SUSPIRIA (1977)

  • Director: Dario Argento
  • Writers: Dario Argento and Dario Nicolodi, based on Suspiria de Profundis by Thomas De Quincey
  • Starring: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci, Miguel Bose, Alida Valli, Udo Kier, Barbara Magnolfi, and Joan Bennett
  • Where to: Free streaming with Kanopy (library app), Stream with ads on Tubi

Suspiria is more a state of mind than a movie, and that state of mind is on drugs. Describing the plot becomes less possible the more you think about it, and yet the movie has remained a classic for over 40 years, perhaps the apotheosis of the subgenre of Italian giallo horror, and heavily influential on many subsequent movies. Dario Argento’s camera floats down vividly-colored hallways, as we watch characters have nervous breakdowns. People aren’t murdered by a hulking slasher, they’re murdered by their fears. In the scene I remember the most from this movie, one girl falls into a pit of razor wire, just as she thinks she’s about to escape. I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else. 

Giallo is a particularly Italian brand of horror, coming from the word for “yellow” in their language. The term was originally used for cheap paperback novels printed on yellow paper, but usually when used today it refers to Italian horror or thriller movies of a particular era and bent, often with garish colors and lots and lots of extremely red blood. No director was more obsessed with color than Dario Argento, and in Suspiria, every scene is very carefully framed, lit, colored, and calibrated. He even used a much older film colorization process than the one usually used in 1970s movies, the same one used in early color blockbusters like The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, to make the movie’s colors more lurid and “less nuanced.” Every scene is bright red, bright yellow, bright green, even (especially) in situations where this makes zero sense.

Suspiria is set at a ballet school in Freiburg, Germany, as an American dancer named Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) arrives at the school. She arrives in a driving rainstorm, and runs into another girl who seems to be running for her life just leaving at the same time. Later that girl is not only stabbed in the heart (we get a close-up of the heart being stabbed), but then somehow dropped through a multi-colored skylight and hung in the middle of an enormous atrium. That’s only the start. Sometimes the movie seems to forget logic and descend into the madness. It ends with an invisible villain being stabbed to death by our heroine with a glass peacock quill. One reviewer wrote that Argento works so hard to rile up his viewers that “it would be impolite not to be at least a little scared.” All of the memorable bits of the movie are set to a haunting, pounding score by the Italian Prog Rock band Goblins, a score that was actually composed prior to the movie. It is a serious contender for my favorite movie score, or at least the one that adds the most to the movie while it’s happening. The sound and the color, for me, essentially are the movie.

Harper, who does a spectacular job in lots of scenes where she basically has to act just with her very big eyes, led an international cast that all acted in their own native languages, which must have been interesting. Joan Bennett, fresh from Dark Shadows, plays the “Vice Directress,” while Alida Valli, considered by many to be among the best European actresses of her generation, plays the strict instructor Miss Tanner. German actor Udo Kier has what basically amounts to a cameo where he delivers a bunch of exposition while Jennifer Harper’s hair aggressively blows in her face. 

Originally, the role of Suzy’s friend Sarah (the one who falls into the pit of razor wire) was supposed by played by Argento’s co-writer and lover, Daria Nicolodi, but she was unable to do so due to an injury, and role is played memorably by Stefania Casini. Nicolodi and Argento met when she starred in his prior movie Rosso Profundo (Deep Red), and eventually had a daughter who grew up to be the actress Asia Argento. Nicolodi claimed to have partially based the story on that of her own grandmother, who said that she had once taken piano lessons at a music academy where she “experienced black magic.” Argento, meanwhile, supposedly “based” the screenplay on a 19th century metaphysical work by the English writer Thomas De Quincey. This movie’s Wikipedia page has more references to “Jungian archetypes” than any other movie’s you’re likely to find. Argento was an interesting dude, let’s say. Suspiria, if you were wondering, is latin for “sighs,” though I’m not sure that actually explains anything.

After several minutes of cuts had to be made to get the movie by with an R rating in the US, Suspiria turned into by far Argento’s biggest stateside hit. He went on to make two more movies in his loose “Three Mothers Trilogy,” 1980’s Inferno and 2007’s La Terza Madre (The Mother of Tears), all of which center around evil, ancient witches, along with many other movies that are probably worth seeking out for horror fans. In 2018, after many false starts over the years, Luca Guadagnini eventually did direct a mostly overlooked remake of the movie, with Dakota Johnson of Fifty Shades of Gray fame in the lead and Harper herself in a minor role. Harper herself deserved a massive career, but other than a few roles in Woody Allen movies this never really materialized. Other than the remake, her most recent movie role was Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report in 2002.

Some of the movies we write about here are irresistible, I get drawn in no matter where or how I watch them. Suspiria is not that way, it requires a very specific headspace to get the most out of it. In one retrospective The Ringer called it “equal parts Snow White and opium dream.” Immediately after it ended, my wife turned to me and asked “So… why did they want to kill her?” I can explain that, I think, but there is plenty in this movie I can’t explain. What is the thing with the maggots all about, for example? And yet, Suspiria works anyway, because it is not set in reality. Its characters sometimes scream in terror, but more often they open their mouth and no sound comes out. Where a modern American slasher movie would cut suddenly after a murder, Suspiria keeps staring, as the victims get more and more murdered. This is not style over substance. This is style as substance. This is a dream.

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