There exists no better opening for a horror film than the first few moments in Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977). Sure, much has been made about the nightmarish imagery and the music of Goblin that defies the imagination—but it’s the start of the film that perfectly accentuates and foreshadows the journey that both the audience and its main protagonist, Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), embark upon.
Like many other fairy tales that came before it—the words of a storyteller introduce the audience to Suzy, an American ballet dancer arriving in Germany to attend a prestigious dance academy. As she strolls through the airport, one almost thinks of Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion (1965)—a sympathetic icon of innocence—set adrift in an unfamiliar setting. This culminates with the doors of the airport opening. As Suzy walks into the violent tempest of a rainstorm, the audience and heroine alike are thrust into a mysterious world of uncertainty. The subtle image of a lone character running through the woods while Suzy is en route to her destination informs both the audience and protagonist that things are not what they seem.
Establishing this setting early on has always reminded me of Clive Barker’s technique of being less concerned with the inner workings of a character and more so on their journey. “We’re concerned with the journey they’re on…and how it touches us mythologically.” Barker stated in The Art of Horror. “In the beginning of Weaveworld, there’s a boy who collects pigeons. The Pigeon escapes, the adventure begins.” Throughout the entirety of Suspiria, Argento utilizes this form of storytelling, whisking us away to a world that defies logic, reason, and reality. It’s one found in the pages of gothic literature and fairy tales. Argento illustrates this landscape with bright color that makes the film take on a life of its own.
Because much of the film takes place at a ballet school, its location becomes reminiscent of a staple of many fairy tales—the castle. The film being set in Germany accentuates this theme, especially with the lore of castles such as Neuschwanstein, the creation of King Ludwig. Naturally, Suzy is the personification of Snow White or Belle—the untouched beauty that symbolizes purity, innocence, and also naivete. There was no one else more suited for this role than Jessica Harper. Her appearance is reminiscent of a simple beauty. Suzy doesn’t hide behind a cloud of vanity and ostentatiousness. A definite inspiration for Ashley Laurence’s portrayal of Kirsty in Hellraiser (1987).
Naturally, a castle needs a wicked queen, or possibly a maternal symbol of the wicked stepmother. Madame Blanc (Joan Bennet), the schools’ matriarch, combines both of these characters into one—and much like her counterpart Suzy, is played to absolute perfection by Joan Bennett in which would be her final role before her death. Bennett had been a prominent actress during what many consider the golden age of film—starring in two of Fritz Lang’s film noirs; The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlett Street (1945). Playing opposite screen icons such as Spencer Tracey and Edward G. Robinson, she brings both grace and sophistication to her role in Suspiria. Bennett continually carries herself in a manner befitting a member of the silver screens’ aristocracy.
Of course, I find it almost impossible to discuss Suspiria without mentioning the Giallo influence that finds its way into the film. A continuing argument that seems to have no ending on social media is the decision as to whether or not Suspiria is indeed a Giallo film. While it certainly utilizes the tension, suspense and a heightened sense of mystery commonplace in many Giallo titles, and death is more than once the result of a blade wielded by the hand of a black-gloved assailant—Suspiria is not a Giallo. Still, Argento’s early career with the complex murder mysteries of L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, 1970) and 4 mosche di velluto grigio (Four flies on Grey Velvet, 1971) certainly gave him the training to elevate the mysterious academy into a world that exists within shadows and speculation. Look no further than La dama rossa uccide sette volte (The Red Queen Kills Seven Times,1972) directed by Emilio Miraglia to see the gothic and Giallo intertwined perfectly.
Suspiria never ceases to spill blood at an almost operatic level. Argento wastes little time in planting the seeds of the film’s complex mystery and embracing baroque imagery which shows death as a spectacle to behold. Nothing is spared in the film’s first and most memorable scene of death—which introduces elements of the supernatural, the blade of a killer, and a shower of stained-glass chards that eviscerate an unsuspecting victim. The scene in which a young woman hangs and breaks through a stained-glass barrier foreshadows one of the most memorable lines in the film spoken by Udo Kier—“Bad luck isn’t caused by broken mirrors, but by broken minds.” This phrase would be echoed my writer Maitland McDonagh in her book, Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds, which to this day is the definitive analytical work regarding the films of Dario Argento. It’s also the reason I became a writer.
While the stained-glass palate of Suspiria stimulates the visual senses—the soundtrack written and performed by progressive rock legends Goblin accentuate every moment that occurs throughout the film. From the synth-laden compositions of Claudio Simonetti to the vocalizations that appear to be coming from the mother of sighs herself—Goblin weaves a spell over one’s emotions and transforms Suspiria into a sentient being—breathing, stalking, and keeping its secrets obscured by shadows.
In 2018, Suspiria joined the ranks of several films that have been reimagined. Luca Guadagnino’s vision served as nothing more than a vapid and ill-conceived attempt at turning Argento’s film into political commentary. Taking place during the German Autumn of 1977, the dance academy is loosely linked to the Third Reich, and coincides with the events surrounding Germany’s Red Army Faction. While the new film boasted impressive choreography and possessed a considerable amount of ambition—Guadagnino’s complete lack of subtlety and handling of the historical subject matter is inept at almost every conceivable level. If Argento’s gothic fairy tale was an intricate design etched in stain glass, then Guadagnino’s concept is nothing short of a window at a fast-food restaurant. That is to say, it possesses nothing of substance and is a cheap imitation for something that’s both enjoyable and fulfilling.
Much like the cathedrals of Europe, we still stand in awe of Dario Argento’s master accomplishment. Not only does Suspiria continue to embody a vision that can never be equaled, but the nightmare etched in stained glass are still vivid in the recesses of our imagination.