With its permeation of primary colours and incessantly haunting Goblin-provided soundtrack, Dario Argento’s Suspiria could probably best be described as a tone horror film. It is, like Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a visceral motion picture that demands a strong psyche. The plot isn’t very cohesive, but circumnavigating the perplexing landscape of the 1977 flick can be part of the fun.
Argento’s use of primary colours is made all the more vivid thanks to his handling of Technicolor prints and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli’s pointed approach to shooting. Suspiria feels oppressive and surreal, signifying a dreamlike quality with snaking hallways, saturated colours and haunting sounds. It is part psycho-thriller and part slasher film, but its supernatural power really makes it idyllic for a dark and stormy night.
The film opens with an American ballet student named Suzy (Jessica Harper). She arrives at a prominent dance academy in Germany after receiving an invitation and quickly finds that all is not right at the school. Unbeknownst to Suzy, a brutal incident has taken place the night of her arrival and she is whisked into a world of strange events and brusque instructors.
Several events, including the appearance of maggots and more vicious occurrences, haunt Suzy and her friend Sarah (Stefania Casini). Desperate to discover the truth about the academy and the women in it, Suzy starts to get a little too close to the dark secrets of the place and finds herself in trouble. When the supernatural origins of the school are made known, Suzy finds herself in a realm of occultists, reanimated corpses and foul rituals.
Suspiria features some truly terrifying events, but Harper’s Suzy meanders through them as though in a dream. This leads to some interesting sequences that can be a bit stunning, like her relatively listless and tentative escape from the academy and her snooping unearthing of Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) and Miss Tanner (Alida Valli)’s chilling natures.
As such, Argento’s film isn’t a typical “run for your life” horror piece. Its fascination with disposition, colour and sound is the prime mover and the characters exist in a state of inertia, relating to each other distantly and passing like ghosts in the night. It’s only when the true jarring terror materializes that Suzy and Sarah seem stunned to some form of commotion.
This is offset by the frantic terror of the film’s classic opening sequence, which includes former student Pat Hingle (Eva Axén) on the run from an unknown pursuer. Sarah’s run-in with the same pursuer (perhaps) generates similar energy, complete with swift splashes of colour and more racket from Goblin. This gives Suspiria a hack-and-slash approach to its horror that enables an erratic quality to take hold.
That Argento builds a beautiful-looking motion picture on top of this fitful foundation is what really makes Suspiria something special. His mastery is in digging into the imaginative angles and in using clanking narration and abruptness in disquieting fashion. Walking through his nightmare is like walking down a distorted hall with no end in sight; there is little relief from the inclusive and alarming air of this picture.
Suspiria may not be the perfect horror film and it may not have the nimble storytelling of some genre classics, but few movies feel the way this one does. An upsetting, juddering slice of tone horror, Argento’s 1977 piece is a demoralizing experience worth discovering with the lights off.