No in-depth study of horror cinema is complete without a study of Italian horror. No in-depth study of Italian horror is complete without a study of Dario Argento. No in-depth study of Dario Argento is complete without a study of Suspiria. While the buzz surrounding the recent Luca Guadagnino remake is largely favorable, the likelihood of it surpassing the Argento original is understandably slim.
Heavily inspired by influential Italian filmmaker Mario Bava, Argento helped pioneer the giallo subgenre, a series of highly stylized murder mysteries that acted as the bridge between Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and the slasher films of the late 70s and 80s. Giallo, which literally translates to “yellow,” connotes the yellow covered, Agatha Christie-esque, series of who-done-it novellas that lined Italian bookshelves of the time. Argento’s notable entries within the genre include such films as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Deep Red, macabre masterpieces that are required viewing for genre fans. While Susperia itself isn’t a pure giallo (due, in part, to the supernatural nature of the story) it does utilize many of the same tropes that made the genre so recognizable, what with its use of gels, it’s sense of intrigue and it’s elaborate set pieces.
Cult film icon Jessica Harper (Shock Treatment, Phantoms of the Paradise, Stardust Memories) plays Suzy Bannion, an American ballet student newly accepted to the Tanz Dance Academy in Freiburg, Germany. The night Suzy arrives at the school, in the midst of a thunderstorm, she crosses paths with Patricia, a distraught student fleeing the academy only to be brutally murdered later. Similar tragedy befalls fellow student Sara as well as the schools blind pianist, Daniel. Suzy, taken ill herself, begins to question the comings and goings of dance instructor Miss Tanner (Alida Valli of The Third Man, Eyes Without a Face fame), head mistress Madame Blanc (Dark Shadows’ Joan Bennett in her final screen performance) and the rest of the faculty who allegedly reside in the nearby town yet never seem to leave the school grounds after dark. As Suzy soon discovers, the Tanz Dance Academy teaches a darker art than ballet.
Arguably the most renown Italian thriller (certainly the best known stateside where the title is given notable name drops in such American blockbusters as Juno and Scream 4), Argento’s hallucinatory masterpiece operates as an amalgam film of sorts, showcasing everything that made Italian horror cinema so innovative. A supernatural suspense piece shrouded in the occult, a plot circulating a series of mysterious murders (not altogether unlike that of most giallo), all with that trademark dash of posh sophisticato that only Argento could bring; Suspiria has accomplished what few other Italian films ever could; it managed to permeate into the mainstream.
With Suspiria (the first of Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy, predating Inferno and The Mother of Tears), Argento touches on alienation, a reoccurring theme within his body work (one he revisits in his similar albeit less popular title, Phenomena, starring Jennifer Connelly and Donald Pleasence). The audience is introduced to a lone American girl, an outsider on her own in a European boarding school where everything seems amiss. A major influence on Suspiria, odd as it may seem, was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs which was regularly played in theaters throughout Italy during a time, pre-1950’s, when Italy was neither producing nor importing horror films and Disney’s animated tale of beauty corrupted by the dark powers of witchcraft was the closest many would come to true onscreen terror.
Argento’s otherworldly, even alien, use of color adds atmosphere and depth to the more supernatural elements of the film, transporting the viewer into an uncanny and altogether unearthly state of mind; an experience not easily attained amongst the lesser efforts of American horror cinema which often make the mistake of going for realism in their films regarding the surreal. Add the hauntingly sinister synth score by prog-rock outfit Goblin (then created as “The Goblins”) and the result is a psychotropic tour de force that’s not only a pivotal piece within Argento’s already acclaimed filmography but (ranking in at number 18 on Entertainment Weekly’s 25 Scariest Movies of All Time) iconic to horror cinema the world over.