Let’s Talk About ‘Suspiria’ (1977)

An innocent young woman rides in a taxi through hallucinatory colors and driving rain, arriving at a building the color of freshly spilled blood. Another woman flees through the Black Forest in the dark while drums and howls accompany her. A momentary respite in an impressive art-nouveau apartment building ends in a murder so violent and somehow also so beautiful that it takes your breath away.  This is the opening of Suspiria, one of the most beautiful horror films ever made.

In 1975 Dario Argento was the undisputed king of the giallo – the Italian crime/horror genre that he’d made popular with his first film, 1970’s The Bird With the Crystal Plumage. After a brief attempt to expand into comedy with The Five Days (a historical farce set during a revolt in 1848), Argento had returned to the genre that made him famous, releasing Deep Red to critical and commercial acclaim. Widely considered to be the greatest giallo film of all time, Deep Red was Argento’s definitive statement on the genre.

Given that his primary successes as a director had been with the giallo (including the other films in his “animal trilogy,” The Cat o’ Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet) – and that his one attempt at something different hadn’t succeeded – it seemed likely that his next film would also be a giallo.

Instead, Argento embarked upon the most ambitious and creative work of his career, experimenting with sound, structure and – most of all – color, to produce his most impressive and influential film.

What Suspiria Means to Us

I can remember the first time I saw most of my favorite movies. Watching John Carpenter’s The Thing on a tiny black and white screen in the office of the hydroelectric plant where my uncle worked. Seeing Bride of Frankenstein while sitting on the couch at my grandmother’s house. Renting The Evil Dead on VHS and watching it in our tiny trailer, while being terrified my mom would make us shut it off and return it. I can’t really remember where or when I first saw Suspiria, though. The first time I can remember renting it I realized it was familiar, as if I’d seen it before. Whole scenes were infused with deja-vu, though I couldn’t imagine having forgotten a film like Suspiria. It was like the film had reached back in time and imprinted itself on my brain before I’d ever seen it. Or that I HAD seen it, and it had wiped itself from my memory with black magic. Witchcraft.

As a result, it often feels to me like I’ve always known Suspiria. That the hallucinatory colors, the eerie and insistent soundtrack, and the operatic level of violence have been with me since childhood. A dark, malevolent, and beautiful fairy tale told by an uncle distant and strange, only half recalled because of time and fear. I remember falling in love with most of my favorite films. Suspiria is the only one that – as weird as it sounds – feels like it fell in love with me.

–Bob Cram

I don’t like Italian horror films. Out of all the ones I’ve seen (and I’ve seen a good chunk of them), Suspiria is one of the only ones that works for me and I honestly don’t know why. It’s as well directed as any other Argento film and outside of a couple of kills, has the same level of gore as but there’s something about it that has stuck with me since I’ve seen it. It honestly could just come down to its visuals. Suspiria might be the best looking horror film ever made. It’s one of the last to use two strip Technicolor and it’s a look I desperately miss. The colors just pop off the screen like 3D. They’re so vibrant, they almost assault the viewer with their brightness but unlike the recent The Munsters trailer, you actually want to get beat up by them. It’s like being stuck in a horrific techno dance club while slowly losing your mind. And that’s by design. Argento wanted every aspect of the film to feel like a dream, so that when it turns into a nightmare, it would be that much more impactful. While I could take or leave the rest of his filmography, this movie alone is worthy of canonizing it’s director. It’s really that good.

–Sailor Monsoon

Do You Know Anything About… Witches?

After dabbling with supernatural elements in his earlier films – most prominently in Deep Red, with the psychic (Macha Méril) who experiences mental contact with a murder – Argento decided to embrace the supernatural wholesale. The result mixes the opium-fueled writings of Thomas De Quincey, the occult history of Europe and the stories told to co-writer Daria Nicolodi by her grandmother.

