There are certain films that go beyond effectively realizing the promise of their genre and begin to act almost as pure distillations of it. Without implying the impossible essentialization of something as nebulous and elusive as art itself, one might nonetheless suggest that there are specific films that feel as though they fully express the most primal and basic characteristics of their genre, or perhaps more accurately a certain angle of their genre. These films focus on the most archetypal and elemental sensations of their genre’s emotional and stylistic palette, aiming to provide them with their most unmitigated, purified expression. They strip away any unnecessary accouterments, bury themselves in an almost obsessive rigor of form, and, if they are successful, stand as the closest thing to a Platonic ideal of a certain mode of art as any artistic work can ever get.
Dario Argento’s 1977 horror movie Suspiria is one such film. It is also one of the finest films ever made. Its concerns are very simple, though its execution is anything but. Suspiria is about the not unpleasant frisson of terror and danger; about nightmares, the fantastic, the body in pain, and the morbid sensuality of fear. These notions are the stock-and-trade of many a horror film, but unlike most other films, Suspiria values such currents as ends in and of themselves. While it gestures at theme and metaphor—the subtle allusions to German fascism, the undercurrent of queer sexuality and gender politics, the analogy between art and the occult—it never probes too deeply into these associations. They are left for us to follow if we so choose, little breadcrumb trails through its smothering Black Forest, but it steadfastly refuses to didactically spell out or center such ideas. Its core interests lie solely with its surface: which is not at all to call it superficial; quite the opposite, in fact. The total, unquestioning reverence with which Suspiria treats the tortures and deaths, the haunted spaces and unearthly atmospherics, the unreal twists and diabolical reversals that constitute the basic elements of the horror film suggest an almost fanatical, quasi-religious deference toward the power of its genre. Every set piece is a sacrament, carried out with a ceremonial fervor that evokes the atmosphere of a passion play.
At the same time it honors the trappings of the horror tradition (from the ancient fairy tale to the Gothic to the Giallo), Suspiria is enamored of its own medium. It emphasizes the most elementary pleasures of cinema: the play of light and shadow, the expressive gestural acting of the silent era, rich color, immersive camera movement, enveloping music, absorbing editing. Argento’s well-documented roots in Disney and in German Expressionism indicate a return to cinema’s earliest forms, a kind of from-scratch approach that strives to evoke the wonder filmmaking must have inspired when it was still a new invention. It’s no surprise that, unlike many other horror movies of this period, Suspiria has somewhat broken out of its hermetic circle of cult devotees and reached a degree of, if not exactly mainstream viewership, at least of broad appreciation from other cinephiles, including those typically averse to the horror genre. It revitalizes a whole toolbox of cinematic devices that are all too often merely taken for granted, awakening us afresh to their potency and restoring some of that simple awe we experienced at moving pictures as children.
In this sense, for all its reputation as a vision of excess, I actually find Suspiria to be rather ingeniously simple and pared-down in its construction. It is about the pleasure of fear and the pleasure of the movies; nothing more, nothing less. The grotesque and arabesque, as Poe might have put it: an unholy knot between abject horror and dazzling technique.
The first fifteen minutes or so establish the whole of the film. We begin with a remarkable title sequence that, in its black-on-white graphic starkness, will only serve to render the subsequent bursts of color and image more spectacular. Goblin’s now-iconic score determines the mood before anything else: first a series of attacking drums and shrieking strings before the title card, then the twinkling, gruesome music box theme that has become the film’s signature sound. Something harrowing and something beautiful, violent noise hand-in-hand with seductive melody. Susie Bannion decided to perfect her ballet studies in the most famous school of dance in Europe, a dry, nondescript narrator, never heard again, informs us in voice-over. One day at nine in the morning she left Kennedy Airport, New York, and arrived in Germany at ten-forty p.m., local time. The strange specificity of the hours and locations—so peculiar for a film that otherwise feels so unbound from any real place or time—is less a halfhearted gesture at abandoned documentary specificity and more akin to some sort of hypnotic incantation. The darkness of the screen, the flat fairy tale language, the swirling, miasmic score, a score that sounds as though it’s conjuring something out of fire or air, all serve to juice the audience’s imagination for the sights to come: an invitation to participate in the formation of the film’s dark fantasia.
Then the famous opening arrival, Suzy’s exit from the neon-lit airport—that automatic door, snapping open and shut, slicing like a guillotine, or perhaps like the knife that severs the last umbilical cord tethering us to the real world, the world of safety—and her abrupt ejection into the howling German night, splashing rain and flickering headlights, having to throw herself in front of a car just to get a ride, and even then being unable to communicate with her menacing chauffeur; the hallucinogenic caress of color on her wet hair and distressed, disconcerted face as she’s driven through the city; the water churning darkly in the dam the taxi passes that the camera emphasizes in three progressively closer shots, and later the rainwater rushing into the grate, overflowing it (everything is fluid, everything is spilling over); the nightmarishly unreal vista of the taxi winding its way through the tall, rigid, thin black trees toward the academy. All of this takes only five minutes, but the spell it casts is more complete than most films manage in two hours, and it is so rich in individually examined details that all on its own it could form the basis of its own essay. You’re immediately enveloped by an atmosphere that is at once cruelly commanding, almost startling in its aggression, and extremely enticing, enchantingly beautiful, presenting such an irresistible sublimity of form that you can’t help but surrender yourself to it; a helpless seduction that will prove deadly once the film locks you in and truly aims to scare, like willingly sinking into a venus fly trap. There lies the cruel dialectic at the core of Suspiria, and of the horror film more broadly: the primal interplay between pain and pleasure, the knowledge that what beguiles us just as often scares us half to death.
