30 Days of Halloween – Day 7: "Suspiria"

It’s tough—impossible, really—for me to talk about Suspiria in anything but fangirl terms. Because I am obsessed with this Technicolor bloodbath of a movie. Every spurt of blood and colored filter gives me  unbelievable joy. Every pulsing synth and every turned-on-its-head cliché and every time another beautiful, young ballet student loses her life in the most gory way possible—oh, Suspiria. Bless you and your demented mind, Dario Argento. Bless you.

If you consider yourself a horror fan and you haven’t seen Suspiria, then you’re not a horror fan. No, the 1977 Italian horror film doesn’t have much in common with recent blockbusters like the found footage of the Paranormal Activity series or the tongue-in-cheek Cabin in the Woods, but it’s better. It’s terrifying but beautiful, traditional but creepy. It’s like a fever dream awash in neon and soaked in a Halloween soundtrack and sprinkled with a bit of feminist critique. It is a masterpiece.

Perhaps it would be fitting if I said, “I remember the first time I saw Suspiria,” but I don’t. I feel like it’s always been around, floating in my consciousness, lurking in my dreams. It’s a haunting movie, but not one that will necessarily give you nightmares—not at first. It’s more subtle than that, more alluring. Did I see it in high school? I must have, because I remember talking about it in college. But how could I have seen it back then? My parents didn’t have a DVD player. I don’t have answers. But I can’t forget Suspiria. (And you don't know how happy I am that director David Gordon Green's planned Suspiria remake got canceled in August. So, so happy. This movie does not need a pale imitation update, not one bit.)

The plot itself is simple enough: American ballet student Suzy (played by beautiful, emotive Jessica Harper) arrives in Munich, Germany, to begin training at a respected dance academy in Freiburg. But everything seems to go wrong from the start: She arrives during a fantastically bad thunderstorm, no one lets her into the dance academy when she gets there, and she has nowhere to go, choosing to stay in town that night. But not before she sees another young woman running away from the academy, into the dark forest, frightened and paranoid. And then we see what Suzy doesn’t: Later on that night, the escaped young women is stabbed repeatedly, disemboweled, and hanged through a stained glass ceiling in her friend’s apartment building. Her friend dies from the beautiful stained glass falling on her. It’s the most artistic bloodbath you’ll ever see.

The next day, Suzy is finally let into the academy—but one by one, horror movie clichés unfold. Set against these shockingly wonderful visuals, though, the stereotypes go down easy. The headmistresses of the academy are creepy, and maggots fall from the ceilings, and Suzy is forced to drink a glass of wine each night that makes her fall asleep, and her friend Sarah disappears, but bathed in that eerie red light, set against fantastically patterned wallpaper—it all feels new. And although the story becomes one of witches and curses and sacrifice (again, horror tropes as old as the genre itself), Suzy remains a heroine to root for. The style takes center stage in Suspiria, but that’s not because the substance is boring or bad. It’s certainly familiar, but not unbearably so.

Plus, you’ll be paying attention to these visuals anyway, to the cinematography and the composition and the color. I’ve listed the best things about Suspiria below, and hopefully you’ll be inspired to see it before Halloween. You’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t.

(Some spoilers ahead, FYI.)

1.      Neon. I haven’t seen a brighter, more ridiculously colorful horror movie since Suspiria, and I’m not sure  I ever will. The colors are jarringly intense, bleeding together like blood, and I think that’s the point. (The same process was used for the coloring of The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, so Suspiria is in good company.) Look at the red, demonic glow in the practice hall where the girls are forced to sleep one night, and the same shade, mixed with pinks and blues, in the hallways. The consistent use of that shade of red in the academy reinforces the idea that things aren’t quite right here, and it feels constrictive and punishing. It’s an excellent choice to remind us that Suzy is trapped in this nightmare—and so are we.

2.      Shadow. In contrast to the rest of the film, the conclusion of Suspiria takes place behind closed doors, with Suzy spying on something she wasn’t supposed to see. The film, up until this point and as evidenced by above, is awash in color. Having this darkness toward the end is a great change, but the contrast works—it puts the focus on Suzy, her knowledge, and her choice, rather than what is being done to her up until that point. The darkness is empowering, finally. Suzy can use it.

3.      Pattern. I want the steal the inside of practically every building in Suspiria; the use of pattern is so overwhelming, and how the girls are placed in these busy rooms reminds you of their aloneness—they’re one facing off against many. The geometric red pattern of the apartment building where the first girl is killed, both on the walls and the floor, is insane, as is the stained glass the murdered ballet student will be hanged through. It’s just so detailed, and the color-blocking of red, white, and black really has an impact. Similarly impressive is the wallpaper in the academy, a mess of black and white flowers. It would be very easy to hide something sinister in a motif that cluttered, no? Very easy, indeed. 

4.      Detail. This element kind of builds off the previous one, Pattern, but in a different, less busy direction. Amid all the red light and crazy patterns and overall creepiness, Argento knows the little things will still draw your eye: The trio of colored irises in the office of one of the academy’s headmistresses; the metal feathers in the decorative peacock in another office. Each of those colorful bits is important to the plot, and Argento does a good job highlighting them, even with every other eye-catching element this movie does so well.

5.      And finally, a room full of barbed wire. There are lots of deaths in Suspiria, from stabbings to hangings to dog maulings. But it’s this one murder, of one of Suzy’s friends as she’s beginning to learn the secrets of the academy, which sticks with me most. The idea of falling into a room of barbed wire, with no way to get yourself out because movement just gets you further entangled, is impressively demented. Sure, it’s gory. But the trauma matters more here than the blood, and Argento wisely reinforces that throughout Suspiria. It’s a Halloween-time (and anytime, really) classic.