De Quincey’s collection Suspiria De Profundis contains an Essay called Levanna and Our Ladies of Sorrow in which he posits the idea that there are three Sorrows (as there are three Fates and three Graces). These he called Mater Lachrymarum, Our Lady of Tears, Mater Tenebrarum, Our Lady of Darkness and Mater Suspiriorum, Our Lady of Sighs. Though it’s only briefly touched on in Suspiria, the concept of the Three Mothers as powerful witches who influence the world through black magic would inform two more of Argento’s films – 1980’s Inferno and 2007’s Mother of Tears – forming an odd trilogy (with a diminishing level of interest).

More obviously an influence on the plot of Suspiria is Daria Nicolodi’s stories about her grandmother, the pianist Yvonne Müller Loeb Casella, who supposedly went to a school on the border of Germany and Switzerland where the faculty (or in some versions the students) were all practitioners of witchcraft and black magic.

That same area of Europe, where France, Germany and Switzerland meet, has been referred to by Argento as the “magic triangle,” a place with heavy occult history. Argento and Nicolodi spent some time traveling in the area after they’d started a relationship during the filming of Deep Red. (That sometimes fractious relationship would produce several more films and a daughter, actress Aria Argento.)

Another influence on the film was, surprisingly, Walt Disney. The florid colors and fantastic imagery of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) has often been cited by Argento as an influence on how he wanted the film to both look and feel. Suspiria is really a dark fairy tale and it’s easy to see it as a Disney film as directed by… well, Dario Argento.

The final story can sound overtly simplistic. A young woman attends a dance academy that turns out to be run by a cabal of witches. After the deaths of some of the other students she prevails against the coven. It’s that very simplicity that allows everything else to work, a framework that supports all the excesses of music, color and violence without complicating the horror, like a typical giallo plot would.

Technicolor Nightmares

With a story in place, Argento needed a visual collaborator who was capable of realizing his fever dream. He found him in Luciano Tovoli. Tovoli was primarily known at that time for his work with Michelangelo Antonioni, particularly the movie The Passenger (1975). His devotion to realistic lighting seemed a poor fit for the visual histrionics of a horror film, but Argento saw something in Tovoli that was trying to get out, a desire for cinematic experimentation that would lead to some of the most stunning visual creations of his career.

Tovoli’s ability to innovate and his dedication to experimenting until he struck up on a solution that accomplished both his desire and Argento’s led him to use some unorthodox methods, including colored cloth and paper instead of traditional gels. (Tovoli has sometimes joked that the expressions of fear on the actor’s faces were perhaps due to their concern that the flammable materials so close to hot lights might ignite!) He even created a sort color zoetrope device in order to get the swirling colors seen early on in the film, when Suzy (Jessica Harper) rides in a taxi.

It’s been reported in the past that Argento and Tovoli shot Suspiria using Technicolor film stock, however Tovoli says this isn’t the case. The film used Eastman color negative film stock (difficult to get at that point) and what turns out to be the last functional three-strip Technicolor printer. Using the technicolor process allowed the filmmakers to saturate and “push” color in ways that weren’t possible with more traditional film printing processes.

While it’s undeniable that Suspiria is Argento’s vision, the importance of Luciano Tovoli’s contribution cannot be overstated. Tovoli was able to translate that vision into reality – a frenetic, hallucinatory and incredible feat.

Whispering ‘Witch!’ in the Black Forest

While finding a cinematographer that shared his vision wasn’t a sure thing, Argento knew from the beginning who he wanted to create the score. Italian prog-rock band Goblin had previously worked for Argento on Deep Red, contributing a score in a very short time frame (10 days!). For Suspiria the band had a luxurious three months. Argento wanted a score that would emphasize the supernatural and, according to Goblin’s leader Claudio Simonetti, make the audience feel like “the witches are still there, even if they’re not actually on the screen.”

The resultant score, alternating a creepy theme reminiscent of a children’s song with thundering drums, screeching strings, and odd, deep noises from a System 55 Moog synthesizer, is almost as much an assault on the senses as the color. From the earliest scene, in which Suzy walks through an airport and the music only arises when the doors to the outside open – indicating that outside, in the storm, things will get dangerous – the music adds an additional level of eeriness and outrageousness to the proceedings.

