Some horror films terrify through inescapably realistic fears. Others create monsters that amplify primordial terrors to the umpteenth degree. But some, like writer and director Dario Argento’s 1977 Italian giallo horror film Suspiria, envelope the viewer in an inescapable reality-bending world akin to a nightmare.
Telling the story of an American ballerina named Suzy (Jessica Harper), who comes to a German ballet school only to be caught up in a twisted and mystical murder mystery, Suspiria isn’t a film that astonishes through its narrative but rather through its terrifying style. While this is a movie that slowly feeds its audience clues concerning the central mystery at hand, the point of Argento’s blood-soaked masterpiece is to drench the audience in mood and an inescapable terror. Yes, the central characters themselves are seeking to get to the bottom of what is actually happening at this clearly sinister ballet academy, but the experience of shock and awe far outweighs any audience desire to discover the truth about this admittedly paltry mystery.
From the very first frames, there is something off-kilter about the world of Suspiria. As Suzy arrives in the country on her way to the academy, a simple German airport is bathed in nightmarish reds and blues while prog rock band Goblin’s iconic theme song slowly kicks in. As our protagonist makes her way into a Technicolor rain-soaked night, the audience is pulled into a heightened and wild world. Nothing is quite what it seems and as the academy becomes more and more insane around Suzy, we find ourselves trying to grab hold and make sense of our surroundings, just like the protagonist.
From very stilted acting to gallons of blood that have the same color and viscosity as house paint, the very nature of this dreamlike horror almost justifies the odd nature of these various elements. Why wouldn’t the people act like this? Why shouldn’t the blood look so incredibly odd? It’s clear that we’ve been chucked into a devilish abyss and must now fight our way out.
So is Suspiria’s dizzying disregard of logic and mind-bending tone the result of a complete mastery of filmmaking or just a happy coincidence of filmmaking bravado and ignorance? Well, it’s somewhat hard to tell. It’s clear that acting isn’t Argento’s strong suit as a director, language barrier or not (he had each actor or actress speak their native tongue and dubbed the film later depending on region). And precise narratives aren’t his forte either. It’s easy to get lost concerning character motivations or narrative structure on a first viewing. But an effective horror film is an effective horror film, so who are we to judge how it came to be?
The Sound and Look of Terror
There are two massive components to Suspiria’s success as a nightmarish work of genius: its cinematography and its music.
Argento shot Suspiria on anamorphic lenses and processed the film via imbibition Technicolor prints, which emphasized bold primary colors far more than emulsion-based prints. This process was similarly used for The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, with Suspiria being one of the final feature films to ever be processed in Technicolor. The result is a horror film that looks like none other. Whereas most other horror films of the time (and most in the decades after) leaned heavily on murky nights, desaturated hues, and the use of few colors, Argento injected Suspiria with eye-popping reds, pinks, purples, and blues, which burst from both daytime and nighttime scenes.
Beyond the simple fact that these off-putting colors are everywhere, the vibrancy of Suspiria highlights the otherworldliness of the story, planting it firmly in a place where the rules of reality do not always apply and something gruesome and terrible could happen at any moment. Yet the characters typically do not make note of the Technicolor world around them, even when sleeping in a blood red dormitory or being bathed in an otherworldly green light without a source. It’s up to the audience to process the expressionist use of colors, as well as the sets, which employ odd angles and massive scale. These aesthetics do not reflect reality, but rather the mood and creeping psychosis of the unknowable evil lurking within the school.
If the colors of Suspiria are in-your-face madness, then the film’s score is crafted to creep under your skin and constantly unsettle you.
Filled with guttural growls, ringing bells, echoing drums, whining organs, and the strange sounds of a bouzouki (a Greek string instrument), Goblin’s score to Suspiria is unsettling and thrilling. Heavily steeped in the jazz influence of progressive rock, the band knows how to both push the story forward and also when to settle into the background for a quieter approach on how to unnerve the audience. Goblin’s work here is one of the defining qualities of Suspiria, and one that has left a permanent impression on fans of the film. The band’s propulsive, unconventional sounds feel like a stranger leaping out of the darkness and yanking you into a room full of horrors. It’s disconcerting at times and frequently frightening, but that’s what a great horror score should do in the first place.
Listen to the main theme in The 13 Best Horror Musical Themes.
Conquering the Nightmare
These various elements work in tandem to pull the viewer further down into the ghoulish nightmare that is Suspiria. And while the film may be renowned for its pulse-pounding, blood-strewn kills, it’s not as gory as you may suspect. Rather, Argento masterfully ratchets up the tension through his use of lurid colors, strong editing, and the constantly unsettling score until sudden bursts of violence hit the screen via massive setpieces of murder and mayhem. And while the very fake blood may run like water, it’s the ferocity and terrifying ideas at play that scare the most. Scenes like a victim falling into a room full of razor wire send shivers and gasps, not because of any gruesome special effects work (the scene is surprisingly light on blood), but because of the squirm-inducing idea and sheer length of the scene.
By the time we reach the film’s climax, the terror and constant threat of violent death has been hanging over the audience and protagonist Suzy for so long that every last nerve has been shredded. The nightmares close in, forcing Suzy to face the maddening horrors around her. And once they are conquered, the dreamlike world begins to fall apart, quite literally in this instance embodied in the form of the school crumbling at an ever quickening rate.
And just like a nightmare that has been overcome, Suspiria comes to an abrupt end. No denouement, no time to breathe, just credits. After all, what else would there really be to say in a film like this? It’s only once that the dream has ended that the dreamer can reflect and wonder about the weird and wild circumstances of what they have just experienced.
Does Suspiria make complete sense? No. But it’s wildly gripping and thrilling from start to finish, never letting viewers gain proper footing in a world that is slowly going mad. The thrill of experiencing it and the catharsis of conquering the nightmare make viewers want to dive back in again and again to re-experience the one-of-a-kind terror that Argento brought to life nearly 40 years ago.