"Suspiria" (1977): Dario Argento's Stylish Italian Horror Classic
Dario Argento, Master of Italian horror
Italian horror movies of the '70s and '80s can be divided into two categories: films directed by Dario Argento ... and films by everybody else. While most of Italy's movie studios were content to crank out low-budget quickies that rode the coattails of whatever was hot at American drive-ins (zombies, slashers, etc.) Dario Argento was creating big, splashy, surrealist terror opuses that were totally unlike anything else coming from Italy—or anywhere else, for that matter—at the time. His oddball combo of European art-house sensibilities and American grindhouse gore may not have always made sense in terms of linear storytelling, but what his movies may lack in logic, they more than make up for with sheer style.
Argento's most well known film is 1977's Suspiria (latin for "Sighs"), which has always been a hotly debated film among the horror-nerd community. While its proponents claim that it's an untouchable masterpiece and the greatest thing since canned beer, its detractors say Suspiria is boring, confusing, pretentious, and not particularly scary. I have seen the film twice in the past couple of years, and even after two viewings I'd say I still fall somewhere in the middle of those two camps.
First the good news: from a technical standpoint, Suspiria is absolutely gorgeous to look at -- the set designs are original and creepy as hell, and the film is beautifully photographed. Argento's color palette bathes everything in bright reds and blues, giving Suspiria an otherworldly "look" all its own.
The bad news: the story in Suspiria simply isn't very interesting. Our protagonist is Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), a wide-eyed, innocent American girl who's enrolled at the exclusive Tanz Dance Academy in Freiburg, Germany. On the night she arrives at the school in a howling wind and rain storm, a distraught girl rushes out of the building and brushes past her, babbling about "sisters" and "lilacs." The camera follows this girl back to her friend's apartment, where both she and her friend are killed by an unseen murderer in a fabulously brutal scene that involves a knife, a noose and a stained glass skylight.
As Suzy settles into life at the Academy, strange things begin to happen. After a fainting spell during her first dance lesson, she is kept a virtual prisoner in the dorm by the teachers and school doctor. A rain of maggots randomly falls from the ceiling, a few more background characters meet gory deaths, and Suzy and her friend Sara come to the conclusion that Something Is Not Right Here. When Sara mysteriously vanishes overnight (the viewer already knows that she fell into a room full of razor wire - OUCH!) Suzy begins to investigate the odd goings-on herself. Through an off campus meeting with Sara's psychiatrist, Suzy learns that the Tanz Academy was founded ages ago by a coven of witches, ruled by a "black queen" known as Mater Suspiriorum, or "Our Lady of Sighs."
Poking around back at the school, Suzy discovers the coven's hidden HQ and learns she's scheduled to be their next victim. The last ten minutes or so of Suspiria are the best part of the movie, as Suzy frantically tries to escape her supernatural fate.
So is Suspiria worth a watch? I guess it depends on your tolerance for the artsy. The film's pacing is frustratingly mid-tempo; Suspiria runs just over 90 minutes, but I found myself wishing someone would step on the gas pedal and speed things up more than once. The dialogue is mostly awkward and unrealistic, due to the fact that like most Italian horror films of the era, it was filmed by a cast that spoke a multitude of languages and then translated and dubbed into English (by people whose native language is not English) during post production.
Gorehounds will, of course, enjoy the murder sequences (which are presented in lovingly gooey detail) but there is so much space between them that they're likely to be bored stiff while they wait for the next body to fall.
The soundtrack to Suspiria is almost as famous as the film itself. The constant pulsing, throbbing electronic/progressive rock score by frequent Argento collaborators Goblin adds lots of suitably creepy, otherworldly atmosphere, but it becomes more intrusive and eventually annoying as the film rolls on. My main problem with it on my most recent viewing was that much of the film's dialogue is spoken in hushed whispers, so I had to keep turning my TV up in order to hear what was being said - and then without fail, Goblin would come crashing in right afterwards with a super loud instrumental bit like "WOOOOOAAAAAHHHH BLAAAAAAMMMM" and it would damn near blow my TV's speakers up!
In the end I'd say I enjoyed Suspiria to a certain extent, but I wasn't as impressed or blown away as I'd hoped I would be. I definitely dig Argento's visual style but I can't say I'm as enamored with his storytelling ability.
Goblin - "Suspiria Theme"
The Legacy of "Suspiria"
Suspiria was a surprise box office hit for 20th Century Fox in America during the Summer of '77, so Argento was able to continue the saga of the "Mothers" with the 1980 sequel Inferno, in which a man travels from Rome to New York to find his missing sister and gets caught up in a series of mysterious deaths. I might be in the minority, but I think I actually preferred Inferno to Suspiria -- it maintains the high weirdness quotient of its predecessor and has just as much (if not more) colorful eye candy, but it also cranks up the intensity by several notches.
Argento finally completed his Three Mothers Trilogy with 2007's belated Mother Of Tears, which I have yet to see, but it's on my list.
After more than a decade of starts and stops, a remake of Suspiria was finally released in November 2018, directed by Luca Guadagnino and starring Dakota Johnson as Susie Bannion. Chloe Grace Moretz and Tilda Swinton have supporting roles and the original "Susie," Jessica Harper, makes a cameo appearance.
Naturally, the horror community tore out its collective hair at the idea of remaking Suspiria. I haven't seen the remake yet but I must be one of the few who thinks that it could benefit from some 21st century tweaking, so it's on my list to check out sometime soon.
"Suspiria" Remake Trailer (2018)
© 2017 Keith Abt