Film Review: Suspiria (1977)

When it comes to giallo, the work of Dario Argento is something of a gap in my knowledge, which is a shame since he, like Bava and Fulci, are legends of the genre. Indeed, Argento probably had the greatest mainstream penetration of any work of Italian horror, through this work – Suspiria.

Suspiria is something of a waking nightmare of a film. The film follows Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), an aspiring ballet student who has come to Germany to study at a prestigious ballet academy. However, she arrives almost at the same time that two of the school’s students are brutally murdered, and over the course of her time there are further deaths, and the school’s faculty begins to emotionally manipulate her, while she tries to get to the bottom of the mysteries at the heart of the school.

Argento and the film’s cinematographer, Luciano Tovoli, take some definite cues from the works of Mario Bava, particularly through the use of color. While Bava used a rich palette of reds, greens, and blues in his works like Blood and Black Lace, it was always in the context of how the scene was lit. Here, the color pervades every aspect of the film, from lighting to clothing to the set. Probably my favorite example of this is in the Udo Kier’s one scene in the film, where Bannion is talking to his character about the history of the school. The scene puts Kier in a green suit, sitting in a garden full of primarily green plants, in front of a green building, all of which are pretty close to the same color. The combination of color like this helps to heighten the film’s dreamlike tone.

Similarly, the violence in the film is very intense – this is where the nightmare part comes in. Argento doesn’t mess around with jump scares or anything like that. He just uses the score by Goblin and the cinematography to build a profound sense of dread. The violence serves as something of the payoff to that – the heights of dread that he achieves can only be paid off with a profound act of violence.

Thankfully, unlike some other giallo and giallo-adjacent films, Suspiria stays away from the sexual violence – in part because the film’s script was originally written with the idea that the protagonists of the film would all be minors – and in some cases pre-adolescents. Worries from the studio about getting the right performances from children combined with worries about the film getting banned for having this level of graphic violence happen to children got the cast changed to an adult cast playing older teens.

I get the studio’s concerns there, but I also get what Argento was going for – not only in the sense of the brutality of the deaths becoming more shocking when they happen to children (generally if kids die in horror films, they don’t die bloody), but also in the sense of a more strong level of vulnerability for characters who are children.

I’m really glad I watched this film, and I can safely say that Suspiria has earned its place among the ranks of the greats of horror cinema, and I’d definitely say it’s worth watching, ideally in the highest definition version you can get ahold of.

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