Fusing psychological horror with a classic story of the occult, Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) follows the young American student Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) on her journey to a famous ballet boarding school in Bavaria. After witnessing a series of strange events on her first night, she realizes something is amiss; what follows is a surreal and often disturbing journey into her encounter and final showdown with a coven of Witches. Although based loosely on De Quincy’s Suspiria De Profundis, in my view Argento not only makes the story his own, but ends up creating a piece worthy of a place in the Modernist canon.
The most interesting aspect of this film, and the one I wish to focus upon, is its striking visuals. Shot with an anamorphic lens, Argento emphasizes the claustrophobic atmosphere of the Bavarian boarding house setting, creating an immediate feeling of paranoia. Furthermore, like his previous movie Deep Red (1975), the viewer is placed right in the action via liberal use of subjective and single-shot camera angles. For example, we are never given a full view of the house or the surrounding area – rather, we are left following Suzy through hazy, meandering corridors and poorly lit dance studios; the eyes of the domineering headmistress (Stefania Casini) always potentially upon us.
Another visually striking feature of Suspiria is its use of Technicolour. Argento uses a vivid palette of primary colours to further the sense of paranoia and surrealism running through the core of the movie: the viewer is met with a kaleidoscope of green and red shadings; the former representing innocence, the latter representing evil. Of special note here is Argento use of stained glass windows. Traditionally seen as an eye into the psyche, they are both a focal point of the film’s surreal beauty and a vehicle through which the pure evil of the occult manifests itself – in one of the opening scenes, we are both awed by visually ornate hallways and shocked by a brutal knifing which climaxes in a dancer falling through a stained glass skylight. The scene plays upon this contrast to draw the viewer into a sense of psychological unease; the shattering of the coloured panes representing a violation of our reflected self and soul.
The reason I wish to emphasize the visual aspect of this film lies in its centrality to thematic development. Argento exposes our psychological vulnerabilities by exploiting the dissonance between awe and horror; while we are captivated by the sight of baroque old-world architecture accented by a vivid display of colour, we are simultaneously repelled by graphic portrayals of violence at the hands of the Witches coven. In a manner similar to German Expressionism, the director crafts a mise-en-scene which is designed to represent and externalize the inner experience of the viewer. The visual effect of the film is also amplified by an excellent soundtrack courtesy of the Italian prog-rock band Goblin. Utilizing a syncopated and repetitive rhythm section supplemented by whispering vocals, the viewer’s sense of unease is heightened by the sheer monotony of sound. In other words, the music not only compliments Suspiria’s Modernist emphasis on psychological unease, but adds to it – are we hearing voices in Suzy’s head? Or are the Witches casting spells? This uncertainty, I think, plays into our own insecurities regarding our own psychological health.
In this way, I think, the film can be seen as not just an exercise in psychological horror, but as a as a Modernist classic in its own right – Argento’s ability to use the formal aspects of film to a full effect in crafting a surrealist narrative mirrors, in my view, the emphasis placed by the Modernists on representing experience rather than reality. The film also plays homage to Modernism by relying more upon suggestion and suspense than gratuitous violence – this no doubt being a function of its intelligent use of the formal techniques mentioned above.
Overall, I rate Suspiria highly, and I consider it to be one of Argento’s best. For in addition to having great merit when taken on its own, it can be argued that the film’s effective use of both subjective camera and colour to create an externalized subjectivity prefigures the use of such techniques in American horror classics Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980). As I cannot do justice to this film within the confines of this short essay, I shall end by way of encouraging everyone to give it at least one viewing.
Nathan R. Cockram.