Music in Argento’s films can be jarring, surprising the viewer with odd noises or a seemingly inappropriate tone (I’m looking at you, Phenomena), but I don’t find that to be the case with Suspiria. The score is a necessary part of the film (to the point where Argento would play selections from the score during the shooting of the film, to make sure the cast would get the mood he was going for). It’s an essential part of the experience, functioning at its best when played loud.

Ballerinas and Black Magic

Both Nicolodi and Argento had originally intended for the cast to consist primarily of young girls, enhancing that dark fairy tale feel as innocence finds itself struggling against darkness. Producers nixed that idea, but the script was hardly changed to accommodate the older actresses. Interactions between the girls in the school remain simplistic and childish in many cases and the set was even designed in such a way as to infantilize the performers, with things like the doorknobs being placed near head level.

With child performers no longer an option, Argento needed someone in the lead role of Suzy Bannon who could convey innocence and also an inner strength – and he found her in the lead actress from Brian DePalma’s The Phantom of the Paradise, Jessica Harper. Harper turned down a role in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall to play the waif-like ballerina who finds herself surrounded by mystery and murder. While the script gives her little to work with, Harper manages a believable character in the midst of unbelievable events. Suzy evolves from wide-eyed naivete into an almost cynical, driven personality – never quite losing that feeling of mythical purity, even as she’s facing zombies and ancient witches.

Argento also cast several acting veterans, including Alida Valli (The Third Man) as the stern and uncompromising Miss Tanner and Joan Bennet (Dark Shadows) as the deputy Headmistress Madame Blanc. Suspiria was Bennet’s last film in a long career which included films for Fritz Lang, but she was probably most famous for playing Elizabeth Collins Stoddard on the gothic soap opera Dark Shadows. The older woman authority figure whose solicitousness towards the heroine turns out to be self-serving if not malicious, is a character familiar from fairy tales (there’s Snow White again) and contributes to that feeling of the film as a dark fantasy.

Argento’s films have often been criticized as misogynistic, with violence directed towards women being a central feature. In Suspiria this seems less clear. Yes, violence against women is still part of the plot, but it’s a film where all of the driving action is by female characters. They are the heroes and the villains. Men play only minor roles (and most of them die violently as well).

You’re Going to Meet Death Now: The Legacy of Suspiria

Suspiria’s saturated color palette, dynamic soundtrack and stylized violence had a mixed reception with audiences at the time. Popular in Italy and Europe the US release was cut back severely by Twentieth Century Fox, perhaps to protect their reputation given a certain other 1977 release. Many reviewers were non-plussed by the sound, the color and the lack of a traditional plot. While Suspiria always enjoyed an underground, cult status, it was only relatively recently that it received a more mainstream re-appraisal as a classic of the horror genre, and one of the most interesting and visually impressive films of the 1970’s.

The influence of Suspiria can be seen (and heard) in numerous works over the years since its release. Directors like Edgar Wright, John Carpenter and Quinten Tarantino – among others – have cited Suspiria as an influence and inspiration in their own films. Films like Beyond the Black Rainbow, Cell (2000), Neon Demon, Mandy, Last Night in Soho, and Midsommar share some visual (or visceral) DNA with Argento’s masterpiece.

Goblin’s soundtrack for the film was one of the first to make heavy use of a synthesizer, something that would become ubiquitous in the horror films that followed in the 70’s and 80’s. John Carpenter has famously even mentioned “stealing” from Goblin to create the soundtrack for Halloween.

Suspiria was also recently (2018) remade by Luca Guadagnino. While the remake eschews the excesses of the original in both color and sound, it works as a counterpoint to the original and expands upon themes only hinted at in the original.

Suspiria still remains an effective and even powerful film, even 45 years after its release. I envy anyone who get to watch the film for the first time. It’s a dark and bloody fairytale that never fails to entertain and impress. I imagine we’ll still be talking about it as one of the most beautiful horror films 45 years from now. Certainly I will be.

What about you? What’s your experience of Suspiria? Any thoughts or tidbits you’d like to share?

Author: Bob Cram

Would like to be mysterious but is instead, at best, slightly ambiguous.