“Suspiria” is the psychedelic horror story of a young American girl named Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) who transfers to a prestigious German ballet school that holds a dark ulterior motive, darker than teaching ballet to both boys and girls.
The movie begins with Suzie at the airport, arriving in Munich.. As she approaches the automated exit, the theme music of the film starts to play lightly over the mise-en-scene.
In the first of several subliminal messages, a poster on the side of the doors read “Black Forest”, hinting that that is what indeed lies beyond for our heroine. The hydraulics of the doors open and close for Suzie (and us) in close up, signifying she has gone through the rabbit hole and now is lost in Wonderland. The storm outside in the night drenches her in darkness and rain as if the darkly magical atmosphere itself has manifested to cover her in it’s trappings. Hailing a cab Suzie realizes she’s not in Kansas anymore, or indeed Oz for that matter. A few cabs pass her by until she is able to flag one down. Getting into the cab, she and the viewer are driven to the Academy.
Argento covers this scene in beautiful light and uses the theme music of the film to it’s ultimate effect. The tone of the film is masterfully set and the viewer is hooked in less than five minutes. What is perhaps the best opening scene of a horror movie ever is only amplified by one of the most vicious, shocking, and visually jaw-dropping double murder scenes of all time. Suzie decides to play Nancy Drew and solve the mystery of the murdered girls which only plunges her deeper into the underbelly of the witches coven.
“Suspiria” is the first of director Dario Argento’s loosely connected “Three Mother’s Trilogy” and EASILY the best of them by a landslide (or if you prefer, country mile). Suspiria’s color and style is modeled after Walt Disney’s fairy tale animated movies of the 1950’s, giving it the films sense of unreality.
Dario Argento, is called “the Maestro of horror” (but so is his predecessor, Mario Bava) for his inventive use of the camera and inventive murder scenes. Indeed, when watching his films one gets the feeling that Argento finds the plot of films to come second to the visual experience. While this is usually a flaw in Argento’s other movies, it works in favor of this film. His visualization of a dark fairy tale that could only be experienced during REM (not the band) is an assault on the senses. This was the last film printed in Technicolor and is a feast for the eyes. The film is bathed in various gel colors throughout the film, giving it a heightened, very stylized look. Some critics of the film cite the excessive use of lighting as a stumbling block in their enjoyment. However, people of taste will see it as what it is: a technical and visionary triumph. The entire movie has a surreal edge that is enhanced by the lighting and it keeps the viewer reminded that we are in a world of very dark fantasy. Indeed, there is no other way the film could work as it’s points of inspiration are Thomas De Quincey’s “Confession of an Opium Eater”, witchcraft, and classic Disney films “Sleeping Beauty” “Fantasia” and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”.
Setting out to assail the viewer audio visually, Argento is helped in the latter by Italian rock band “Goblin”. The infamous score to Suspiria is one of the key components to it’s atmosphere. The main theme itself is an inverted version of “Jesus Loves Me” which can be heard here. This is one of the many, slightly subliminal, touches that adds a menacing and palatable sense of the evil of the film, an evil that is more inferred and felt by the viewer than actually seen.
John Carpenter’s “Halloween” is famous for it’s opening point of view shot in which the audience spends the first 10 minutes or so in the shoes of young killer Micheal Myers. This scene makes the viewer feel somewhat complicit in the actions of Myers, and it was praised as inventive for it’s time. While Halloween is a masterpiece, Carpenter owes more than a little to Argento. Many of the scenes feels as though they are taking place through the viewpoint from an unseen watcher…a malignant spiritual force that is able to see everything that goes on and destroy anyone who gets in the way of the coven. This is a horror film, so you want good kills, and you get it. The evil in the film kills it’s characters brutally and efficiently. To tell you about the deaths would be to spoil them, but I will say that the scene where a character falls into a room full of razor wire still jars me to this day.
I realize I have gushed about this film and overpraised it for the past hour now. I myself saw the film for the first time on VHS about 9 years ago and I did not like it. The film transfer looked like it was filmed on the same blurry stock as soap operas. However, some scenes and pieces of music stayed in my head for years afterwords, so I saw the film on DVD, remastered in glorious THX. I was floored by how much more the film improved by the vibrant colors, colors that had been washed out and muddled in my first viewing. After that, I fell in love with this piece of pop-art, subliminal, surreal, horror movie history. I think most of you here will like it, if it has not been seen by you already.
It’s sequels “Inferno” and “Mother of Tears”, which focus on characters running a foul of the other two sisters of Helena Marcos, are a mixed bag. Inferno tries to duplicate the magic and feeling of the first but ultimately comes up short. There is one scene filmed in a room underwater that is quite amazing. “Mother of Tears”, made some 20 years after “Inferno” is the weakest of the series. Argento abandons the surreal stylization of the previous two entries in the series for a more naturalistic style, and I believe it is one of the many faults of the film. Though it is interesting and ties the whole series together it was not worth the 20+ year of waiting horror aficionados had for it.
Sadly “Suspiria” is one of the next films on the remake block. While I think it is possible to remake the film in the right hands, the current trend of horror remakes leaves me with little to no hope that it will actually be done right. To end this on a slightly less depressing note, here is a fan made poster for the remake by someone who gets what the film is: