Widely considered one of the most important genre achievements of all time, Argento’s “Suspiria” isn’t a perfect film, but it still sets quite a high bar.
The original Suspiria was first released in 1977 with Dario Argento as director. Starring Jessica Harper as the lead heroine, the film is as visually stunning as it is terrifying.
The film’s opening is catching as the main character, American ballet dancer Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), arrives in a small European city that is surrounded by a thunderstorm, setting the horrible scene she is about to walk into. The subtle mis-en-scene presents Suzy as the innocent outsider as she walks alongside two women dressed in a vibrant red, as if escorting the white-dressed Suzy out into the storm, where she becomes lost and disorientated in the forging land.
Suspiria is kickstarted by the death of Patricia Hingle (Eva Axén), a fellow ballet student at the Tanz Dance Academy, which sparks the main mystery elements of the narrative and introduces the all-important killer. Argento presents her as a fleeing dove in a white dressing gown sprinting through the forest and into town. However, Pat finds little refuge as her murderer comes for her.
The audiences rightfully see very little of the monster itself, yet they are teased with a glance at its furry hands, sharp nails and bright green eyes. The scene is an undeniable heart-stopper as Pat is gradually killed with a large kitchen knife. Her death isn’t done quickly or messy, as her stabbing is slow and calculated — making it all the more violent.
The terrifying nature of the scene is amplified since it focuses more on the struggle, chase and tension of the scene rather than the actual blood and gore more prominently on display during the other two main deaths in the film. The death of the school’s blind pianist Daniel, for example, is presented with a similar chilling tension and a contagious vulnerability, as he stands out in a spanning courtyard with only his dog to protect him.
One of the highlights of Suspiria is its use of cinematography.
Luciano Tovoli uses a palette of vibrant reds, teal blues and the occasional white and neon green to create a contrasting and very vibrant viewing experience. Every shot ensures a lack of boredom with such clever use of color, contrast and lighting. In the sleepover scene, where the girls are lined up in beds after being smoked from their rooms by rouge maggots, they are engulfed in a deep red that engulfs the entire room. This sets a suspenseful scene for the entrance of the Director of the school and Sara’s revealing story, keeping the audience in the grip of intrigue.
The Production Design perfectly combines with the cinematography. The dance academy itself is beautifully designed with muted reds and deep navy colors, along with contrasting velvet and smooth marble walls. The ceilings are extra high to produce a ceiling of vulnerability and smallness within the characters and the audience, making it a very productive use of space.
Another unique aspect of the film is the signature instrumental that plays throughout the film’s climatic suspense scenes. It’s a deep electronic hymn that is fused with a deep bass drops and a Mediterranean guitar with the occasional ding from a triangle. A deep snarl is added once the scene climaxes, an almost musical growl to heighten the senses and announce the presence of danger.
The only pitfall in this deadly unique film is also the meat to any story regardless of form or genre – the characters. The lead character Suzie isn’t much of a heroine, more so a vehicle for the audience to travel in as they unravel the mystery of the academy. She has little to no personality and doesn’t learn, overcome or gain anything from her experiences, which would have made the story more fruitful and allowed us to emotionally connect with her, making her victory more satisfying.
Fellow dancer Sara (Stefania Casini) seems to exist to serve as a narrator and insider to Suzie, although her vulnerability and paranoia centered around the evil doings in the academy was relatable and made her a more interesting character than the leading lady.
Suzy’s roommate Olga (Barbara Magnolfi) was a character that seemed rather promising, but she disappeared halfway through the film, never to be seen again. There wasn’t much investment in the villains either. The iron control the teachers must have had over the school is never enforced. It’s overly subtle, and the teachers at best were irritating and unfair rather than terrifying.
The Director of the academy remained physically scary yet rather bland, as there was nothing to make her an interesting prime villain that the audience could connect to the real world and everyday situations — a villain that you fear even once you leave the cinema.
The ending of Suspiria was as climactic as its beginning, the highlight being the cackling corpse and the full view of The Director. Yet it felt rather empty, since Suzy escapes and defeats the coven of witches… and that’s all. The lack of character arc leaves a gap where the audience can’t take anything out of the theatre with them.
The film itself remains impressive in its ability to frighten and captivate its audience. However, it does leave a profound amount of gaps in the story for the 2018 reboot to fill in (my review on that film is coming soon).
If you’ve seen the 2018 version of the film from Luca Guadagnino, or if you plan to, I strongly encourage you to check out the original and highly influential film that inspired it. Because it’s such an audial and visual treat, it’s best to try to watch it on the 4k restoration Blu-ray release. However, you can also stream Suspiria for free on midnightpulp.com.