Literally Suspiria mean “to sigh” in Latin. Not sure that’s the reaction you’ll have watching this film, unless it’s followed by a scream!
Mood, atmosphere and cinematography all go into creating a film that is unique in its presentation and graphic in its horror. There’s a reason why Dario Argento’s Suspiria is considered a classic.
Boy this trailer doesn’t give you much to go on, except lots of screaming and potentially some stabbings. I do like the use of the organic looking “breathing” logo. That’s commitment for a trailer in the late 70s! The film’s also scary, because the announcer told us so. Let’s find out what Suspiria is all about together, shall we?
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) arrives in Germany one evening in the middle of a torrential rainstorm in order to join the prestigious Freiburg Dance Academy. She is turned away from the door that evening, noticing another girl racing from the school in the rain. The other girl, Pat (Eva Axén), mumbles some strange words and disappears into the woods. She shows up at a friends apartment to spend the night, but is attacked by some strange force (possibly a flying beast), stabbed repeatedly, and thrown through a giant stained glass skylight, her neck snapped by a rope tied around her. Her friend is also killed by raining glass shards.
Suzy returns to the school the next day and is admitted by Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett), the director and Miss Tanner (Alida Valli), the main instructor. Suzy gets special permission to stay off-campus (due to the fact that there are no rooms), but when she suddenly faints in class, Blanc has her transferred to the open room now created by Pat’s death. Suzy makes friends with Sara (Stefania Casini), her neighbor. As the girls settle down for bed that evening, combing their hair and whatnot, maggots begin to fall from the ceiling, having been introduced in a crate of fruit placed in the attic. All the girls are put in one of the dance studios on cots for the evening.
Sara and Suzy overhear one of the teachers behind the screen as they ready for bed. Her hoarse and ominous breathing reminds Sara of something Pat had once told her about the Directress of the academy. When asked the next day if the Directress had spent the night, they are told she did not. Later that day, Daniel (Flavio Bucci), the blind piano player, is fired due to his dog attacking Albert (Jacopo Mariani), Mdme. Blancs nephew. He leaves, understandably upset, and heads to a bar. He leaves the bar that evening and as he walks through an apparently deserted plaza, his dog begins barking at something unseen, before turning on Daniel unexpectedly and ripping his throat out.
Sara confides in Suzy that Pat had suspicions about the school that she wrote down and gave to her, which included odd behavior from the teachers. Sara wants Suzy’s help investigating that evening, but Suzy becomes overcome with drowsiness and falls immediately asleep. Some unknown force enters the room and chases Sara through the hallways, and up into the attic where it attacks her with a straight razor. She attempts to climb through a small window but ends up caught in a bundle of loose wire, unable to free herself. The unseen assailant slashes her throat with the razor leaving her to die.
Suzy is told the next morning that Sara has left unexpectedly. Not believing the words from the director Suzy contacts a former psychiatrist of Sara’s, Dr. Mandel (Udo Kier). He agrees to meet with her and answers her questions about the Dance Academy. It was supposedly founded by Helena Markos as an occult school and dance academy. She was thought to be a witch, and died shortly after the school opened. It was remodeled and opened as a straight dance academy by Madame Blanc, and has been so ever since. A colleague of Mandel’s also speaks with Suzy sharing that the power of the coven is destroyed if it’s leader was killed.
Realizing that the food she’s being given might contain sedatives, Suzy flushes it down the toilet. A giant bat flies in through the window, but she manages to cover it with a towel before smashing it to death with a stool. Remembering that Sara thought to track the directors after-hours movements by listening to the footsteps and counting them, Suzy does just that. It leads her into the headmistresses office where the mysterious words she overheard from Pat come back to her (“secret” and “iris”). She turns a flower emblem on the wall and a secret passage opens.
