days). This year it’s something closely-tied, yet completely different. While Jacob’s Ladder may be the father of Silent Hill, according to interviews of the Japanese staff of the original Silent Hill, Dario Argento’s Suspiria is very much the mother.
Suspiria is about a young aspiring dancer named Suzy who travels to Germany in order to train for ballet at the prestigious Tanz Akademie. Her taxi takes her to the entrance just as a fellow student rushes out the door, sputtering nonsense. Suzy is turned away from the school unexpectedly, and finds out the next day that the student she saw fleeing was found murdered. That’s only the start of the strange occurrences at the academy, like maggots falling through the ceiling and the blind piano player getting attacked by his own seeing eye dog. A friend of Suzy’s begins to suspect there is a connection between the macabre “coincidences” and the dubious absence of the academy’s director. Then there’s the puzzling question of why the professors’ footsteps don’t seem to be heading toward the front door as they leave every night…
The movie comes partly from the Italian tradition of giallo and partly from fairy tales. For the uninitiated, gialli are films that are part-slasher, part-whodunit. It was a big trend in the late 60s through the 80s, featuring tons of sex, violence and ridiculous dated fashion. And Suspiria certainly has gore. The opening 10 minutes of the film feature perhaps one of the most grisly, sadistic and utterly beautiful murders put to film. I hesitate to spoil it, although some have probably already seen it due to how infamous it has become over the years. Suffice to say, it involves wire, a dagger and a stained-glass skylight. There’s buckets of gooey European-style blood to be had in this flick.
But it’s got more than gore at the heart of it. As mentioned earlier, fairy tales were a big influence in the creation of Suspiria. Dario Argento looked to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs for visual inspiration, taking the eye-popping primary colors from the classic Disney film and recreating them in real life. One of the last movies to be made with the Technicolor process, Argento and his director of photography fought hard to film the movie with this more costly, time-extensive technique, as well as taking a filter out of the camera to let colors bleed more freely. The result is an incredibly vivid, dream-like world with intense, blood-like reds, chilly blues, creepy greens and nauseating yellows that cause every scene to turn into a feast for the eyes. The lead actress playing Suzy, Jessica Harper, was chosen for her resemblance to Snow White and the movie starts out with a very “once upon a time…” sort of narration. There’s even blatant references to the poisoned apple that caused Snow White to fall into a sleeping death. Argento originally envisioned the movie starring children, and that perspective still makes it into the movie. Handles of doors were raised to roughly the level of people’s heads, giving the illusion of a small child being swept up in a grown-up’s world.
I mentioned before that Suspiria was a major influence on Silent Hill, but it might not be immediately apparent how. Silent Hill aesthetically shares more in common with the dilapidated, rust-and-blood-covered environments of Jacob’s Ladder, as well as the heavy psychological themes of that film. But Suspiria contributes with the heavily occult themes of the first and third games. As Suzy delves deeper into the secrets of the academy, she learns more and more about the unnatural conspiracy that surrounds her. And then there’s the music. Silent Hill wouldn’t be Silent Hill if it was just spooky mood music; I mean, even the main theme song has mandolins, for pete’s sake. And music is something Suspiria takes seriously.
A huge portion of the movie’s indelible style lies with the distinctive soundtrack. Italian band Goblin actually scored this movie’s soundtrack before the movie was even filmed. Argento suggested an instrument he found during a vacation in Greece, a bouzouki, to add to Goblin’s African drums and crushed plastic cups, giving the soundtrack a unique feel that moviegoers wouldn’t be accustomed to. The score plays an incredibly important role in Suspiria, so much so that Argento would play tracks from it during the filming, in order to give actors the mood that the scene required. The soundtrack, while being instantly identifiable and crucial to the experience of watching the movie, does have a downside. For whatever reason, one of the members of Goblin is whispering important plot points in the background of the theme song. So while it may not ruin the movie to know that there are supernatural causes behind the events at the ballet academy, it’s a little disheartening to hear “WITCHES” every so often in the music.
And yeah, Suspiria isn’t perfect. The emphasis on the visual and aural leaves little room for a very nuanced plot or character development. In fact, I could understand if some people saw Suspiria as just a very stylish, loose collection of setpieces. Italians made movies in the 70s in a very peculiar way: without regard for sound. They would ship their films out to other countries around the world, so they would just dub everyone over in whatever language the market demanded, so it’s not uncommon to see Suspiria‘s actors’ voices not quite match up to their mouth, since many of them didn’t speak a lick of English. And then there’s the generally over-the-top performances that Argento gets out of his actors. Jessica Harper reaches just about the perfect balance between doe-eyed naivety and determination that makes her an eminently sympathetic scream queen, but the performances surrounding her are either flat or way too much. But then, I would argue that the dialogue in this film is almost besides the point, with its heavy roots in German Expressionism and childlike fantasy making it almost better suited to be a silent film than a talkie. That and the fact that Argento tries to cram some half-baked psychology into the final act.
It’s been over 30 years since Suspiria arrived and it still appears ageless and on the cutting edge, visually. While horror movies nowadays are all about torturing people to get a rise out of moviegoers (hi, Saw VI), Argento could accomplish more with lush, color-saturated visuals and a few well-placed stabs. Suspiria is a horror classic that’s being overshadowed by the Eli Roths of this world. Hopefully this little spotlight has made some of you aware and interested in the gorgeous, hallucinatory Suspiria, and you’ll pop it in the player at your Halloween party instead of Wrong Turn or Jeepers Creepers or Michael Bay’s Friday the 13th remake or whatever. Or even more hopefully, you’ll check the original out instead of the pointless remake that Hollywood is preparing to produce. Yeesh. Now that actually does send chills down my spine.