From Italian origins, Dario Argento became an international force in horror films for several decades. His best film is probably the ultra-stylish, ultra-bloody, and ultra nerve-jangling 1977 movie Suspiria. If it’s possible to make a slasher film for the art house set, this is it.
The plot: American dancer Suzy Bannion (An intrepid and likeable Jessica Harper) arrives in Germany to attend an exclusive ballet school. Everything at the bizarrely designed and decorated school is wrong from the very first, with students disappearing, teachers engaging in strange behavior and an atmosphere of menace suffusing every room. As Suzy begins to investigate her mysterious surroundings, she comes to suspect that some supernatural evil is at the heart of the school and that it will not rest until she is destroyed.
If you judge horror films in the most elemental way, i.e., how scared will I be?, this is a classic of the horror genre. In ways large and small, Argento keeps the audience on edge with very little relief. Much of this is accomplished through an invasive, eerie score, extensive use of anamorphic lenses and other camera trickery, madcap set design and a vivid color scheme (with the accent on red of course…). Even the second time through when I knew what was going to happen, I was still holding my breath and tensing my muscles as I rooted for Suzy to overcome the extraordinary dangers she confronts.
Argento made his bones in a subgenre of Italian film called giallo, and one can see those influences here. However, while giallo is often criticized for its typical sexist plot set-ups (e.g., violent powerful man terrorizes and kills hapless young females), in Suspiria the redoubtable characters — good and bad — are all women. And while there is some astonishingly over-the-top gore, suspense is created much more through mood than through a mere parade of on screen violence.
All that said, the script of the film is remarkably uneven. Certain scenes emerge from nowhere and plot points come and go. For example, a young man at the school shows interest in Suzy and the audience wonders whether a romance will develop. Will he help her survive the terrors she faces? But like other story threads in the film, this one vanishes with no explanation. Maybe the editor was in a slashy mood himself, but I suspect these discontinuities are simply the result of Argento being more interested in theatrics than the underlying story.
In that respect, Suspiria reminds me of no film more than John Stahl’s famous “Technicolor noir” Leave Her to Heaven. Both movies overcome numerous script problems with incredible sets, atmospheric music, intentionally overstated color schemes and a strong leading female performance. Though different in other ways, both prove that sometimes in cinema, style really can triumph over substance. That’s certainly the case for Suspiria, making it ideal horror viewing for those who are not faint of heart.