1977 was a damn good year for cinema with the release of modern film classics like Star Wars, Saturday Night Fever, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It was also an inspired year for horror, with The Hills Have Eyes, Eraserhead, Rabid, and, of course, Dario Argento’s masterpiece, Suspiria. One of the most iconic horror films ever, Suspiria enjoyed the 40th anniversary of its world premiere a few months ago. Just a few days ago, it enjoyed the 40th anniversary of its American release.
Suspiria is one of my favorite horror movies. Full stop. Not only is it violent and horrifying, it’s freakin’ gorgeous. Gory and unsettling, its visuals are beautiful and opulent. Suspiria is a true experience, more than a straightforward movie-watching experience. Like the giallo movies from which Suspiria is descended, the film explores the stunning effect of horrific violence rendered cinematic. Of all the giallo films, Suspiria achieves a rare kind of horror movie sublimity, slipping into your subconscious like a long, thin blade.
Giallo, as a horror subgenre, is characterized by glamorous and pretty female leads, sumptuous visual aesthetics, sometimes hilariously thin plots, mysterious serial murderers, dramatic music, and over-the-top violence perpetrated against sexualized female cast members. It isn’t often concerned with supernatural plot elements, preferring instead to focus on crime and psychological horror. (In many ways, giallo is the sophisticated, stylish aunt of the slasher genre.) Giallo films trade in such themes like madness, sexuality, isolation, paranoia, and the inherent subjectivity of perspective. Whether or not most giallo films succeed in the exploration of those themes is a different story, because not all giallo films are created equal.
Suspiria does share a lot with giallo films, but I don’t think it can be defined solely by that term. Its themes are reminiscent, its casting is far from groundbreaking, and its major story structure pulls straight from the giallo handbook. But Suspiria transcends the genre, utilizing all the hallmarks while mixing in surrealism and ingenuity to create a uniquely original work that gets under your skin and scares you more than any mere giallo film could.
That is, after all, what Dario Argento set out to do. As he once put it, “Fear is a 370-degree centigrade body temperature. With Suspiria I wanted 400 degrees.”
What inspired Dario Argento to crank it up to 400 degrees and create one of the most famously lurid and violent horror-fairy tales?
For Argento, his brand of horror is, “All about transforming something spectacular and baroque into something very precise and cold, like a stab with a knife. First, I want to create opulent beauty—and then kill it off with a stab.” This is an extremely accurate statement about Suspiria, as well as his entire body of work.
To that end, Argento called upon his major influences—the films of Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Luis Buñuel, and the rebellious filmmakers of the French New Wave. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Nosferatu (1922), and Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) played a considerable part in Argento’s creative inspiration as did Cat People (1942), Blood and Black Lace (1964), and The Witches (1967).
Austrian artist Oskar Kokoschka’s twisting forms and wild color pop up constantly.
And MC Escher’s reality-bending and brain-twisting influence is all over Suspiria.
Argento also found a potent source of creativity in American writer Edgar Allen Poe, whose gothic horror stories, often set in remote, brooding settings and handling themes of madness and loneliness, clearly influenced the director. Argento once named Edgar Allen Poe, “The Master” who explored “Themes of suffering [that] were too much for the mind, whose stories of terror had people die like animals.” Anyone who has seen Argento’s work can find these pervasive elements represented there.
With this mix of inspirations, the screenplay would prove equally potent. Written by Argento and screenwriter/actress Daria Nicolodi, the screenplay was heavily influenced by fairy tales. Nicolodi also drew upon stories her grandmother had told her as a child, back from when her grandmother discovered that the teachers at her acting academy were practicing black magic. She swore up and down that she had barely escaped the evil there.
So it’s no surprise Suspiria was originally meant to revolve around a cast of young girls, aged 8-10 years old, all students of the same prestigious ballet academy where the teachers have a twisted, evil secret. As the story goes, Argento’s producers balked at an Argento horror film starring young children, so they made him change the ages of the student. Which was a good call, honestly, since little else was changed.
Can you imagine having such young children in the present version of Suspiria? The idea strikes at something half-formed and fearsome in a shadowy reach of my mind. Yet somehow, it rings true, in the half-dream, half-nightmare logical way fairy tales do.
When we first met Suzy in the opening scene of Suspiria, she’s just arrived in Berlin. The airport seems like any other airport in a major city—completely normal, a little gritty and dirty. It’s once she’s in the car that we get a first taste of the lurid color and light to come, confirmation that Suzy is a girl in a strange, ominous place. As she passes from the city through the deep, dark woods and arrives at the ballet academy, you can sense that she has unknowingly entered some kind of new world through some unseen portal. In a subtle reference to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the world of the ballet academy plays with perception, with light coming from impossible sources, insane color exploding at the camera, and a labyrinth of rooms that doesn’t make sense.
It’s this sense of un-reality, of the illogical and irrational, that Suspiria uses to establish a baseline of visual discomfort.
This was the aspect of Suspiria’s production that fascinated me most—how did he achieve the look of Suspiria?
It wasn’t the incredibly long location-scouting process, during which Argento and his producers visited Austria, Switzerland, and Italy before settling on an actual Gothic masterpiece, the Haus zum Walfisch in Baden-Wurttenberg, Germany.
