I’ve seen a lot of bizarre movies in my life, but Dario Argento’s Suspiria just about tops the charts. You’d be hard-pressed to find anything quite like it. The film is weird, yet it’s weird in a way that makes just enough sense (which can’t be said for other terminally weird films, like Naked Lunch). The first installment of the “Three Mothers” trilogy; Suspiria is one of the most surreal and dreamlike horror films this side of Phantasm.
Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) has just journeyed from New York to Germany to attend a private and prestigious dancing academy. Things quickly turn from bizarre to frightening as students and faculty members begin dying mysteriously. Suzy digs deep into the history of the academy and starts to suspect that it might in fact be run by a coven of witches. She would be right, and the coven, lead by the decrepit and not-quite-dead Black Queen, will resort to any means to keep their existence a secret.
While German expressionism is known for its use of light and shadow, Italian expressionism seems to rely on insane uses of striking colors. You’ll see such examples in films by Lamberto Bava, but Argento takes it to a new level with Suspiria. This film looks like a rainbow threw up on a graveyard. As is the point of expressionism, the visuals aren’t meant to reflect a sane reality, but to evoke attitudes and emotions. If you’ve ever spent time with a color wheel (and who hasn’t?) you’ll be familiar with the concept of “complements”; colors that are opposites of one another so that they starkly contrast when seen together. In the case of Suspiria, you’ll see red and green in vibrant shades attacking your senses in tandem and it really makes you feel uncomfortable and sick.
Some of Argento’s other tactics include the occasional use of slow-motion and some utterly bizarre set designs and locations. All this combines to create the sensation of a waking dream; reality seen through a warped looking glass. Even during “mundane” moments in the film, there’s always something “off” that keeps you on edge.
And then there’s the music. Goblin (who provided the music for the European cut of Dawn of the Dead) provides a score like no other as the music takes on a life of its own, practically becoming its own character. Loud booming tunes usher in some of the most surprising and violent moments, building the suspense with each thundering crash. Their main theme is so haunting and eerily melodic, you’ll think you’ve fallen into another dimension. Music in horror films seems to be an afterthought, these days, but Suspiria is one of the finest examples of how essential good music can be to a film.
While the primary source of Suspiria’s fright stems from the atmosphere, Argento hurls in some memorable moments of gore and violence for the death-hounds in us all. The beginning action sequence featuring the plate glass ceiling ranks as my favorite death in the film, though the scenes featuring the blind pianist and his dog and the fate of Suzy’s best friend never fail to satisfy.
Suspiria is the closest thing to a “one of a kind” horror film I’ve encountered. True, Phantasm hits on a few similar chords, but not enough for me to really compare them. There aren’t a lot of good horror films centered around witchcraft, but regardless of that, Suspiria ranks as the best. It’s also one of those movies that’s extremely visual, making it hard to discuss; a “see it to believe it” kind of situation. The plot is very, very thin, the characters aren’t especially memorable and the motivations of the bad guys are either utterly befuddling or terminally boring. So like I said, you’re really just supposed to sit down and gobble up the cinematography like candy, as Suspiria is more satisfying in a primal sort of way than an intellectual one.