Pages Navigation Menu

"No matter where you go, there you are."


Late To The Party: Suspiria (1977)

Late To The Party is a series of reviews ranging from classical masterpieces to modern-day blockbusters where I look to make my confession for the sin of not having seen them before. I seek absolution from the film universe and hope to never again suffer your disdain for my film faux pas. I am Fredo, in the boat. Hail Mary, full of grace.

Read my other Late To The Party reviews

Off the back of earlier Giallo genre films such as The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, Four Flies On Grey Velvet, and Deep Red, Dario Argento explored supernatural horror more fully with this week’s Late To The Party film, the 1977 cult classic, Suspiria.

The film follows the story of young American ballet student, Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) as she arrives in Germany from New York in the dead of night to attend the prestigious Freiburg Dance Academy. Upon her arrival, she is refused entry as another girl runs out of the academy, screaming in fear. This girl is murdered in a bizarre and horrifically gory manner and Suzy returns to the academy the next day to find the head of the academy, Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) being questioned by police about the girl’s murder. Once settled at the academy Suzy comes down with a mysterious malady and is put on a restricted diet by a visiting physician (Renato Scarpa). During her convalescence, she is befriended by fellow student, Sarah (Stefania Casini) who slowly begins to reveal that all is not what it should be within the walls of the Freiburg Academy.

The film is a hallucinatory attack on the senses. The screen is almost continually awash with bright and vivid colours either adorning or lighting extravagantly constructed sets with blues, greens, and of course red. So much red. The external walls of the academy itself are an arresting shade of bright red that immediately catches the eye and acts as a warning to all, a modern version of the gates of hell in Dante’s Inferno, ‘Abandon all hope ye who enter here.’  The sweeping staircase and lavish decorations within the academy give the sense of a Rococo style nightmare. There is dread and fear within these walls, but it is bathed in a sensuous and indulgent aesthetic.

The soundtrack by Italian prog-rock band and frequent collaborators with Argento, Goblin takes the expressionist foundations laid by the visuals and builds on them with synthesizers playing a recurring theme that puts you in mind of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, used with huge success in William Friedkin’s 1973 seminal horror, The Exorcist. The music takes the form of horrific and jarring soundscapes that many would find overwhelming and intrusive. But this is all by design and evokes feelings of alienation and unease, much like the feelings felt by Suzy, the unfortunate central character as she walks through the labyrinthine corridors, covered in many a Lynch-esque velvet red curtain.

Frequently, the actors become almost secondary to the visuals, mere vehicles for carrying the very basic and almost naïve plot along to its conclusion. The characters are broad and larger than life, drawing from the Italian theatre tradition of Commedia dell’arte. Heroic characters are wide-eyed innocents and villains are larger than life grotesques. The performances are functional at best. The international cast had no common language on set and actors read lines in their native tongue, only to be dubbed in post-production into English. This removes any sense of reality and takes further into a surreal world where nothing quite makes sense or follows any kind of strict logic. At one point the cult and B-movie stalwart, Udo Keir turns up as a young psychologist Dr. Frank Mandel, to utter the line, ‘Bad luck isn’t brought by broken mirrors, but by broken minds’. His scene seems rushed and distracted, which could be down to the fact that he was being read the lines by a stagehand as they shot the scene. There was no time for him to learn his lines before filming began.

But the lack of mainstream performances does not detract from the experience of the film. If anything it adds to the already substantial sense of surreal dread and nightmare. It is a film with its own internal logic, where conventions and rules are cast aside in the pursuit of Argento’s visual concepts and garish aesthetic, which manages to alienate and entertain in equal measure.

Suspiria and the preceding Giallo films from Argento can clearly be seen to influence the films and accompanying soundtracks of John Carpenter. Halloween showed the American studios that with a mainstream do-over, Argento’s themes and concepts could be turned into money makers for the domestic market, giving rise to the popular American Slasher sub-genre films of the late 70s and 80s. Films such as When A Stranger Calls, My Bloody Valentine, Driller Killer and of course the endless Friday The 13th films.

Suspiria is an arresting and uneasy experience, the gore and effects are very much of their time, which adds to the sadistic charm of the film. But it still stands and succeeds as a fine example of the evolution of expressionist and surreal horror film making.

Next PostPrevious Post


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.