The first time I saw this gem from the incomparable Dario Argento, I became obsessed with it. I watched it three more times that same week. I was stunned by the scope of Argento's vision and the extent to which he molded every detail of Suspiria to fit it. The vibrant color palette, the ornate sets, the ruthless use of sound to heighten tension, the distinctive and absolutely hair-raising music; every element of this film compliments every other element so well that I'm not sure where to begin my praise. And this is all on top of the fact that Suspiria also features some of the most elaborate and uncompromisingly gory kill scenes in the history of horror.
The movie opens with one of those stylized and gory kill scenes, as a young ballet student named Pat (Eva Axen) frantically flees her school. She lands on a friend's doorstep, who gladly says that Pat can stay as long as she likes. Pat, obviously still feeling a keen sense of imminent danger, says she will be leaving first thing in the morning. When she goes into the bathroom to clean up, she sees a pair of glowing, cat-like eyes through the window. This surreal moment is followed by a cacophony of shattering glass and muffled screaming as an arm punches through the window to grab the back of Pat's head, then uses her face to shatter the windowpane the rest of the way. Her mostly unseen assailant then stabs her, graphically and repeatedly, before rigging a noose and dropping her through the roof of her friend's apartment building. Incidentally, falling glass and metal take out the friend as well.
This brutal opening sequence left me staring slackjawed at the screen the first time I saw it. It's a scene that refuses to be ignored, bursting with screams so constant and loud that they seem to come from all around you. Near its end, when Pat is being forced through the ceiling, the sounds of breaking glass, bending metal and falling debris are almost enough to flatten the viewer. The sonic assault of the scene is an extra touch that helps elevate it to a level of breathtaking artistry.
What's also cool is that Pat is not just a throwaway character. She ends up having importance to the rest of the picture, since a new student of the dance academy named Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper) witnesses her frenzied escape. Suzy is arriving as Pat is leaving, and she notices Pat pausing in the doorway to yell something at someone inside. Unfortunately, there is a heavy rain falling at the time, and the noise of the storm keeps Suzy from hearing what Pat is saying. Suzy tries to work this out periodically throughout the rest of Suspiria, as deciphering what, exactly, Pat was running from begins to seem increasingly vital.
Suzy ends up having one hell of a first few days at the dance academy. After initially being told to "go away" over the intercom, Suzy is eventually able to get through the academy doors. She is cordially greeted by the schools headmistress, Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) and Miss Tanner (Alida Valli) one of the school's sternest and most valued instructors. Then they tell her that her room isn't ready yet, and she'll have to stay with a fellow student named Olga (Barbara Magnolfi), who turns out to have a bit of a mouth on her. These inconveniences turn out to be the least troublesome things that will happen to Suzy. When she ends up feeling perfectly comfortable at Olga's and tells Madame Blanc that she'd prefer to stay on there, the headmistress seems a bit offended that Suzy won't be taking a room at the school. Soon after, one of the cooks (Franca Scagnetti) reflects light off of a mirror and into Suzy's eyes as she walks down the hallway. This may or may not have something to do with the fact that Suzy abruptly becomes weak and ill, passing out with one monster of a nosebleed during her very first class. When Suzy wakes, her things have all been brought from Olga's house and she has been moved into the academy against her wishes, allegedly so they can monitor her health. The school's doctor puts her on a strict diet which includes drinking wine every night. This part might not normally seem so bad, but there is something a little off about the wine; it's both the color and consistency of blood. Other disconcerting events include an infestation of maggots which begin raining from the ceilings of the girls' dormitories, which is explained away by Madame Blanc as the result of an error by the school's food vendors, who apparently delivered rotten meat.
The presence of such vermin is the last thing one would expect in Madame Blanc's posh academy. The high ceilings and spiral staircases make the place seem palatial, as do the walls, most of which are covered in fabrics of various, vivid colors and patterns. Suspiria is notable for being one of the last films shot in technicolor, and the set design for the dance academy is one of many places where Argento uses color to great effect. Walls draped in deep burgundy or rich crimson can be either elegant or malevolent depending on the mood of certain scenes. The different colored lights rooms are lit with in key scenes add to the film's uneasy atmosphere as well. Suspiria may never explain why a school would choose to use light bulbs that give off blood red or ectoplasmic green hues, but I'm not entirely sure that was an oversight. To me, the disconcerting lighting, which goes unacknowledged by the characters, helps get the point across that we have entered a world which is not quite our own. It is the land of the macabre fairy tale, where certain bits of strangeness are more evident to attentive viewers than to the characters who accept them without question.
