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Witchcraft Wednesdays: ‘Suspiria’ feels just as exhilaratingly nightmarish today

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Suspiria
Directed by Dario Argento
Written by Daria Nicolodi and Dario Argento
1977, Italy

“And her eyes, if they were ever seen, would be neither sweet nor subtle; no man could read their story; they would be found filled with perishing dreams, and with wrecks of forgotten delirium.”  — Thomas De Quincey, “Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow”

Suzy manages to hail a cab after arriving in Munich, rain pouring down like the gods are dumping giant buckets of it onto her. It sounds like the apocalypse is happening all around, not least because of Goblin’s typically menacing score, which we are hearing for the first time. A McDonald’s visible in the distance, she pushes her way through the rain in order to yell down a cab and get inside (after the driver refuses to come outside and get her bags). She wipes herself off, reds and blues washing over her and the car. She tells the driver where to go (with some difficulty), then she’s off to the dance academy, with many different vibrant colors flashing through the cab and the thunder crashing all around. This is our introduction to Suzy Bannion. This is Suspiria.

From the get-go, we know we’re in for something we’ve never seen before: the colors, the music, the camera. Dario Argento, the now-legendary horror filmmaker, is firing on all cylinders, as they say. We also can tell immediately that we should not be at ease. By the time the cab makes its way through the forest and the soundtrack starts screeching, “WITCH” (totally not caring about giving anything away), we are unsettled and on edge. And we’re barely five minutes in.

As for Argento, he’s a curious figure in horror cinema. Much like The Simpsons, he arguably hasn’t made anything critically notable in the last fifteen years. But through the 1970s and ’80s, he made classic after classic, usually sticking to giallo films, his comfort zone. For those that don’t know, giallo is a horror genre that tends to be affiliated with Italian murder mysteries of that period (many horror films today pay homage to it, like Berberian Sound Studio and Amer). Eventually influencing American slasher films, giallo itself began as a genre of literature, cheap pulpy paperback thrillers that were especially popular in mid-twentieth century Italy.

Giallo films are characterized by their focus on suspense, their massive and cartoonish amounts of blood and gore, stylish visuals, illogical plots, bad acting, impressionistic imagery (especially Argento), nudity, and misogyny (it is usually a string of beautiful women that are killed, often in some state of undress or vulnerability). Argento is the most well-known director of giallo films, including seminal examples like Deep Red (1975) and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970). Suspiria, meanwhile, has plenty of the genre’s tropes, but it’s not a giallo film. Or there’s some discussion about whether it qualifies. Though some admit that giallo allows supernatural elements, most agree that Suspiria is simply a supernatural horror film with giallo aspects. It was Argento’s first foray into occultism and witchcraft, a topic he would return to several times. Whatever its designation, its become one of the biggest cult horror successes of all time.

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“Murmur she may, but it is in her sleep. Whisper she may, but it is to herself in the twilight; Mutter she does at times, but it is in solitary places that are desolate as she is desolate, in ruined cities, and when the sun has gone down to his rest.”

Once Suzy arrives at the academy, several strange things happen, but she is too naïve to take the hint. A distressed woman flees the building as she arrives. Not long after she moves in, she begins to feel dizzy for no reason, the teachers lie to her class about the directress, and people start being killed. Suzy is a classic giallo heroine, wholly pure and innocent, incorruptible, and destined to take on the malevolent leader of the coven that runs the academy. Her name is Helena Markos, and she is such a horrifyingly grotesque image that we aren’t forced to look upon her, even in the end.

The academy itself is a marvel of production design and aesthetic space, thanks in part to production designer Giuseppe Bassan. The outside (seen above), colored blood red, looks Victorian by way of a Gothic cathedral. The inside is awash in reds, purples, and blues, adorned with violently vivid wallpapers and German Art Nouveau décor and furniture. The film’s architecture and set design (particularly in the academy, but also the strict geometric shapes of the apartment building) become a character of their own, using absurd structural geometry and over-saturated color to invoke an uncanny atmosphere and to articulate a metaphorical inisght into the psyche of the characters and the world they find themselves in, one dominated by the supernatural and the occult. The academy is treated like a nightmarish labyrinth, with Suzy attempting to figure out where the teachers are going by listening to their footsteps and then navigating her way through hidden doors and winding hallways. The building’s maze-like features reflect the mystery Suzy must uncover.

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“She is the defier of God. She is also the mother of lunacies, and the suggestress of suicides. Deep lie the roots of her power; but narrow is the nation that she rules.”

The color yellow (‘giallo’, by the way, is Italian for yellow) is used to show the power of Markos, her followers, and evil more generally. Though it can appear at times that Argento is merely throwing as much color as he can on the screen, there is a purpose to it. Sarah, Suzy’s friend at the academy, is fleeing for her life and becomes trapped in a small room as her attacker tries to get inside. A small window above her is saturated in yellow – an escape! We spend what feels like minutes watching her slowly pile up random pieces of furniture in order to reach the window, in excruciating silence except for the sound of the attacker trying to unlock the door (this is one example where the lack of scoring ramps up the suspense). She finally makes it out the window, only to immediately be betrayed by the yellow light as she falls into a mess of razor wire, as if placed there specifically to eradicate her vision of hope and prove the power of the evil in this place. Even the doorway to her left bleeds yellow light, if only she could make her way to it through the pool of wires, but it’s a further illusion. Her throat is slashed in hideous close-up. The film then builds to the moment, as Suzy confronts Markos, when the closet handle starts to turn, fingers creep around the door, and Sarah’s possessed and horribly scarred corpse comes out, guttural groans and all. This debilitatingly chilling image stays with the audience long after the film ends, the academy and the coven destroyed, Suzy triumphant.

Suspiria’s sensory overload is like the neon-tinged, drug-fueled nightmare world of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. Drenched in bright colors that practically pop as if the movies are in 3D, both films command the audience’s attention with their heeding of detail and combination of visuals, shocking content, and music. Supiria‘s score by Goblin, it goes without saying, is one of the best film soundtracks ever recorded, with the band utilizing their prog-rock sensibilities better than they did in their other collaborations with Argento or with George Romero for Dawn of the Dead. The ominous tone set by the score not only matches what’s onscreen but enhances it, adding in screeches, screams, and whispers that unnerve like no gory corpse could.

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“Hers is the meekness that belongs to the hopeless. The second sister is called Mater Suspiriorum—Our Lady of Sighs.”

Suspiria is a film that disorients and discomforts; like Suzy entering Helena Markos’ chambers, her coarse wheezing unmistakable, we too are terrified of the power on display. It is funny, sometimes unintentionally so, viewed almost 40 years later. It’s a surreal sequence of horrific events, with the pure heroine unraveling the truth about this ancient coven. Argento is a curious figure, but this is surely his masterpiece. It’s a tall order for any horror classic to be expected to live up to the hype that surrounds it, with the legend of the film carrying great weight for first-timers. Suspiria lives up to its hype. It would be a fool’s errand to try to cover everything that makes the film special or brilliant, with only a small snapshot captured here. How many films that have been written about so extensively still have new elements to discover? The continuing discussion and obsession around Suspiria is a testament not only to Argento’s ability, but to the cultural heft that the film has been able to capture for so long. The image of the possessed Sarah may be imprinted in our minds, but what lingers is Suzy’s conquering of the wicked. That is Suspiria’s legacy. As much as the film suggests the omnipotence of evil and black magic, they crumble at the feet of a naïve girl who is able to outsmart Helena Markos, Mater Suspiriorum, Our Lady of Sighs.


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