Dario Argento’s 1977 classic is alternately a feast for the senses and an assault on them.
Lurid, stylised, and inescapable, if it feels like that for us watching, imagine what it’s like for poor Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), new student at the famous German dance academy in Freiberg and gradually realising that her new home harbours a terrifying secret.
Having just watched this all the way through and in the right order for the first time, I have to admit I’m now wondering if it was the inspiration for TV’s much-lamented interior design show Changing Rooms, famous for taking a perfectly serviceable old house, chucking zingy coloured paint at it, highlighting ancient plasterwork in gold, and throwing in some black gothic dining chairs and a massive candelabra, only for it all to be covered in maggots a few months later.
Suspiria has certainly been hugely influential, though that makes it hard to review, after 40 years of homage and parody.
Everything is heightened: from the drumbeat opening credits, followed by Suzy stepping from the red-filled airport (lighting, plastic chairs, outfits) into a horrendous rainstorm outside, the automatic door mechanism groaning.
The gloriously decorated academy (all red and gold, and that’s just on the relatively modest outside), the unavoidable music, the colour-induced claustrophobia as red-flocked corridors close in, the midnight footsteps, the pretty young women in their virginal nightdresses (come on, you know my obsession with movie nightwear) – Suspiria is sensory overload.
Contrast those white cotton nighties with poor Patricia, the first on-screen victim, in her gorgeously luxuriant thick satin dressing gown decorated with ruffles and bell sleeves. She’s taken refuge with a friend in an equally vivid apartment building after a terrified escape from the academy in the middle of the night, witnessed by Suzy who is trying to get into the building after arriving from the airport.
Patricia is badmouthed by much of the academy as a bad influence, up to no good, and I wonder if her older, glamorous nightwear, even though borrowed, is meant to reinforce that notion. Whatever, she doesn’t get to wear it for long as she’s pulled through a broken window by an unknown assailant, her heart literally sliced, before she’s dangled through the ornate hall ceiling in a noose. Paint-like blood runs down her legs in thick almost symmetrical rivulets, like a modern art installation.
As Suzy is eventually welcomed into the dance school, she’s befriended by fellow pupil Sara (Stefania Casini), who has already worked out that something evil is afoot. Not all the girls are as friendly as Sara. Olga tells both girls that “names that begin with the letter S are the names of snakes”.
Suspiria‘s story is 40 years’ old so expect spoilers. It’s a threadbare tale, thank goodness, as a convoluted plot combined with the crashing and banging and retina-exploding visuals would have been overwhelming.
The school is run by the outwardly upright and semi-friendly Madame Blanc (an unnerving Joan Bennett in her last role). Head of teaching is Miss Tanner (Alida Valli) a sternly uniformed woman with severely styled blonde hair like an extra from 80s BBC wartime sitcom ‘Allo ‘Allo.
Suzy might expect a culture shock moving from America to Europe, but nothing prepares her for the gradual unfolding of the school’s gruesome truth – that the academy is hiding a witches’ coven, presided over by the assumed dead Black Queen, Helena Markos. (Markos is Mater Suspiriorum, the Mother of Sighs, one of the Three Mothers from Argento’s trilogy, of which Suspiria is the first film. Mater Lachrymarum and Mater Tenebrarum appear in later works Inferno and The Mother Of Tears.)
You need to accept the styling and cacophony of colour in Suspiria or you’ll go quite mad. The film also boasts an acting style that may take a bit of getting used to. Partly because we are so used to naturalistic mumbling into shirts (yes I’m looking at you Bradley Cooper), classical acting is often misunderstood as melodrama.
These are mannered exchanges – Bennett and Valli are excellent. Though not all the actors and of an equal standard, and sometimes what looks like melodrama is in fact just that; there are some very awkward and self-conscious conversations which are hugely distracting. Additionally, occult expert Professor Milius, explaining to Suzy about the realities of witchcraft, is clearly dubbed from German into English. (The film was apparently entirely dubbed into English afterwards, so the international cast are all speaking in their own languages.)
Jessica Harper is perfectly cast as Suzy. The camera lingers on her enormous terror-filled eyes for an age. With her bouncy brown curls and slight dancer’s body she’s childlike though she has deep reserves and nerves of steel.
The deaths are inventively ghoulish but it’s the lead up to them which makes them so horrible. The school’s blind piano player, fired after his guide dog bites young Albert, is then killed by the same dog in a deserted square. We see the flesh and sinew from the dead man literally stretching as the Alsatian pulls and chews at it. (the pedalpusher-wearing Albert, Madame Blanc’s young nephew, is so scary he makes little Damien from The Omen look like Kevin McCallister.)
Poor Sara ends up caught in what looks like a giant slinky before being murdered, after making a valiant attempt to escape. (It is not, you’ll be delighted to hear, the last we see of her.)
The fiery denouement is vibrant and satisfying, as Milius’s explanation of what happens when you cut off the head of a serpent-like witches’ coven comes true.
Argento is never afraid to hold a shot for what seems like an age, either on someone’s horrified face or on a door latch, slowly and fumblingly being opened while the soon-to-be victim tries to escape.
Not that the film felt particularly tense. Suspiria seems more about the inescapable weirdness, an intensity of the external, than actual fear for the viewer.
I’m still not sure I’d watch it alone late at night, lest I feel the presence of another and turn round to find Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen standing behind me with a paint roller. It’s very gory and unrelentingly beautiful. The Tubular Bells-esque score (from the band Goblin) is enhanced with occasional forbidding drumbeats.
Speaking of inspirations, 2018’s Mandy, Nicolas Cage’s revenge thriller where the bizarre, stylised fantasy setting is never even remarked upon, reminds me of Suspiria. In these worlds, normality is subjective.