(Dario Argento, 1977)
(essay by Troy)
Suzy Banyon decided to perfect her ballet studies in the most famous school of dance in Europe. She chose the celebrated academy of Freiburg. One day, at nine in the morning, she left Kennedy airport, New York, and arrived in Germany at 10:40 p.m. local time.
So the narrator intones amidst a credit sequence consisting of a cacophony of pounding tympanis, screeching guitar strings, entrancing prog synths, and eerie background vocalizations. It would have been just as appropriate for Dario Argento to insert a title card which states “Once Upon A Time…” as it soon becomes apparent that Suspiria is Argento’s stylized and lurid attempt at crafting a supernatural, gothic fairy tale (Argento has admitted to using the story and film of Snow White as an influence). Even while mixing a few of his earlier giallo tropes into the mix — the Grand Guignol setpieces and a mystery that hinges on an unresolved memory come immediately to mind — he begins moving even further away from the more literal constructs of those earlier films and into the dreamscapes that he would incorporate for his short run of intriguing films.
The opening shot shows Suzy (Jessica Harper, perfect as the naive ingénue thrust into a world where she will soon lose her innocence) leaving the airport, ominous red lighting filling the walls behind her. It’s our first display of the use of unnatural lighting that Argento will use (surely influenced by his mentor, Mario Bava). The majority of the film involves the screen being bathed in some from of brilliant primary color — reds and blues dominate, but greens and yellows make their way in as well. Argento famously chose to use the three-strip Technicolor process that films such as The Wizard of Oz used, making the base colors (red, blue, and green) luridly pop off the screen as if they were painted on the film stock. Each room and exterior are seemingly capable of being immersed in any shade of color, all changing at a moments notice from one scene to the next. There’s no rhyme or reason as to why these lush colors are imbuing the environment, they just are, a key component to the creation of an eerie and mesmerizing atmosphere.
Suzy proceeds to leave the airport, a pensive look of unfamiliarity with her surroundings on her face. Argento immediately takes the viewer out of reality and into the fantastic by juxtaposing shots of Suzy, the natural sounds of the airport filling the soundtrack, with shots from Suzy’s POV as she slowly moves closer to the exit, overlaid with Goblin’s prog-rock ethereal score. As Suzy steps outside, a monstrous thunderstorm starts up, the soundtrack hitting us from all channels with rain, thunderclaps, and bass.
The strange aura that permeates the film begins during Suzy’s taxi ride to the dance school. Bright lights ominously and fantastically fill the car, intercut with images of rushing water and passing cars with colored halos. As they arrive at the school during the storm, Suzy sees another girl leaving, yelling at someone inside. In a common narrative flourish of Argento’s, what she says is unclear to us, but deciphering it will be the key to Suzy unlocking the puzzle at film’s end.
We see the girl leaving the school run through the forest, Argento’s purposefully anamorphic camera tracking alongside her as if flying by. The evil mutterings of the soundtrack (which the band titled “Sighs”) and the movement of the camera add up to make it feel as if she is being chased by some unseen force. The girl eventually arrives at the apartment of a friend, though we get the feeling that the ominous entities she was vexed by have followed her there. In talking to her friend, she sums up the film perfectly by stating that her experience at the school seemed “so absurd, so fantastic.”
The apartment’s architecture and interiors showcase Argento’s eye for striking compositions (and his brilliant use of Technicolor). The lipstick red walls consist of diamond and circle patterns interspersed with painted on columns. The marble floor is red, white, and black checked, forming a circular and triangular geometric pattern. Two seemingly lone aqua blue doors and a magnificently multi-colored stained glass skylight fill the rest of the entry hall. The apartment bedroom has painted birds on red walls next to a drawing room of blue walls with art deco doors. Even at the very end of the opening scene, where a splattering of blood is shown on the white marble tile, Argento’s stylized use of such eye-catching colors is spectacular to behold.
Soon the woman is attacked by an unseen force that swoops in from outside. A pair of eyes is seen when she peers into the inky night and an arm smashes through the window to assault her. This all culminates with a bravura setpiece where a body smashes through the colored stained-glass ceiling, hung by a rope, and another is impaled by steel girders, face sliced in half from a shard of glass. It all takes place amidst the aforementioned vivid and symmetrical layout of the apartment complex, accompanied by the brutally discordant soundtrack by Goblin.
850 words in and I’ve done nothing more than describe the first fifteen minutes of the film. Just in this short amount of time Argento manages to create a brilliant introduction to the horror that will follow, encapsulating all of his tricks and techniques in a phantasmagoric melding of lurid colors and bizarre noises.
In gathering screencaps for the film, I found myself with over 75 individual moments that caught my interest. These screencaps can give insight into the beauty of composition and art design that Argento employs (you can go see all of them, here), yet their static nature don’t allow for the importance that camera movement plays in creating the spellbinding experience. Argento uses tracking shots throughout, a key way in relating the supernatural and fantastical events that are taking place (the aforementioned run through the forest, Suzy dizzying entrance to the dance studio and walking up the staircase, the marbles rolling along the floor). There are other sequences throughout that showcase Argento’s mastery of motion and cutting — the dog attacking its owner in an empty square, maggots raining down from above, a room filled with razor wire, shadows showing from behind a curtain, Suzy’s strange walk down the hallway, and in the finale, where Suzy eventually “follows the breadcrumbs through the rabbit hole” (in keeping with the fairy tale allusions) leading to the final confrontation.
The soundscape is equally vital to creating the mood and atmosphere in the film. Much credit must go to Goblin’s score — during the most intense scenes they provide an avant garde barrage of pounding keyboards, drums, and strings, overlaid with cacophonous voices. At quieter times we merely hear whispered voices. Conceits such as the use of footsteps or loud snoring also come into play as important cues that further the story and add to the overall feel of the film.
I’ve gone all this way with nary a nod to the story or plot. That’s due to the narrative being light, Argento stressing visual and aural style over a intricate or even fully coherent plot or recognizably realistic characters (a hallmark of all his films to come, really). It’s apt to compare it to fairy tales and nightmares, as that points to the imagery Argento wants the viewer to conger up while the narrative unfolds.
Perhaps not the most horrifying film ever, with Argento often favoring stylistic ingenuity over generating real tension, it still contains some shocking and memorably frightful scenes. Ultimately, it’s an amazing union of vision and sound that leads to a distinctly nightmarish horror classic (and a particular amazing one-two punch from Argento when paired with Deep Red).
(See more screencaps at Troy’s blog, here)
(this film appeared on Troy’s list at #12, Kevin’s at #11, Jamie’s at #67, and Robert’s at #32)