Dario Argento’s first film to deal expressly with the supernatural, Suspiria continues to gain loyal admirers 40 years after its Italian debut in early 1977. Although the director had made several giallo-style thrillers already, Suspiria amplified several elements of his flamboyant style, namely the use of dramatic color saturation, intense music, and elaborate set design. These elements were not exclusive to Argento (the cinematic style of Mario Bava comes to mind), but his manner of combining them became easily recognizable, crystallizing in Suspiria. The phantasmagoric imagery and elliptical script are just two elements that disorient the viewer, not to mention the fact that the entire soundtrack is dubbed (as was typical for Argento’s films), something detractors love to criticize.
Perhaps even more disconcerting for some, Argento seems less interested in the plot or the characterizations of his movie, giving us only what’s necessary about any of the characters or their motivations, and this is in stark contrast to the level of detail he gives us regarding their physical surroundings. His camera follows tangents of its own during the narrative, such as a moment where it breaks away from our heroine’s rain-soaked cab ride and focuses on raging floodwaters in a large storm drain. The interior of the main location, the cursed dance academy where most of the action takes place, is an artificial expressionist dreamscape. Argento allows his lens to explore its hallways during several key sequences, possibly not wanting to let this work of art go unnoticed and perhaps also to allow the audience to become immersed in the spectacularly creepy soundtrack. The music, of course, was composed specifically for the film by frequent Argento collaborators Goblin, who create a nightmarish combination of instrumentation, distorted human voices, and startling percussion. The American print ads announced that the movie was in “pulsating stereophonic sound”, which was at least some warning, but nothing can really prepare the first-time viewer for the large role that the soundtrack takes, manifesting itself in everything from a childlike, tinkling melody to a raging cacophony of violence and shimmering dread.
Daria Nicolodi, Argento’s life partner at the time and frequent collaborator, co-wrote the script with Argento. Nicolodi stated in the Suspiria 25th Anniversary documentary that the idea came from a real experience that her grandmother had while attending an acting school where the teachers turned out to be practitioners of the black arts. Although at one point in the project she was intended as the lead, Jessica Harper was ultimately cast, the idea being that an American actress would increase the film’s marketability. Nicolodi does in fact appear in the film in two ways: she is glimpsed near Jessica Harper in the beginning sequence as a fellow traveler in the airport, and she also provides the rasping voice of queen witch Helena Markos (although she was not specific about which dub track she appears on).
The plot traces the sinister experiences of a tenacious but fragile-looking American ballet student named Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), who travels from New York to Freiburg, Germany to attend a prestigious dance academy. Upon landing in Freiburg, she seems to immediately be thrust into a nightmare scenario. A torrential thunderstorm ravages the city, and she receives an icy welcome from a cab driver who refuses to help her with her bags and pretends to not understand English, seemingly just to annoy her. The cab drives through an ominous forest, beyond which lies the strange-looking school, painted red and festooned with intricate embellishments and gargoyles. Another young woman is emerging from the school, shouting barely-audible words to an unseen person just inside the front door, which closes behind her as she runs off. Suzy is refused admittance to the school and must return to the cab, while the unknown woman (a character later identified as Pat Hingle, played by Eva Axen) rushes through the forest on foot. Pat goes to see a friend of hers who lives in town, and they are both viciously mutilated by a mostly unseen, humanoid figure with long fingernails and hair-covered arms. Other bizarre occurrences follow, including a maggot infestation and the violent death of the school’s blind pianist, Daniel (Flavio Bucci). Suzy makes friends with another girl named Sara (Stefania Casini) who suspects the teachers at the school of nefarious activities, particularly head instructor Miss Tanner (Alida Valli) and the vice directress, Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett). When Sara disappears unexpectedly, Suzy investigates further and uncovers the school’s strange history, leading to a confrontation with the evil witch that the building hides.
The film’s ending is somewhat cryptic; a professor tells Suzy earlier in the film that a coven of witches draws its strength from the most powerful witch, the queen, and that a coven deprived of its queen is “like a headless serpent, harmless.” Suzy confronts Helena Markos and manages to overpower her, stabbing her through the neck with a sharp implement. Before she dies, Markos grabs Suzy and touches her face with her withered hands, after which Suzy bounds out of the school. It begins to collapse around her, but Argento films it as if Suzy could be the cause of the destruction; she reaches out for a doorknob, it explodes, and the door with it. She walks along a wall and it crumbles in stress. The railing of a staircase is forced away from her as she descends. It’s as if uncontrolled power is surging from her body and destroying everything, possibly due to Suzy’s terror. She even looks back to discover her enemies now writhing in agony, mere moments after they had been plotting her death. It could be that Suzy just got lucky and managed to kill the witch and get out, or she herself could have inherited the power of Helena Markos after slaying her, the destruction of the school occurring because she doesn’t yet know how to control it. Another witch story, Stephen King’s “Gramma”, also ended with a dying witch grabbing a child and transferring her power into his body with her touch. Whichever way the ending is read, Argento denies us any explicit explanations and only gives us enough to stir our imagination.
