Dario Argento’s masterpiece, Suspiria, is a sinister mood experiment, that uses incoherent dream logic and wicked visuals to create a mysterious world of living nightmares.
Suzy is an American ballet dancer who enrolls at a prestigious performance academy in Germany. Soon after her arrival, a series of bizarre murders grips the campus. As Suzy delves into the accursed history of the school, she is drawn deeper into a place beneath reality, a place of dark magic and madness.
Argento’s script presents Suspiria as a string of ideas rather than a conventional plot, making a film that defies explanation. The performances are overly melodramatic, the set design is impossibly audacious, and the colors are loud and out of control. These elements bleed into one another, making it difficult to determine what is real and what is dream, while also conceding to the viewer that this was done with intent. Guiseppe Bussan’s enigmatic sets appear alien and inhospitable. The compositions of every scene are meticulous down the placement of objects and the positioning of the cast. Everything is a clue to a mystery that never asks to be solved, with Suzy sleepwalking from one terrifying experience to the next. Every door promises violence and every window teases a false hope of sanctuary.
Luciano Tivoli’s cinematography uses strange angles and brilliant colors to show that the subconscious is in control and reality is an ethereal concept, lying just beyond the viewer’s reach. The visual presentation borders on sensory overload, requiring multiple viewings to decipher all of the clues and symbols. Both the cinematography and set design are considered to be the pinnacle of the horror genre. This is what sets Suspiria apart from other classics. It is a high concept film presented in a vibrant, unforgettable package that continues to be imitated and dissected 40 years later.
Jessica Harper’s performance as Suzy is paradoxically cliched and nuanced. Suzy is the conduit through which the story is told, making her a passive protagonist. This tactic would normally be a weakness, but Harper uses considerable skill to convey genuine terror and dangerous curiosity, an attribute that Argento continually explores in many of his Giallo works. One of the more intriguing aspects of her turn is that Suzy never ascends to “final girl” status. Every action she takes is a reaction to the fear that she is experiencing and even in the climax, her response to the horror is organic and clumsy, harnessing primal instinctual response and subliminal surrender in equal amounts.
Goblin’s legendary soundtrack has a repetitive quality that bolsters Suspiria’s surreal framework. Luciano Anzellotti’s sound editing fills the spaces in between with ominous footsteps and creepy incantations, making the supernatural elements auditory phantoms that loom in the shadows. The amount of restraint with regard to the fantastical elements is remarkable. Everything is pointedly vague to the point of frustration, with Argento stingily doling out kernels of explanation in a randomized pattern. The abrupt appearance of the credits is a perfect footnote to the experience, snapping the viewer out of the reverie and back to reality.
Available now on a gorgeous 4K transfer from Synapse Films, Suspiria is one of the greatest horror films ever made. Fans of traditional storytelling may be discouraged by Argento’s design, but if approached with complete surrender to its atmosphere, this is a film that delivers an unforgettable cinematic experience.
Highly. Highly Recommend.