It wasn’t the costuming, draping the students in delicate gowns of bright colors and shimmery pastels. I loved the stark contrast between the girls and the teachers, clad in stiff, formal suits in a dark palette. The dichotomy between vulnerable, innocent youth and intimidating, cold age gives the film yet another layer of foreboding. (It also raises a question about what Argento’s views on female attractiveness and gender norms are, and it’s not a bad question to ask, as much as I love this movie.)
Obviously, a lot of work went into the film, literally, because the actual film was key to Suspiria’s notorious aesthetic.
Argento and his team settled on a particular kind of film, specifically, an “outmoded IB stock with a highlayer of gel that was provided by Kodak and was at 30/40 ASA.” This kind of film hadn’t been used commonly since the 1950s, so it was rare and difficult to find. The production team was forced to ration the film and shot only two to four versions of each scene to conserve it.
But this was all part of the plan. Argento wanted the outdated film stock so he could use an outdated film processing technique called the Three-Step Technicolor process. Lucky for him, Rome had one of the last remaining film labs in the world that could perform the process. Three-Step was, at one time, the most widely used color process in Hollywood for decades but had fallen out of favor by the 1950s. Normal film processing techniques would create two “films” to print together—one red and one green. The Three-Step process involved creating not two, but three different films from the negative—one red, one green, and one blue. All three films would be treated, processed, and combined into the final product. As promised by the long and complicated process (which I have greatly simplified) the film emerged electric, dripping with expressive color, macabre lighting, and deep contrasts. (electric sheep). He was able to render in wonderfully horrific detail all his gore, his tricks of light and shadow, and his lingering close-ups of painful agony.
But what would an appreciation post about Suspiria be without acknowledging its brilliant soundtrack, composed by Italian prog-rock band Goblin? I’ve talked before about how good this score is, and I can go on and on, but I cannot say enough about how Goblin’s music does a ton of heavy lifting for the movie. I feel pretty confident in saying that the film wouldn’t be as good or scary without Goblin’s essential contribution. Argento himself agrees, saying, “Because the movie is very special and strange, and it definitely needed something dominant to amplify this strangeness, instead of a soundtrack that just goes along with the images. I was talking a lot to Goblin before postproduction, and we worked on the direction of the movie intensely. I love the soundtrack—it’s definitely the best one of all my movies.”
Argento liked the score so much that he played it during filming to elicit more powerful performances from his actors.
I mean, that score doesn’t let up. It comes for blood.
Such creative attention to the technical aspects of filmmaking made Suspiria an instant cult classic. These techniques produced a film that has aged remarkably well, earning the admiration of its contemporaries and later audiences both.
On the other hand, while Suspiria fared better than many ahead-of-their-time horror films, the film was by no means a resounding success upon its release.
Janet Meslin of The New York Times thought that Suspiria was a film of comic absurdity cut with scenes of extreme gore. However, she did note that the movie was, “More interesting than it ought to be,” with “slender charms” that would definitely alienate anyone with a weak stomach.
Gary Arnold of The Washington Post was considerably less impressed, accusing Argento of failing to “create and sustain an illusion of terror” and instead, “Invit[ing] [the audience] to marvel at his garish ingenuity, at the spectacle of a filmmaker who can’t resist overstylizing and upstaging his material.” Ouch, Gary, that was harsh.
Rob Baker of The Soho Weekly News called it a “Horror film laden with the self-conscious convoluted fairy tale Alice in Wonderland.” Which also seems harsh and willfully ignorant of the visual prowess of the movie.
Today, fans and film critics alike recognize Suspiria for the imaginative, well-crafted horror film it is. It is widely hailed as one of the most influential horror films of the 20th century. Suspiria’s pops up in films like The Crow, Scream, Black Swan, and The Neon Demon. It’s also been referenced in films like Matilda, Face-Off, Angels and Demons, and it even showed up in a 1995 episode of Star Trek Voyager.
With the current state of mainstream horror movies, it was only a matter of time before a horror movie of this caliber and legacy was remade. I have some mixed feelings about this because while I don’t believe there was a need for Suspiria to be remade, I am genuinely curious to see what another director can bring to the story. The danger is, of course, that this remake will be an uninspired, shot-for-shot copy of the original. Which is way, way worse than something totally different.
But I’m going to have a little faith in the remake’s director, Luca Guadagnino. Already it has been reported that this version will not showcase the shocking color scheme of the original, and even though that news makes me a touch sad, I think it’s probably for the best. I like his vision for the film: “It’s a film about guilt and motherhood. It has no primary colors in its color palette, unlike the original. It will be cold, evil and really dark.”
Mainly, I want this remake film to do what Argento’s Suspiria did: make us feel things we can’t name. Things we are drawn to, despite our fears. Suspiria connected me to something within myself that I didn’t know about before. It makes no sense, and yet somehow it does. There was truth and terrible beauty in that film. As J. Hoberman of The Village Voice‘s J. said of Suspiria, “[It is] a movie that makes sense only to the eye.”
The remake will probably never touch the original, but if it makes us feel the same disturbing sense of truth with unbelievably beautiful visuals, it will be a success. And Lord knows horror need more movies like that.
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