Italian producer/director/writer Dario Argento has been an international force in horror films for half a century. His “art house slasher movies” began incorporating supernatural elements in the mid-1970s (e.g., the psychic character in Deep Red) and went further in that direction in his best film, the ultra-stylish, ultra-bloody, and ultra nerve-jangling Suspiria.
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 1977 movie is a triumph of the genre. In ways large and small, Argento keeps the audience on edge with very little relief. As in his other films, there is some astonishingly over-the-top gore. But the unique, suspenseful mood of this film is created mainly by 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. One can see those influences here, but its a significant departure from giallo traditions that elevates Suspiria. Giallo typically features strong male characters while portraying women as either psychologically disturbed and dangerous, or, stupid and helpless (the latter type is often murdered in graphic and sometimes sexualized fashion). Argento’s first film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, was a big hit in Italy in 1970 and was stylishly made (of course), but its misogyny is off-putting. By 1975’s Deep Red, which more or less reworked the same plot, his protagonist is still male but the female co-lead has gone from being pathetic to competent. In Suspiria, we get an Argento film in which every redoubtable character — good and bad — is a woman. This may sound a strange thing to say about a guy who made slasher movies, but becoming more feminist made Argento and even better filmmaker.
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.