Suspiria enjoyed a wide release in the United States, distributed by 20th Century Fox, but after the incredible (and apparently unanticipated) success of Star Wars changed their fortunes for the better that same year, Fox chose to disassociate themselves from this ultraviolent horror movie by using the name “International Classics”. Critical reaction was varied, with many praising the film’s art direction but blasting the lack of an involving story. Gene Siskel gave it a negative review in the Chicago Tribune and called Fox out for hiding behind a pseudonym, offended by what he saw as an unwelcome depiction of women as helpless murder victims. Joe Baltake of the Detroit Free Press also noted the fact that Fox seemed ashamed of the film, but said they ought to have taken their name off Fire Sale and Silver Streak instead, calling Suspiria “stylish, blood-spattered and genuinely gripping.” The Cincinnati Enquirer and The Pittsburgh Press both published reviews that mocked the film and offered a detailed timeline of other events happening in the theater, like the reviewer’s leg falling asleep and audience members eating chicken during the movie.
These critical reviews also give us some insight into the effect Suspiria has on the first time viewer; Barbara Pusch of the Palm Beach Post incorrectly stated in her review that Pat Hingle, the girl who flees the school at the beginning of the film, returns to the academy to be murdered in the foyer (she even imagines a non-existent line of dialog where Pat says she’ll stay “for one more night”). Other viewers are confused about whether it is Jessica Harper’s character being killed in that first murder sequence, since both she and Pat are similar in appearance and both have hair that’s been drenched by the torrential rain. Even today, after decades of discussion and analysis, it’s easy to be disoriented by Argento’s approach, so imagine what audiences felt when they saw this film for the first time in 1977 without any preparation for what they experienced. Some critics were just unfamiliar with Dario Argento in general–even in 1977, his most familiar movie in America was still 1970’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage–but certain reviewers, like Tom Setzer of the Abilene Reporter News, mention previous Argento releases and still criticize Suspiria for having so much style over substance.
To be fair, the attention that Suspiria gives to its visuals as opposed to its story could confuse any reviewer or audience, and the fact that the film was heavily edited in the United States did nothing to help the narrative. In addition to the goriest moments of the murders, an entire sequence was removed from the film where Daniel is thrown out of the school after his service dog bites Madame Blanc’s pampered young nephew, Albert. In the original cut, this reveals the motivation that the witches have to murder him, as he suggests to Miss Tanner that he has overheard things that could reveal their secrets, but with this passage missing, Daniel’s death becomes just another random occurrence.
If you insist on holding the story accountable for too much, you risk missing the potential impact of Suspiria. There are childish moments, like Stefania Casini sticking her tongue out at Barbara Magnolfi in a scene set inside a girls locker room, but this is very much in line with the childlike sense of terror and fantasy that make up the rest of the movie. Also in the Suspiria 25th Anniversary documentary, Argento revealed that Suspiria had been intended as a film about preteen girls, but after he realized he couldn’t make such a violent film starring children, he hired older actresses and directed the film as if it was still featuring children.
Suspiria‘s influence can be identified even only a short time after the film’s debut. 1978’s The Legacy emerges as an attempt to combine elements of Argento’s witch film with other occult hits like The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976). One death scene in particular occurs in a large swimming pool similar to the one that appears in Suspiria, and a more blatant imitation happens when Katharine Ross’s character approaches a bed swathed in white drapes, only to be grabbed by a pair of withered hands with long talon-like fingernails. While John Carpenter has stated that his seminal Halloween (1978) was inspired by both Bava’s Bay of Blood (1971) and Argento’s Deep Red (1975), the sequel Halloween II (1981) quotes Suspiria a number of times, including several scenes where passengers in cars are lit with colored lighting similar to that of when Suzy takes her cab ride, Jamie Lee Curtis’s discovery of a body hanging from its neck, and another scene where she is forced to shimmy through a small window near the ceiling that leads not to escape, but to another obstacle. William Lustig’s Maniac (1980) also featured a number of scenes that seemed inspired by Suspiria‘s graphic murders, particularly the garish lighting Argento used in this and many other of his films. Suspiria‘s influence continues into today; after a long tenure in development hell, a remake is finally on the verge of release, helmed by Italian director Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love (2009), A Bigger Splash (2015)). It remains to be seen what kind of approach a new director could take to Dario Argento’s idiosyncratic masterpiece, but it is interesting that a movie initially dismissed by a good number of critics has expanded its fan base to the point that a remake would be financed 40 years after the original’s debut.