The 1977 horror classic is still utterly unique in its terror.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told it to you. It all seems so … absurd! So fantastic!” Pat Hingle (Eva Axén) insists in the opening minutes of Suspiria, shortly before her own murder at the hand of those same “fantastic” forces. The line reads almost like a sly encapsulation of the film itself. With its funhouse architecture and hyper-stylized Technicolor gore, Dario Argento’s 1977 Giallo horror classic is remarkable in its sheer disdain for realism. 41 years later, it’s still capable of conjuring up terror in a manner that eludes even the most viscerally convincing slashers. What is it, then, that still makes Suspiria terrifying?
Most analyses of Suspiria have focused on its surreal art direction. To be sure, the film’s usage of lurid color and dizzying Escheresque interiors (the ballet school itself is even located on a street named “Escherstrasse”) have made its visuals unforgettable, but to call it a mere exercise in style also misses the point. The craft of Suspiria’s beauty is overwhelming, almost to the point of disorientation. Blood and red wine alike are rendered as bright and gummy as Crayola paint. The film’s death setpieces are staged with a meticulously detached sense of theatricality – during the infamous first double-murder sequence, as Pat’s friend Sonia desperately pounds against a locked door upon hearing the other girl’s screams, she appears helplessly small against the towering hot-pink backdrop of her apartment building. When the girls die, their faces still appear pristine – almost doll-like – despite the superficial smears of gore. The visual language of Suspiria is utterly unnatural and all the more nightmarish for it.
Given the heavily aestheticized female deaths, it’s easy to see why one might criticize Suspiria for being exploitative and/or misogynistic, especially when Argento himself was once quoted as saying, “I like women, especially beautiful ones. If they have a good face and figure, I would much prefer to watch them being murdered than an ugly girl or a man.” While women suffer the brunt of the violence in Suspiria, they are also the principal players in its story – men remain largely absent or extraneous.
The film’s heroine, Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), is an American student freshly arrived at the prestigious German Tanz Dance Academy who becomes increasingly entangled in its mysteries amidst a string of gruesome murders. It’s a fairly orthodox narrative, yet Suzy’s character also belies many of the conventional markers of final girldom. While her foreign status marks her as an outsider, she does not appear to be any more serious or physically resilient than any of her classmates. She engages in a casual flirtation with Mark (Miguel Bosé), an attractive male dancer, though the relationship admittedly goes nowhere. Moreover, Suzy is hardly immune to the strange forces that dominate the school – she quickly falls ill after a strange encounter with a custodian, and her most strenuous physical encounter is with a bat that she manages to kill only after trapping it under a towel.
However, Suzy, as her menacing teacher Miss Tanner (Alida Valli) observes, is crucially “strong-willed.” She is relentlessly curious and devoted to unearthing the school’s secrets, even if she doesn’t quite seem to know how to defeat the evil at its heart; both she and the film are more concerned with the act of uncovering it. As in a conspiracy thriller, the murder victims in Suspiria are those who “know too much:” Pat threatens to blow the lid on the sinister goings-on at Tanz to Sonia; the blind pianist Daniel (Flavio Bucci) warns that “[he’s] blind, not deaf,” insinuating he’s heard something unnatural; and Suzy’s suspicious friend Sara (Stefania Casini) gets caught while trying to investigate where the teachers go at night.
It’s notable, too, that the wicked witches in Suspiria aren’t even recognized as such until the third act. It’s not until Suzy talks to Professor Milius (Rudolf Schündler), an expert in town for a conference, that she realizes a single entity is responsible for the mysterious sounds and disappearances at her school. Up to that point, the role of active, supernatural evil in the film is only hinted at in details like a pair of glowing eyes, a flash of crystal, and the repeated hisses of “witch!” in Goblin’s chilling original score. One only considers it through small impossibilities – what is Pat and Sonia’s murderer, with its glowing eyes, yet hairy, seemingly disembodied human arm, and how did it reach that high window? Was Suzy’s sudden fatigue the result of a curse?
Daniel’s murder is perhaps the eeriest. It takes place in an inhumanly vast square, flanked by neoclassical facades that seem reminiscent of fascist architecture. And yet, apart from his dog’s sudden barking, there are no other diegetic clues that something is amiss – the camera quickly zooms into a looming stone bird perched atop one of the pediments, before zooming down towards Daniel with the sound of flapping wings, but nothing seems to happen. The only concrete “confirmation” of an evil presence comes when the dog suddenly jumps on its owner and begins to rip their throat out.
Despite their seeming omnipotence, the witches in Suspiria seem to be relegated to ordinary murder methods – their agents can possess a victim’s dog, or otherwise use brutally human avenues of violence like stabbing, but they cannot cast spells to make someone drop dead. Helena Markos (Lela Svasta), the film’s archvillain witch, is at first only visible through a silhouette behind a curtain. It’s only at the very end, during Suzy’s final confrontation with her, that it’s revealed that witches can also reanimate the dead to do their bidding (though the zombified Sara still has to be armed with a knife). Even then, Helena herself is a glimmering outline, only materializing into her most tangible, grotesque form – and thus becoming capable of being killed – when Suzy recognizes her presence.
The film’s ever-present sense of dread relies on the audience’s conviction that evil occupies the spaces just out of reach, barely beyond the limits of rational perception – one’s ability to defeat it hinges on their willingness to recognize its presence and make it known. It’s a film that subtly urges the audience to be wary of authority or anyone who seeks to explain away unease or mystery by insisting that everything is normal.
“Skepticism is the natural reaction of people nowadays, but magic is ever-present … magic is everywhere, and all over the world, it’s a recognized fact, always,” Professor Milius explains when Suzy asks about the possibility of a group of witches. Suspiria’s horror depends upon our faith in some deeper, darker structure underpinning our world – the idea that we can’t just accept that a slammed window was just the wind or that a patter of midnight footsteps was just creaky floorboards. It seeks to reaffirm that anxious intuition – especially common in young women – that something doesn’t feel quite right, instead of simply dismissing it as irrational. Perhaps that’s why the film is still genuinely unnerving in our times when clear-eyed perceptions of the truth seem to be increasingly under attack by those in power.
Most criticisms of the upcoming remake by Luca Guadagnino have focused on the redundancy of remaking an already iconic film. Guadagnino’s goal seems less to duplicate the original than to pay homage to it; he’s mentioned that the film will focus on “the concept of motherhood [and] the uncompromising force of motherhood,” themes that were hardly present in the original. And if Guadagnino’s previous work is anything to go by, this rendition of Suspiria will no doubt be visually breathtaking as well, though probably not in the same manner as the dazzling, fever dream-hued original. “It has no primary colors in its color palette, unlike the original. It will be cold, evil and really dark,” he disclosed after production had wrapped. Perhaps it’s a good thing that Guadagnino’s Suspiria appears to be an entirely different beast. After 41 years, Argento’s original doesn’t need any help keeping us up at night.