Because Suspiria is indeed a scary movie, a sentiment that has possibly gone somewhat out of vogue in the intervening decades since its release, having been buried under uncounted layers of “style over substance” (as if the two were dissociable!) discourse, and the fatally mis-/over-applied use of that elusive term camp. Suspiria may well be camp—it’s hard to argue otherwise when it stars grown women playing roles originally written for twelve-year-olds—but it’s not toothless and seldom ever silly. On the contrary, I personally found certain sequences quite terribly and viscerally frightening, frightening in a way few movies ever accomplish for me. The death sequences, during which you can practically feel the cold breath of evil on the back of your neck, are obviously the clearest stand-outs. The protracted sequence of the blind man in the Munich Königsplatz at night, dwarfed by the blindingly-lit neo-classical architecture that once served as the stage for Nazi rallies, is simply excruciating. The chill of terror at the gargantuan, amorphous shadows that flicker across the columns, the anxious dog snapping its teeth before turning on its master, measured editing ruptured by the attack, a creeping zoom on the eagle sculpture topping the building, the pummeling rhythms of Goblin’s drums and craggy, multilayered vocals…the experience of watching this felt a cold grip on my shoulder, an icy clasp in which I felt helpless before my own dread even as I was awed by Argento’s skillful scene construction. More terrible still: the nocturnal pursuit of Sarah through the halls, beginning with her in Suzy’s room backlit by an acidic green (a sour enough color for terror) as the door to the adjoining room swings open, a vision from a bad dream; followed down the corridor, Sarah a Gothic heroine in her nightgown, stalked through rooms of shifting blue and red; slashed from behind, an act surreally punctuated by a sudden blush of crimson light from behind broken glass; the knife jiggling the lock which is the sole barrier between her and death; and finally, in the film’s most upsettingly random cruelty, an abrupt plunge into a field of barbed wire, the door just in sight, but every effort to disentangle herself only induces further agonies. In a sense, her predicament is not so different from that of the film viewers. Straining against the fearful symmetries of Argento’s wicked spell only serves to deepen its power over you. Every frisson of terror prompts another sting of sensation, a greater incision, a tightening of the stranglehold you can no longer escape even if you wished to. The curse is too strong; the spell too mighty to resist.
Such is the power of the “fright” sequences, but just as important, and often just as frightening, are the quieter interludes that link them together, perfectly paced (ninety-nine minutes is just right for this film), and rich with haunting, highlighted specificities that are not easily forgotten. The glint of a knife in the midday sunlight that causes Suzy to swoon—the water spouting out of the stone lips of the gargoyles decorating the front facade of the academy—the emptying of a glass of drugged wine into the sink, prompting a bloody splash of red against the slick pink glint of the basin—these are just a few of the many little details that Argento and screenwriter Daria Nicolodi have embellished their macabre narrative with. Some of them are relevant to the plot, most of them are not, but all contribute to the deepening wonder of the occult trance strives to exert, a falling into a dream. None of these details, however “irrelevant”, feel incidental in the least. As in a fairy tale, they all seem to be charged with some hidden diabolic significance, a lurking duplicity that the film’s narrative increasingly starts to literalize. A painted iris turns into a doorknob to a forbidden realm. The neon feather of an artificial peacock becomes a gigantic, blinding needle. After the petrifying climax, when Suzy strikes a fatal blow to her invisible tormenter, the academy itself crumbles to pieces, bodily and architectural collapse one and the same. (This unsettling confusion of decor and real life is just the sort of blurring Suspiria’s aggressively unnatural stylistics effect upon the audience.) And even relatively “stable” moments, like the dance lesson or the kitschy German bar party, retain a disconcerting edge of unreality, if not outright dread. Consider Suzy and Sarah’s hushed discussion in the pool: the camera dollies toward them from high above, briefly dissecting and impaling their figures as it passes over the trident ornamental motif decorating the balcony; it then simply looms overhead, Suzy and Sarah looking terribly vulnerable, their figures almost silhouetted in the deep blue water of the pool, fragile dark bodies suspended in a disturbingly contiguous block of color that is nonetheless structured by the cruelly enclosing rectangular designs on the pool’s floor. Toss in the necrotic howls and stygian sighs of Goblin’s score, and you have right here, contained within this single brief moment, all of the magic of Suspiria in one place: color, shape, sound, terror. Even in the most “realistic” scene, Suzy’s expository conversation with the two scholars who clue her into the dark truth at the heart of the academy, the images and editing are beset by bizarre spatial manipulations and strange perspectives; it’s as if, having shot so many images of horror and phantasmagoria, the cinematographer felt quite unable to shoot a “normal” sequence. Suzy and the psychotherapist are framed in low-angle shots, unearthly clouds creeping across the sky behind them; the perspective is quickly and drastically swapped for an extreme overhead shot, a dizzying reversal that renders the human figures infinitesimally small before the towering of the architecture. When Suzy talks to the Professor, a simple shot-reverse-shot exchange becomes an alarming eclipse of faces as each figure moves closer toward the center, with each character’s head eventually almost totally obscuring the other’s. Tovoli ends the conversation in the dim, softly iridescent reflection of a pane of glass, finally collapsing their rationalist discussion back into the fevered unconscious the rest of the film gleefully occupies.
