An American girl arrives late at a German dance academy in time to see a girl running away, who is murdered soon after. Other strange events follow and she finds out about the mysterious history of the school and that it used to be a front for a coven of witches before being destroyed in a fire.
Suspiria is a milestone of Italian horror and it doesn’t disappoint, though it does take a little getting used to. It is at once faithfully developing and adhering to old techniques of genre film-making, while also pushing it to its very limits in ways even the independent spirit of ’70s films would find impossible to match. As such, it is genuinely shocking, even today, with one scene in particular making a complete mockery of the entire Saw franchise. It’s too easy to be snobbish though, so to put it in context, it was released the same year Spielberg invented the blockbuster in Jaws, three years after The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and two before Alien.
Horror is the most visual of the original genres, developed from German Expressionism where Gothic architecture and ominous shadows became the essential building blocks of any scary movie. The school is a perfect setting for a classic horror then, with everything from huge halls, creepy attics and secret rooms. But what’s changed over the years in general is that those core elements have softened; either audiences have become desensitised to the OTT visual style of old-school horror, or studios prefer something more generic and so soften the edges.
Dario Argento doesn’t follow that thinking at all. He takes his typical Gothic mansion and enthusiastically drenches it colour. Every set is dazzlingly different to the last, in both decor and lighting. Even the narrative alludes to it, with a teacher conducting lessons in either the “red room” or the “yellow room”. There is a blue room as well and Argento uses those primary colours along with windows and reflections to emphasise a hidden world just behind what we can see.
This is perhaps demonstrated best in a memorable scene when all the students are forced to abandon their rooms and have to sleep in makeshift beds all together in a hall that the teachers have hastily prepared. Sheets are hung from the ceiling to form a barrier inside the hall. When the lights are turned off, instead of the expected darkness, we get a deep dark red with shadows moving along the sheets.
Brilliantly effective, Argento never takes the obvious route in this film and defies convention whenever possible. This assault on convention and the senses is also in the soundtrack from Goblin. I’d forgotten about their wonderful, brief theme in Dawn of the Dead and this is similarly bonkers. It sounds like they threw everything into it! There’s even a voice screaming “witch!” in the mix. At times, I found it a bit much, but then I wasn’t expecting such a visceral experience overall and repeat viewings will let me appreciate it properly. When the girl is departing the airport at the very start, the music is only heard when the doors at the front open. Nice gag and underlines the idea she’s stepping into a new world.
So it’s all very pretty in a foreboding way, but these Italian films are known for their blood soaked murders. Suspiria opens with one of the best movie murders you will ever see and has one or two more that are very powerful indeed. Not so much for their aesthetics, but just because they get under your skin and again challenge what you may expect to be the norm. One in particular involving a blind piano player and his dog, is incredibly audacious.
What really surprised me is the lack of gore though. It’s used in the right place at the right times to best serve the story. I’ve come to think that Giallo is a term thrown around without much understanding and is actually a more subtle genre. In fact, remove the murders, lessen the tone and you have a typical fairytale. Harry Potter and the Bloody Nasty Witches, perhaps?
This is possibly the films masterstroke, because despite the very adult tone, it’s set in a child’s world of simple black and white morality and therefore gets to the root of our fears. The teachers who are really witches/robots/aliens (delete as applicable) is a common story, that thrives on that idea of hidden worlds (the big scary adult world usually). The idea that all the students think the teachers go home every night, but one realises the footsteps go in the wrong direction is a very childish notion, and I mean that in a very, very good way.
If you’ve never experienced Italian horror before, this is a perfect jumping on point.