Suspiria (1977)

Dir. Dario Argento. Starring Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Alida Valli

Suspiria is what you’d get if Michael Powell and John Carpenter were forced to do a movie together, combining stunning color with marvelously eerie settings. Like the best of Powell’s work, a good but somewhat outmatched woman is at the center of the movie; like the best of Carpenter’s, there’s an irrepressible sense that there’s something dark and knowing just around the corner at all times. Put together it’s a fairly addictive movie, a fairy tale with the coloring book emphases of a child. The scene where Pat is mutilated takes place in red rooms which don’t match up to the blood spurting everywhere, or to the beating heart that takes some skewering; she bursts through a beautifully patterned glass skylight, exploding the pattern of triangles in yellow with a much simpler one: red on white. Her friend who gave her refuge, standing beneath the light, is impaled and killed herself. It’s a gruesome scene, one which I think holds up with some success even forty years later; even if the look of it no longer creates revulsion, it appeals to our fear of vulnerability that we gain somewhere in childhood along with the coloring books. Something from the dark came in through the window and killed her in her pajamas with her parents, presumably, farther away than the next room. (My childhood fears didn’t end with me being killed on what looks like the rowdiest discotheque in Europe, but hey, everyone’s different.) I…prefer is a weird word, but from a perspective of aesthetics, I guess it works…the opening murder from Suspiria to the opening murder in Psycho; it’s stranger and more convoluted, bloodier and sensationalized with the color that Psycho chooses not to use. The Psycho murder puts the fear of God in us because of the killer, where the Suspiria murder terrorizes us because the killer is hidden. I’m nervier about standing about a window post-Suspiria than I was getting into the shower post-Psycho.

The pieces don’t always seem to fit together in Suspiria. No one ever offers a good explanation for the kid who appears to be doing perpetual cosplay of the Renaissance in the Low Countries, and there are some awfully hairy arms and hands doing a whole lotta stabbing which are never given torsos or faces. One character, Olga (Barbara Magnolfi) looks like she’s going to be an important player in the film and then disappears after a couple of scenes, Mandy Hampton-style, with no explanation. With the exception of the soundtrack yelling “WITCH” at us every now and then, we are given no good reason to think that there is a coven hiding behind the irises painted on the wall. (The band Goblins is responsible for the intense mood-setting music that is present as often as not; there’s a musical quality about it, for certain, but it’s genuinely creepy, maybe the creepiest single element of the film.) A scene where Suzy meets a convention of psychiatrists who seem to have extracurricular interests in witchcraft is placed far too close to the end; it disrupts the calculated ambience that, either through surreal color or sudden stabbing, sits throughout the film. The subtitle for the movie should probably be “White Girls Do Inexplicably Dumb Things,” culminating in a climactic scene where our heroine, Suzy (Harper), has forgotten that they have cops in Germany. One wishes not for answers, precisely, but reasons for things to have happened in the first place. It’s emblematic of the problem I have with slashers generally; no matter how interesting or scary or unusual the movie is in the first two acts, the third inevitably is something of a letdown. And the third act of Suspiria, though just as beautiful as the rest of the movie, is forced to wind down away from what’s heart racing. Suspiria is a visual masterpiece; it’s a shame that the most unnerving piece of the last ten minutes of the movie is a voice.

The movie loves yellow and electric green and every type of red. Blues and yellows are often used to contrast against one another, and the movie is fond of turning off normal lightbulbs only to fill the screen with equally bright colors which no sane designer would ever use to light a room. It’s an effective choice, creating mental dissonance. There’s great beauty in this setting, which we don’t like to think of as being splattered with blood. But more than any other color I’m amazed by Argento’s use of black. Black is a deeply difficult color to use for obvious reasons, but during a scene where the blind accompanist, Daniel (Flavio Bucci) and his service dog, a mostly black German shepherd, stop in the middle of an empty city square, Argento leaves us with a scene dominated with black. Daniel’s clothes, the dog, the night, the shadows, the glasses he wears are contrasted against the marble of the buildings and the white of Daniel’s shirt. It’s starkly different from the Technicolor bloodbaths which female characters are killed off in, and while it’s less frightening than Pat’s death, it’s more technically impressive to me. We are waiting for something to come out of the darkness because the darkness surrounds Daniel, who cannot see an assailant coming anyway. It might come from any direction. Bats scatter; “it” might be “they.” Argento uses medium shots often as not when he’s not exsanguinating some poor person, but in the moments before something terrible happens long shots are in order; for my money, the best of them come before Daniel’s dog unexpectedly rips out his master’s throat when only a few spotlights give us a way to see through the tunnel of black around him.

The MVP of Suspiria’s cast is Alida Valli, who starred in The Third Man almost three decades earlier. (I’m not enough of a film historian to know why Valli didn’t become a giant star stateside, because it certainly seems like she should have been; she had enough accented mystique and a memorable face to be big.) Valli smiles with all of her teeth in this movie, which is an overused phrase; Valli smiles with all of her teeth, like she was inspired by Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs. It’s a disquieting mien, especially because the smile doesn’t reach the eyes. It’s a baring of fangs as much as it is anything else. It should be tremendously campy, but Valli doesn’t wink at it at all in her acting, nor does Argento wink at it with his camera. Miss Tanner is as much an element of the scenery as the gonzo lighting effects; her dialogue, like the vast majority of the dialogue in Suspiria, is forgettable, but the force with which she spits out each line isn’t. Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett), her superior at the dance school, is a similarly important piece of the scenery. Miss Tanner is animated with some sort of primal force, yelling and screaming at students and employees alike. (She also praises what she sees as force of will in Suzy at one point, when she makes it clear she’d rather room with a girl off campus rather than take a room at the school.) Madame Blanc is outwardly serene, more graceful even though she’s heavier than her taller, slimmer colleague. She speaks coolly with Suzy in one scene where the girl tells her about the odd words she heard Pat scream through a thunderstorm; she is just as calm in the presence of three police officers who have come to investigate the death of her former student. Both are necessary to set the tone of the movie; one is the potent drink and the other the chaser to help manage the burning. (It’s worth considering that the chaser reminds us of the potency of the slug in the first place.)

One thought on “Suspiria (1977)

  1. Come see me at the Society for Cinema and Media studies conference in Chicago in March (2022) and I will tell you that Alida Valli was one of the most recognizable stars of Italian cinema in the 1940s.

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