I’ll start out by saying that I knew relatively little about Dario Argento’s Suspiria going into it for the first time. I knew it had a fairly respectable reputation and a famous scene involving a stained glass ceiling. I had vague memories of the segment about it on Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments, and though I watched that series annually for about three years in high school, I didn’t remember any plot details about Suspiria specifically. But it was these vague memories of the clips of the glass ceiling scene that drew me to the film. And it wasn’t anything to do with the scare that came with this bloody beaten woman falling through a ceiling only to be caught by a noose before she hits the ground. It was a frightening image, but if the show provided any context for the woman’s death, I didn’t recall it. What intrigued me and what stuck with me were the visuals that complemented this death scene: the bright reds and shapes on the walls, the layout of the building, the design of the stained glass and the floor. When watching its segment of the Bravo series, which was essentially a marathon viewing of famous death scenes, it stood out so much among even the most iconic horror films. After seeing the film in its entirety, I look back on this and find it pretty amazing that so much about the film as a whole was communicated from watching literally seconds of the film and from a scene that ultimately plays only a minor part in the narrative.
The film begins with the arrival of main character Suzy Banyon at her new German ballet school, but for whatever reason she cannot be let in the building. As she is arrives, a woman runs out the door, yells something she can’t understand and runs into the night. The film then switches to this woman, Pat, still shaken from whatever was at the school, at her friend’s apartment. When she is alone in the room, she sees a pair of eyes outside and suddenly she is attacked, stabbed and disemboweled. Her body falls through the glass ceiling of the building, catching on a noose before she hits the ground, with the falling glass and debris also killing her friend. The film then returns to Suzy, getting settled in at the ballet school. The school is filled with strange characters, but seems normal initially. But strange things begin happening: Suzy suddenly becomes ill after an encounter with one of the staff, maggots infest the building and the school’s blind piano player’s seeing-eye dog mauls and kills him. Along the way, Suzy befriends a classmate, Sarah, who was friends with Pat and has some theories as to these happenings. Sarah tries to tell them to Suzy, but before she can she is murdered by presumably the same assailant as Pat while Suzy is asleep. Suzy is told that Sarah left in the night, but she looks into a man Sarah had mentioned before she leaves. This man explains to her that the school was founded by a woman interested in the occult, famously thought to be a witch and the school thought to be run by a coven of witches. Returning to the school, Suzy finds a secret section of the school, based on what she remembered Pat yelling as she left and discovers that, surprise, the staff is witches. She confronts the founder of the school, who tries to kill her, but Suzy ultimately triumphs and walks away as the school burns down.
The narrative is certainly distinctly horror, but many elements of the genre come and go to contribute to the film to the films nature of horror. Initially, the films makes the viewer believe this will be a stalker-murderer story with its first killing, then later reaffirms this with Sarah’s death scene. But once Suzy settles into the school, the scares come more from the idea of the school as a haunted house, until finally settling on a more supernatural horror story with the introduction of the idea of witches. But though some narrative elements may be too familiar, the way Argento uses them in tandem with certain directorial techniques to get the scares is rather unique. Initially, I was slightly off put by the way Argento handled the tension and release of the killings that the success and effectiveness of the horror genre so depend on, but in retrospect there’s a certain unique genius to it. The score of the film, by Italian progressive rock band Goblin, is a constant presence, as any score should be, but is a loud symphony of many noises and instruments that could almost be described as cacophonous. At the tense moments before a killing in the film, the score builds and builds only to completely stop before anything happens, leading the viewer into a something in between a false sense of security and disappointment at the lack of catharsis. But it is shortly after this when the killing finally happens and often in an unexpected fashion. The way the viewer braces for some monster or supernatural force to take out the blind man in the square, but jumps when it is the man’s dog that bites his neck or how we think Suzy as escaped the killer through the window, only to have her fall into a sea of barbed wire.
But although the film excels in providing a horror story and frightening moments, what drives and ultimately defines the film are the visuals and Argento’s directing in general. Any horror film can be said to be a nightmare brought to life, but with Suspiria, Argento immerses the viewer in an environment so surreal and frightening “nightmare” is the only descriptor that will do it justice. The unnatural lighting of blue and red and extravagantly designed rooms and hallways of the school provide the viewer with a consistent visual aesthetic, but one that keeps them consistently on edge and unsettled. Certain physical spaces are established, but the viewer never really has an idea of the layout of the school that the majority of the film the school takes place in, causing a jarring effect when the characters wander. As I mentioned previously, parts of the narrative are somewhat problematic. Characters and ideas are introduced but never really developed in the story as a whole and the inconsistency of the horror elements used is interesting but strange. But ultimately these aspects lend themselves to the dream-like nature of the film, making the school seem like some unique realm where strange things happen with little or no explanation. What drew me to the film was the beautiful and strange imagery, the likes of which I had never before seen. What the film as a whole provides is a nightmarish vision and an approach to horror that is just as equally unique.