As eye-catching as the colors in Suspiria are, they are only half of a one-two punch which is completed by the film's score. Written and performed by a group called Goblin, the music starts out like something from a child's music box before well-placed drumbeats, harsh rasping and a host of otherworldy effects are added into the mix as well. It all adds up to a potent brew that may very well be the scariest music any horror film has ever boasted. And yes, that includes A Nightmare On Elm Street and Insidious, both of which made it onto this countdown, and both of which I gave high praise to for their scores.
Admittedly, the plot of Suspiria is a little vague. Broadly speaking, everything makes as much sense as it needs to, but the specifics can be a bit harder to nail down. It involves a coven of witches, founded long ago by the evil Helena Markos, which is still active in the modern day and has acquired great power. The dance academy is obviously something of a front for the coven, and most of the staff is apparently in their employ. However, it's left unclear if these staff members are all full-fledged witches or if some of them are merely thralls to the coven. Their special interest in Suzy is also never fully explained. Eventually, one of the witches intimates that Suzy needs to be destroyed because her meddling is becoming problematic, but Suzy probably never would have started digging into the coven's secrets in the first place if the staff of the academy hadn't already been acting so strangely towards her. These little details really don't detract much from the film and are not necessarily things that most would notice upon seeing it for the first time. Having seen Suspiria innumerable times now, I've come to the conclusion that the mere fact that Suzy saw Pat fleeing the school and could potentially figure out the damaging information about the academy that Pat was trying to impart to her companion inside the doorway was reason enough for the coven to want her eliminated.
Some modern audiences, being arguably more sophisticated in certain ways, may take exception to Suspiria's one-sided depiction of witches. These are definitely not the mostly benign, earth-worshiping Wiccans that many think of as the face of witchcraft today. They are not bound by any religious ethics, such as the rule of three, which warns Wiccans that anything they do will come back on them three times as powerfully. In the world of Suspiria, witches are evil people who get into witchcraft for the express purpose of doing evil things. In fact, when Suzy has a chance to ask a few questions of an expert on witchcraft, he informs her that there is not even any such thing as a "good" witch. Such ideas might cause an uproar if they were part of the premise of a newer film, but in 1977, when the Wiccan religion was far less visible, it was probably too much to expect Suspiria to be sensitive to real people who might identify as actual witches. In any event, taking time out to include any sort of disclaimer that not all real witches are evil probably would have only served to water this terrifying movie down to an unacceptable degree. I'm inclined to think that most viewers are probably discerning enough to figure out that Suspiria's coven of witches is not meant to bear any resemblance to modern day Wiccans.
Whatever minor hiccups the plot has (and despite some instances of corny English dubbing) the cast is more than strong enough to overcome them. Jessica Harper is magnetic as the wary and suspicious Suzy, a character tormented by half remembered details that she knows could save her if she could only piece them together in her head. Joan Bennett seems to be channeling Elizabeth Taylor as the regal Madame Blanc. Alida Valli is intimidating as Miss Tanner, whose broad, toothsome smile doesn't do much to hide her barely contained cruelty. Flavio Bucci is sympathetic as Daniel, a blind musician with a seeing eye dog that is probably his only real friend. Stefania Casini plays Suzy's friend Sara as a constant nervous wreck who knows that a lot of weird things have been happening at the school, but is too scared to talk about it except in a hushed, urgent whisper. A young Udo Kier also pops up and does a fine job with his small role as a psychiatrist who is skeptical of anything that smacks of mysticism.
One of the best things about Suspiria is that it's impossible to predict where the attacks on Suzy, Sara and others might come from, or even what form they will take. Not much seems to be outside the bounds of the coven's power. Anyone who manages to offend or threaten them may find themselves at the mercy of a cat-eyed killer, a pit of barbed wire which appears out of nowhere, their own mind-controlled pets, or any number of other torments, all depending on the whims of their magically powered enemies. I greatly enjoy it that Suspiria has a premise which allows for a wide range of creative and sinister set ups. The fact that each kill scene is so different from the ones before makes it impossible for this movie to become boring.
It's rare to encounter a film that could be called a triumph of both gore and artistic integrity, but Suspiria is exactly that. From its sadistic opening to its crazed and fiery conclusion, it still floors me with every viewing. A heady mix of vivid atmospherics, graphic violence, and inescapable danger, this movie is a nightmare taken right out of Dario Argento's macabre brain and translated undiluted onto film. It's an absolutely unique cinematic experience that simply has to be seen to be believed.
We're about to break into my top 5 films, so stay tuned for my next installment!