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Review: Suspiria (1977)

Suspiria (1977)

Directed by: Dario Argento

Premise: An American ballerina (Jessica Harper) enrolls at a German dance academy. After a student is brutally murdered and strange phenomena occur around the building, she suspects that the school houses a sinister secret.

What Works: In the 1970s, Italian filmmakers produced an impressive body of horror and thriller pictures that are collectively referred to as giallo films. These movies were typically murder mysteries in which a killer stalks young women and kills them in bloody and elaborate murder sequences. Giallo films dealt with themes of sexuality and madness and they innovated many of the cinematic techniques that subsequently became popular in the slasher films of the 1980s. Of the many filmmakers working in the giallo genre, one of the most distinguished was Dario Argento who directed features such as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Deep Red, and Tenebre. Argento’s movies were renowned for their style; he had a talent for devising elaborate death sequences and presenting brutal violence in a way that was visually innovative and grotesquely beautiful. Argento’s masterwork, and one of the major works of the giallo genre, was 1977’s Suspiria. Ironically, this film was a bit different from other giallo pictures. The threat of Suspiria is supernatural and film’s story is departed from the detective fiction that inspired other movies in this genre. The reason Suspiria is among the great giallo films—and is widely considered to be one of the great horror movies—is the way the filmmakers use cinema techniques. The horror and action genres are linked in that they are typically the most cinematic filmmaking forms, which is to say that they impact the viewer primarily through the combination of sound and moving image. Every aspect of filmmaking is at full tilt in Suspiria. The movie is a masterclass in the use of light and sound to create dread. What horror films need the most is atmosphere; jump scares are frightening for a second and gore can turn the stomach but terror is created by establishing and maintaining a mood. That’s much more difficult to do and Suspiria creates an atmosphere of dread from its opening credits through its final scene. The setting is dramatic and oppressive. The moviemakers use color in an impressionistic way with scenes lit in strong primary colors and Argento frames his characters against long, dramatically lit hallways and grandiose exteriors. The visual style is unsettling and it is matched by an innovative use of sound. Suspiria is an excellent example of how a sound mix can be a creative and artistic filmmaking tool. Decades after its original release, the stereo sound mix of Suspiria remains unique. In most films, dialogue comes through the center channel and music and sound effects are relegated to the surrounding speakers. The filmmakers of Suspiria blend the various pieces of the soundtrack into the different channels to create a discordant aural experience. Especially important to Suspiria is its music score by rock group Goblin. The music varies between melodic and discordant; the main Suspiria theme lends the movie a fantastical quality but some other musical cues are chaotic with wild use of percussion and vocal sighs. The music, incorporated into the wild sound mix and presented alongside the highly stylized visuals, make Suspiria a dream-like movie. Much of the film plays like a fairy tale in which our lead character travels from the ordinary world and into a magical realm in which reality itself becomes flexible. All the aspects of Suspiria create that experience for the viewer and the movie is so impactful because, like a dream, it appeals to the unconscious parts of our mind. The result is a movie that is disturbing not because of outrageous gore or degradation but because it creates a feeling of disorientation and fear.

What Doesn’t: Suspiria is primarily an exercise in style and cinematic craft. Narrative and character take a backseat to the manipulation of sound and image. The film is substantive insofar as it penetrates the viewer’s unconsciousness and taps into our nightmares the way that many of the best horror films do. However, Suspiria’s lack of story or characters impairs its ability to engage the audience dramatically. The people of Suspiria are barely types; we get a sense of the competitive relationships between the dancers attending the academy but we don’t learn anything about them as individuals. That makes it difficult for viewers to empathize with the characters and care when they are put in jeopardy. Parts of Suspiria don’t make sense. Some of that is intentional and part of the dream-like nature of the film but other aspects of the storytelling are clumsy. The narrative shortcomings of Suspiria are more apparent when viewing the film at home. This is the kind of movie that is best viewed in a theater with a proper sound system. A lot of the stylistic flourishes that define Suspiria are lost on home video, especially if it is viewed on a small screen or without a multi-speaker sound system.  

DVD extras: The Synapse Films release of Suspiria includes commentary tracks, featurettes, documentaries, interviews, trailers, TV and radio spots, alternate credits sequences, and the CD soundtrack.

Bottom Line: Suspiria is one of the great horror pictures. What it may lack in story it more than makes up for in its style. The movie is the cinematic equivalent of a haunted house and viewed under the right conditions it is an extraordinary and unsettling piece of work that has influenced such filmmakers as Don Coscarelli, Quentin Tarantino, Darren Aronofsky, Rob Zombie, and Nicolas Winding Refn.

Episode: #667 (October 1, 2017)