It is always prudent to be cautious with grandiose statements, but Suspiria is one of the greatest horror films ever made. Legendary Italian director Dario Argento utilised every aspect of his considerable talent to create the ultimate expression of terror; it is hard to define exactly why this 1977 classic is so effective, but that is part of its brilliance.
The plot is not a complex one. Suzy (Jessica Harper) is an America ballet dancer who has travelled to a German dance academy to study her art. On the night of her arrival a powerful storm rages, and one of the students is brutally murdered. Suzy becomes increasingly unnerved by a series of strange and mysterious events, and ultimately comes to suspect that the academy is run by a coven of murderous witches.
The setting allows a disconcerting sensation to germinate. The academy is a great gothic building, with large, highly decorated, rooms and seemingly endless corridors. When the storms begin outside, they lash and howl like something from mythology.
As one would expect from an Argento film, the Goblin soundtrack accents everything that is occurring on screen – but the score and sound effects for Suspiria are second-to-none. The instruments are combined with screams and growls; the pounding rhythms and repetitive melodies are mesmeric and hypnotising. The resultant aural effect is disturbing in its own right.
The cinematography combines artistry and innovation in a manner rarely seen in the genre. Lights in strange hues saturate the shots – occasionally bright red, deep green or cool blue; the physical source of this illumination is irrelevant and never addressed. This lighting is successful in catalysing the otherworldly sensation experienced by the viewer and has no other purpose. Such is the skill with which Argento presents his art we are not required to suspend disbelief for it to be effective – the technique simply works.
Suspiria is consentient with a lot of Giallo films. Firstly, a sense of mystery is central to the story – Suzy doesn’t understand what is happening and the film is structured around her trying to find out. Secondly, where kills take place they are frightening and violent – but also stylised and artistic. The opening death is one of the genres finest – for its build up, viciousness, imagination and presentation. It is a brutal slaying, but beautifully done – typically Giallo.
The film consistently builds its sense of dread. The evil lurks just around the corner, creeps about at night and tries to get in through the door. Argento creates a mood that sneaks into the mind and make one shift uncomfortably in the seat. This atmosphere is punctuated with highly efficient moments of visual horror and violence which ensures that the intrigue is matched by well structured pacing. This includes maggots raining from the ceiling and a cutthroat razor earning its name.
If filmmaking is an art form, and it surely is, then Suspiria is a masterpiece. There is not a single frame of film in which Argento has not tightly orchestrated the sound, dialogue, gesture and lighting to create an atmosphere of distress and unease. The result is that Suspiria evokes the same raw sense of fear as waking from a childhood nightmare.
It is true that Dario Argento eventually lost his way in his later career, but realistically nobody could maintain the level of achievement he set with Suspiria. The film is undoubtedly a classic, not just within the horror genre, but of cinema in general. Whether it is to study original and artistic filmmaking, or just to be genuinely scared and entertained – all lovers of film should experience Suspiria.