For most of my life I have generally avoided horror films. The genre makes me profoundly uncomfortable. This means I have enormous gaps in my cinematic knowledge. Each year I ask friends and family which essential horror movies I need to see in order to fill those gaps and spend October writing them, agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them. This is my No Sleep October.
There’s something truly beautiful about blood in 1970s Italian horror. Chalky, bright-red, thick like paint. It says, “This is blood,” and you believe it, even though it clearly isn’t. The buy-in to the heightened reality is total.
Suspiria has a great soundtrack, the audio equivalent of that pasty fake blood. Prog-rock band Goblin never disappoints, but in this case they always blow me away. Their score is our constant companion as Suzy (Jessica Harper) finds herself pulled deeper and deeper towards the truth at the heart of the Tanz Dance Academy. “WITCH!”, they exclaim. Drums. Chimes. Whispered utterances just beyond the limit of hearing. Can we hear what they’re saying? Can Suzy uncover the truth behind that red wine they’re serving her every night? That unsettling muttering, punctuated with exclamation of heinous intent …
Dario Argento wrote and directed Suspiria. He previously wrote one of my favorite films of all time, Once Upon a Time in the West. After this he would produce another of my favorite films, George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Argento’s never been an unknown commodity to me, but Suspiria was my first experience with him as a director. I am never disappointed.
Title Card. SUSPIRIA.
“Suzy Bannion decided to perfect her ballet studies at the most famous school of dance in Europe …”
Suspiria is the story of Suzy’s experience studying ballet in a school that is actually a front for a coven of centenarian witches. The night she arrives, she witnesses a student named Pat Hingle from the building into the pouring rain. Hingle and a friend die that night, gruesomely. And then another. And another. Maggots rain from the ceiling. Suzy starts to realize that there might be more to the school than she thought.
No real mystery, beyond whether Suzy can make it out alive. Like Goblin shouting “WITCH!”, Argento isn’t trying to play with your expectations. Suzy’s going to learn the truth we already know, and the fun is being trapped in the gorgeous hell alongside her.
It’s all atmosphere. A simple story told colorfully, and I mean colorfully. Everything feels painted, truly Technicolor. The architecture of every building we see is grand and exaggerated; rooms in blue and green and yellow and red like you’ve never seen. It was one of the final films to be processed in Technicolor, giving it that surreal primary color finish like you would see in one of the first color films. No grime.
The immaculateness with which Argento films his horror masterpiece doesn’t detract from the scares or tension as young women are chased by hairy arms with knives or look into the darkness outside their windows only to see yellow eyes staring back at them. It does, however, contribute to the feeling of fantasy.
My years writing No Sleep October have given me a real fondness for the kind horror Suspiria employs. Grimy, jump-scare laden movies get to me, but being invited into the heightened heart of a true nightmare is actually something I enjoy. I didn’t have any nightmares from Suspiria but I did go and watch again the next morning. It’s a feast of tension and atmosphere, deeply unsettling.