DIR: DARIO ARGENTO
GEN: ITALIAN GIALLO
Our third entry from Dario Argento to this series causes a fair amount of controversy as to whether it should be included in the genre. But Giallo blood flows (excessively) through its DNA making it an essential film for exploration. Suspiria is one of the more renowned works in this series, particularly for having just scored a Hollywood remake from Luca Guadagnino; but more on that later. This high reputation is a deserved one for demonstrating the tight, vicious, and nightmarish vision of Argento in his prime. A continuation of working relationships with Italian prog rock band Goblin, Deep Red star Daria Nicoloi, and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli, with each element blending together to make a highly stylised film, whose relentless pace meshes together extreme violence, German expressionism, and Walt Disney without convolution or pretension.
Dario Argento wanted to push Suspiria as a new horizon in horror filmmaking, with its excess pushing boundaries and challenging the viewer’s sensibilities. It’s a notion that is confidently asserted right from the film’s opening sequence. In the first 15 minutes where we follow Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) to the Tanz Dance Academy in Freiburg, we are exposed to the very disturbing demise of ex-student Patricia (Eva Axen) - a series of events that director Edgar Wright has repeatedly referred to as his favourite horror sequence ever. From here, Suspiria is a tightly orchestrated nightmare. As Suzy gradually unveils the grotesque truth of Patricia’s final moments and the sinister order controlling the Tanz Academy, she consequently becomes a target for the shadowy figures behind the terror. This may sound like a contrived plot, but it’s told with such vibrancy and in an unconventional manner that implicitly leads you through the looking glass and into Argento’s perverse and supernatural terror within the decadent dance school.
The word supernatural has seen a lot of film fans deride Argento’s film as not being true Gialli. Suspiria’s focus on witchcraft has provoked arguments that this push into occult territory was a step into more fantastical horror, and a move away from the brutal murder mysteries that epitomise the genre. Argento has cited in interviews that his initial desire to write Suspiria came from a literary source whose work had been heavily drained in previous Gialli, Edgar Allan Poe. However, Argento did combine his love for the gothic horror icon with Thomas De Quincy’s text Confessions of an English Opium Eater, claiming he built upon the Three Mothers mythos created in the book. Influence may be leaning more towards Gothic horror from these sources, but stylistically there is no doubting that Suspiria is indebted to the loosely defined genre that Argento helped popularise.
The film was shot by Luciano Tovoli, after previous collaborator and Giallo icon Luigi Kuveiller (DoP on Lizard in a Woman’s Skin and Deep Red) couldn’t understand Argento’s request that the film looked like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Suspiria is visually fascinating. It draws upon heavy use of colour and a near constant movement to throw viewers into its ethereal nightmare. The colour scheme can be traced back to Bava’s nightmarish Blood and Black Lace, which similarly hosted its nightmare within a decadent school drowned in neon. The only difference being that in Blood and Black Lace the lighting had traceable sources such as street lamps and glowing lights, while this ethos isn’t extended to Suspiria.
Light here works as a thematic device, in keeping with Argento’s desire to replicate Disney’s high contrast visuals and the nightmarish set design of German expressionist films, especially the Cabinet of Dr Caligari. German expressionism drew heavily upon dream like visuals and surreal set design to create a sense of unease, and both these visual cues are recurrent throughout Suspiria’s Tanz academy. In an interview with American Cinematographer Magazine Tovoli explained how his use of colour managed to combine these two contradictory stylistic desires “I decided to intensively utilize primary colours — blue, green and red — to identify the normal flow of life, and then apply a complementary colour, mainly yellow, to contaminate them... To immediately make Suspiria a total abstraction from what we call ‘everyday reality,’ I used the usually reassuring primary colours only in their purest essence, making them immediately, surprisingly violent and provocative.”
These primary hues created a colour-based language between Argento and Tovoli, with orange representing relative safety, blues imminent death, and reds preceding acts of extreme violence. The opening chase sees Pat fleeing the dance school into her friend’s apartment block, where walls are constructed of massive red structures, silently explaining to the viewer that she has not evaded her fate. And, when the inevitable occurs it is shot through archetypal Giallo framing. We see numerous quick cuts, POV shots of a gloved killer wielding a blade towards their prey, and repeated close ups of a doomed character’s face. You could argue that Argento presented this extremely Giallo murder in reference to his previous work, before focusing on the more daring story elements. However, I would argue that the only real diversion from the Giallo norm present here is the lack of convolution within the storytelling.
Instead of numerous twists or lengthy dialogues pondering the nature of the killings, the film uses a linear narrative to streamline the terror, moving at a relentless pace, with only one expository section starring Udo Kier and Rudolf Schundler slowing things drastically and laying the foundations for lesser sequels Inferno and the Mother of Tears. Suspiria shows Argento in some of his strongest working relationships, returning to collaborate with Deep Red star Daria Nicolodi on writing duties, and Goblin to produce a synth and percussion heavy score, often considered their best work and a perfect compliment to the surreal horror. The familiarity established between both of these bonds allow Argento to move into Suspiria and its bizarre world with an unabashed confidence. Suspiria may be a controversial pick for Giallo purists, but it is the genre’s master at the top of his game and should be essential viewing for anyone looking to understand Argento.
Where to watch
A 4K Blu-ray restoration was created in 2017, which can be purchased, as well as DVD versions, from retailers. The film is also available online on Amazon Prime where it can be rented or is freely available to Prime users.
40 years of Suspiria: five films that influenced Dario Argento's horror classic by Martyn Conterio, featured in BFI
From Rosemary's Baby to Suspiria: five directors on cinema's scariest moments, interviews by Killian Fox featured in The Guardian
Flashback: Suspiria by David E. Williams, featured in The American Society of Cinematographers
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Patrick is a freelance journalist working in Edinburgh, currently writing for ShortCom. He has always been interested in cinema, but developed particular obsessions for horror and Studio Ghibli. He post written reviews on his social media platforms and will soon be starting a podcast.
ABOUT NEON EYE
Neon Eye is a film production company based in Edinburgh. As well as offering a platform for these curations and an accompanying video podcast, the company also creates and produces creative films of varying forms, from documentary to drama, and commercial videos for other companies, individuals, and enterprises.