I’m using this October’s horrorthon as an excuse to take rewatch and review all of Dario Argento’s films! Today, we take a look at one of Argento’s best known and most popular films, 1977’s Suspiria!
I’m going to start things out by admitting that this is an intimidating review to write. I once had a discussion with fellow TSL contributor Leonard Wilson about why it’s always so much easier to write about films that we hate than it is to write about films that we love. That’s certainly something that I’m thinking about right now, as I try to think of where to begin with Suspiria.
It’s not just that I like Suspiria. Anyone who has ever visited this site before knows how much I appreciate Italian horror in general and Argento in specific.
No, it’s that I absolutely love this film. I was sixteen the first time that I saw it and I’ve loved it ever since. To me, Suspiria is not just one of the best horror films ever made. It is truly one of the best films period. And I know that I’m not alone in feeling like that. Suspiria is a classic in every sense of the word.
Compared to almost every other film that Argento has made, the plot of Suspiria is remarkably straight forward. Suzy Banyon, an American ballet student, enrolls at the prestigious Tanz Dance Academy in Frieburg, Germany. From the minute she arrives, she gets the feeling that there is something strange happening behind the garish walls of the school and she’s right. While the film may be best known for Argento’s directorial flourishes and Goblin’s classic score, the story itself unfolds with the simplicity of a fairy tale.
The film even opens with a narrator who informs us, “Suzy Banyon decided to perfect her ballet studies in the most famous school of dance in Europe. She chose the celebrated academy of Freiburg. One day, at nine in the morning, she left Kennedy airport, New York, and arrived in Germany at 10:40 p.m. local time.” It’s the film’s equivalent of starting things off with, “Once upon a time…” Having let us know that we’re about to watch a fairy tale and therefore having served his purpose, the narrator isn’t heard for the rest of the film.
Instead, we watch as Suzy first arrives in Germany:
As played by Jessica Harper, Suzy Banyon is yet another neurotic but brave Argento protagonist who has found herself in a strange land. One of the things that I love about Suspiria is that Suzy is such an ordinary and relatable character. She’s not “the chosen one.” She’s not a witch or an aspiring witch or the daughter of a witch or the reincarnation of a witch. She’s not desperately looking for a husband or dealing with a family tragedy or any of that other BS that we have to deal with in today’s cinema.. She doesn’t have any dark secrets or untapped magical powers. She’s not seeking vengeance. She has no trendy agenda. She’s not the protagonist of the latest YA novel. Instead, she’s a dancer. She is someone who is attempting to pursue something that she is good at and that she loves. In short, she is the viewer. Suzy Banyon is us and we are Suzy Banyon. Like us, she’s sometimes scared. Like us, she’s sometimes brave. And, like us, it’s just not in her nature to leave a mystery unsolved.
It’s obvious, from the moment that Suzy arrives, that there’s something strange happening at the school. We, of course, already know that it involves witchcraft. This is largely because we’ve been listening to the film’s score and we’ve heard Goblin’s Claudio Simonetti chanting “WITCH! WITCH!” as Suzy’s taxi drives through the woods and arrives at the school. (The journey through the woods adds to Suspiria‘s fairy tale atmosphere.)
However, for Suzy, her initial concern is that everyone at the school appears to be trying to cheat her out of her money. Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) has arranged for Suzy to stay in an apartment on which she’ll have to pay rent. When Miss Tanner (Alida Valli, a force of pure nature in this film) finds out that Suzy’s bags have yet to arrive and Suzy doesn’t have any ballet shoes, she tells her to borrow a pair from another student. The student immediately offers to sell them to Suzy and is visibly deflated when Suzy says that she’s just needs to borrow them for a day.
And, of course, there’s Olga (Barbara Magnolfi), a student who thinks that names that start with S are the names of snakes.
(I have to admit that, as a former dance student, that scene brought back a lot of memories.)
But it’s not just money that Suzy has to worry about. There are also maggots that fall from the ceiling, the result of a shipment of spoiled meat. There’s the strange and labored breathing that Suzy occasionally hears behind the walls. There’s the fact that her new roommate, Sarah (Stefania Casini), is convinced that the teachers are hiding a secret. Sarah’s therapist, Dr. Frank Mandel (Udo Kier, playing an oddly respectable role) thinks that Sarah is suffering from delusions but is she?
And, of course, there’s all the mysterious deaths.
For instance, Daniel, a blind piano player, has his throat ripped by his seeing eye dog. Interestingly enough, Daniel is played by Flavio Bucci who, in The Night Train Murders, played a murderer. One of his Night Train victims was played by Irene Miracle, who would later have an important role in Suspiria‘s semi-sequel, Inferno.
Another former student, Pat Hingle (Eva Axen) is brutally stabbed to death and, after her body falls through a skylight, the shattered glass kills her best friend as well. Of course, the killer wears gloves. It wouldn’t be an Argento film otherwise. (Pat’s murder is one of Suspiria‘s best known set pieces, one that is so brutal and violent that it retains its power to shock even after you’ve seen it a few times. For the most part, if someone is going to stop watching or walk out on Suspiria, it’s going to happen during Pat’s murder.)
And through it all, you have Goblin playing on the soundtrack. The film’s score is so important and so relentless that, in its way, it becomes just as important a character as Suzy, Sarah, Madame Blanc, Miss Tanner, or even Udo Kier! The score is relentless and, depending on how loudly you play the film, almost deafening. I saw an interview with Goblin’s Claudio Simonetti where he said that he wanted the score to be “almost annoying” in its relentlessness. The score overpowers you, in much the same way that the witches of Suspiria overpower their victims.
Suspiria was co-written by Daria Nicolodi, Dario Argento’s girlfriend and the mother of Asia Argento. Nicolodi has long claimed that Suspiria is based on something that happened to her grandmother. Argento, meanwhile, has said that nothing in the film was based on fact. Reportedly, Nicolodi wanted to play the role of Suzy and was so offended with Argento instead offered her the role of Sarah that she went off and made Mario Bava’s Shock instead.
(Suspiria is often cited as the start of the long and acrimonious process that would eventually end with Argento and Nicolodi ending their relationship 8 years later.)
Personally, I think that Nicolodi would have been wasted in the role of Sarah but, at the same time, it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Jessica Harper as Suzy Banyon. For that matter, it’s also impossible to imagine anyone other than Dario Argento directing Suspiria. Suspiria is Argento’s masterpiece, taking all of his frequent and familiar motifs (bloody murders, artistic protagonists, the constantly roaming camera, the use of primary colors) and pushing them to their natural extreme. It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Argento telling Suspiria’s story.
And yet, that is exactly what is about to happen. For years, of course, I’ve heard rumors of a remake and, perhaps naively, I’ve dismissed them. I took some comfort in the fact that even Dario Argento himself came out and forcefully denounced the idea of anyone remaking his masterpiece. Remake Suspiria? I would think to myself, Surely no one is that stupid.
Well, it’s happening and if that doesn’t outrage you, perhaps you should leave right now. Reportedly, the remake is set to be released in 2017. It’ll be directed by Luca Guadagnino and it’ll star Dakota Johnson, Chloe Grace Moretz, and Tilda Swinton. Guadagnino says that his remake will be all about the “power of motherhood.”
Whatever, Luca. Suspiria doesn’t need you and it doesn’t need to be remade.
Suspiria is perfect just the way it is.