The plot of Suspiria can be effectively summarized by the title of my favorite Warren Zevon song – “Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School.” Of course, by “bad luck,” I mean a series of mysterious, stylized murders, a nasty infestation of maggots, demonic forces, and an evil coven of witches. As the young ballet dancer Suzy Banyon discovers after arriving at a prestigious dancing school, there’s much more to be nervous about other than performing perfect glissades and pirouettes. This particular school is the secret lair of Levana, a centuries old witch who Banyon must eventually confront before she is either murdered or driven insane.
I’ll admit that until watching Suspiria last week, I was familiar with Dario Argento only through his work for Showtime’s Masters of Horror television series (both of his installments make my list of favorite MOH episodes, which you can read here). Of course, I’ve always heard of Argento’s work in giallo and Italian horror, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that Suspiria has very little in common with his episodes for MOH. The plot of Suspiria is intriguing enough, and it’s the first in a trilogy that explores the schemes of the ancient “Three Mothers,” a group of evil witches who are trying to manipulate the course of global events. All of this is interesting, but it’s also rather inconsequential, and I do not mean this as a criticism. Suspiria could just as easily take place in a fencing, gardening, or grammar school and not lose any of its meaning or impact. What makes this film so eerie, so unsettling, and so brilliant has very little to do with plot and everything to do with aesthetics.
For instance, the set design is simply stunning with its Caligari-style expressionist angles, carefully chosen color schemes, and moody film-noir lighting.
Watching Suspiria is a lot like watching a series of paintings, but the film is much more than a superfluous sequence of pretty imagery. The effect is central to the overall impact and meaning of the film in that Banyon’s entire surroundings are menacing and seemingly impossible to escape, even to the degree that what should be an innocuous conversation with her classmate is rendered claustrophobic and uncomfortable. Throughout the film, Banyon seems on the verge of being utterly absorbed and driven insane by her strange surroundings and its secret threat.
Argento masterfully adds to the film’s overwhelming, supernatural ambiance by carefully orchestrating every possible camera angle, every detail, and every sound. His special effects are not designed to render the film’s horrific death scenes in any sort of realistic fashion, but to give the film an uncanny, dreamlike emphasis. For instance, one of Banyon’s classmates escapes from her attacker through a tiny window, only to fall into a vat of barbed wire.
It didn’t bother me one bit that this is an impossible if not highly impractical method for murdering anyone. Nor did it bother me one bit that the barbed wire is so obviously fake. Argento isn’t interested in realism here, but in creating a particular tactile, visual, and even auditory sensory experience. The entire barbed wire sequence reminds me of Bunuel and Dali’s surrealist film Un Chien Andalou. And thanks in part to the soundtrack by The Goblins with its creepy, primitive drumming, it becomes all the more clear as the film progresses that we’re no longer in an actual dancing school or even in the realm of the logical, but rather a bizarre, ritualized space that stuns the senses. In that regard, Argento’s technique reminds me of classical opera, that other Italian art form that also emphasizes turbulent, but beautiful excess.
Even though Argento’s brand of horror emphasizes visual design and aesthetic over realism, this does not mean that Suspiria is not a horrifying film. In fact, it features one of the most truly disturbing scenes I’ve seen in a very long time. Daniel, the school’s blind piano player, is fired after his seeing-eye dog is accused of harming an instructor’s young nephew (who’s all the more creepy for looking exactly like the weird kid on the labels of Dutch Boy paint cans). Of course, the witches in charge of the school aren’t satisfied with simply firing Daniel. In a scene reminiscent of Hitchcock’s North By Northwest, Daniel finds himself with nowhere to run and nowhere to hide as he’s stalked by an invisible force.
The fact that the imminent attack finally comes from his own dog is surprising and upsetting. It’s also unsettling that he’s pillared between what looks like two classical museums, which are easily recognizable icons of Western civilization, as if to suggest that no safe havens exist from these demonic forces. Much of this film is viscerally frightening in this way, even though nothing in it is as realistic or brutal as the recent trend of American gore-fests such as Wolf Creek, the Saw films, and Hostel parts one and two. I love those films as much as any horror fan, but I have to admit that I find Suspiria to be a refreshing tonic to the recent American-style realism.