In the bowels of the building she overhears Mdme. Blanc tell the others that the American girl must die. Suzy backs into another room, where she hears the same labored and ominous breathing she had the night they slept in the dance studio. An unseen voice identifies itself as Helena Markos, and the shadow of a woman appears behind a curtain. But when Suzy moves the curtain nothing is there. The other witches chants reanimate Sara’s dead body and it comes for Suzy. To defend herself, Suzy picks up a dagger-like object, and stabs at the place Helena was, stabbing the invisible witch and killing her. Her death throws the coven into spasms of pain, and the school catches on fire. Suzy runs out before the blaze takes over, into the rain, knowing she has successfully stopped a dangerous group from killing any more women.
“Skepticism is the natural reaction of people nowadays. But magic is ever-present.” – Dr. Mandel
Suspiria was Dario Argento’s sixth film that he directed, and probably his most famous. Working in the Italian cinema, he wrote, directed and produced films, having started as a co-screenwriter of Bernardo Bertolucci’s spaghetti western, Once Upon a Time in the West. Suspiria is a unique and colorful horror film. That doesn’t mean that it’s not chilling. It’s got plenty of frights to go around!
The first thing that becomes apparent about the film is its lighting and cinematography. The use of colored gels, predominantly red, light the scenes in such vivid ways. Getting off the airport tram is the first use of the red lighting. Suzy is then surrounded by extras wearing various shades of red clothing. The school is a beautiful red brick building, with one major red hallway inside. The dance studios are divided by color including a yellow room and a red room. And when the students sleep in the studio the one evening, the nighttime colors – once the lights go out – are red, not blue as is normally used in film. The night that Sara is murdered the lighting palette changes from the ominous, scary, and bloody red color to a deep green, potentially foreshadowing her death. Green is often a color associated with poison, so it could also indicate the drugging of Suzy, who passes out, becoming unable to aide her friend. While many other horror films use light sparingly, choosing to have scenes take place in near darkness, Argento chooses to create garish templates that looks like panels and coloring from horror comics of the 50s with the bright and bold colors.
Suspiria also make use of reflections to create tension or to show the characters in a different way. Besides the mirror is the dance studios, there are several other moments that provide reflective moments. When Suzy is talking with Mdme. Blanc in her office, she catches a glimpse of Ms. Tanner in a mirror. The office setting is naturally colored but the scene captured in the mirror is a deeply red-lit hallway. This illustrates primarily that Tanner is not a vampire, as one might suspect with all the strange goings on, but it also foreshadows the secret passage in the wall that would later appear in this office. Later when Suzy talks to Dr. Mandel’s colleague about the coven, the camera zooms between them, picking up their reflection in a window. The images of both characters are fragmented and doubled by the imperfections of the glass, showing another side to the characters. Can Suzy actually trust this person?
The atmosphere provided by the weather is also a mood-setting device used by the filmmakers. When Suzy first arrives at the Academy, the rain is coming down strongly. It seems cold, oppressive, and dangerous. Suzy attempts to keep from getting soaked, but to no avail. She becomes drenched. The final shot of the film has rain coming down, but this time it’s a cleansing rain allowing Suzy to walk free from the horrors of the Academy. She seems lighter and happier this time, as she leaves the witches to burn in a tomb of their own making.
Suspiria also terrorizes with minimal killing. In all only four deaths occur in the film, but Argento makes sure to utilize all his skills to make them as disturbing and graphic as possible. The blood he uses is bright and reads incredibly strongly with the Technicolor film stock being used. He creates shocking and memorable deaths so that when Suzy is tense situations, the audience will assume that she is in trouble as well, amping up the fear and anxiety. He goes as far to use some sort of flesh or meat (possibly a pig) to show a close up of the razor slicing Sara’s throat. It’s all too real!
Suspiria is definitely a standout based on its content and creation. The Italian horror makers, like Argento, were years ahead of America at this time, and created graphic tales of terror (both in the horrific sense as well as the design sense). I didn’t even have a chance to mention the great soundtrack by the band Goblin, which adds to the dreamlike quality of parts of the film, much in the same way Tangerine Dream’s soundtrack worked for The Keep. Suspiria is best experienced on a large television (or in a theater if a screening can be found), with the lights down low and the soundtrack up!
- The film was remade and released in October 2018, directed by Luca Guadagnino and starring Dakota Johnson as the protagonist and Tilda Swinton as the director. Jessica Harper has a small cameo in the film.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.