If I have fallen to using the lowliest of critical tools, mere description, then it is simply because for me, as for so many others, the basic qualities of Suspiria are qualities that elude language. It’s such a purely audiovisual experience that words feel limp and even demeaning when applied to it, inviting the dangerous temptation to merely recount, in a sort of hushed awe, the individual moments that constitute it, as I fear I’ve done here. Even highly formalized, academic writing on this film (Linda Schulte-Sasse’s piece being perhaps my favorite) ultimately can only insist on the necessity of actually sitting through it to understand it, or more accurately to sense it, to soak in what makes it so significant. It is part of what has made this piece so difficult to write, why it still leaves me unsatisfied: a sensation of straining to capture an experience that, for all the ink that’s been spilled over it, slips through every writer’s grasp. But I hope my words have apprehended even the barest glimmer of the deep, ineffable admiration I have for this magnificent, diabolical, insurmountable classic.
I would like to close with an appreciation of what is probably the film’s most infamous sequence, the early, dreadful set-piece that depicts Patricia’s death. It signifies the purest synthesis of Suspiria’s powers in its runtime: a statement, I hasten to add, which does not intend to diminish the intensity of the subsequent scenes, but only to suggest that this particular sequence, which is unsurprisingly probably its most infamous, is as Suspiria as Suspiria gets, the peak of its “itselfness”. It is staged within the most outrageous set in a film full of them: a sort of gothic art deco inferno that, with its inscrutable Escher-like configurations of geometrical symmetry and garish stained glass window, suggests a sacrificial temple of doom more than it does an apartment building. There is indeed a profoundly ritualistic element to the whole sequence, a sense of predestined agony that lends it, despite its stylistic extravagances and sudden shocks, the weighty air of a calculated and purposefully measured death march.
We are put in poor Patricia’s shoes when abandoned by her roommate, she is spellbound by the ghostly flutter of a dress left to dry outside as it rustles against the windowpane. Lit a seductive blue, the markedly textural, even sensual quality of this gentle susurration, the mesmerically repetitive brush of fabric against glass, might well stand-in for the whole arsenal of techniques Suspiria unrelentingly deploys to envelop you in its cruel embrace. No one could resist the beauty of such a surface. Instead of souring it, the anxiety with which the scene is suffused actually heightens the beauty, sharpens its edges to their keenest expression. Has no film, before or since ever understood so well that even terror has its poetry?
A gnarled hand plunges through the window. Its grip presses Sarah against the glass and transforms her face into a grotesque, corpse-blue, monstrous. Her screams mingle with the yelling of the roommate outside, of the wailing on the score. The editing is brutal, kinetic. She is dragged out onto the landing and subjected to a series of awful degradations: three stabbings, bound with rope, stabbed four more times, the last directly in the palpitating heart.
There is nothing sadistic whatsoever about this scene. It is exhilarating, it radiates pleasure. It does not dehumanize Pat, but identifies her suffering with our terror, and shows both to be sublime. The blood is bright as paint; it renders the white of her dress even lovelier. The disembodied arm is Argento’s, molding us like putty in his hands. Every moment of agony, every twist of the knife is given its own suspended moment of emphasis, protracted, lit, and composed with the care a Renaissance portraitist would apply to a depiction of Christ. Ultimately Pat’s head crashes through the vortex of stained glass, her reared-back head haloed by the neon crater, lips smeared with scarlet blood. Her face is a mask of annihilatory ecstasy, a totalized expression of despair so intense it has vaulted into euphoria. Her enraptured death visage merges the sexual, the fatal, the spiritual, and the artistic into one blissful moment of agony: nothing less than the primordial release of total submission to the sweet, splendorous song of death.
It is in this frozen image of transcendent terror that the lover of Suspiria can find their mirror. I certainly know that I—having, after so long, finally been initiated into the cult of this exquisite, dreadful masterpiece—expect, with equal parts fear and delight, to see it throw my haunted reflection back at me again and again over the years to come.