Updated: Sep 25, 2017
Edited by- Sanyam Garg
The first aspect of this master stroke that sucks you into its twisted fairytale-like setting is the unsettling and mystifying score composed by classic rock band, 'Goblin'. The chilling main track plays right from the first few minutes when the bright-eyed, angel-faced protagonist, Suzy, played by Jessica Harper lands in a stormy Freiburg (Germany). It starts out like a hearty Christmas jingle with jolly chime bells until the drum beats kick in and eerily playful, demonic chants are heard. It's as if an unholy Satanic ritual is being performed far away, but its evil spirits have latched onto you, pulling Suzy and you closer to it.
On arrival at the blood-red Tanz ballet Academy mansion, a series of macabre events occur one after the other with freaky and ominous supporting characters introduced, who look more grotesque and psychotic than the killer dolls and paranormal cacodemons of today's touted 'scare-fests'. Their creepy and perplexing encounters with Suzy make you paranoid for the first two acts of the film, which play out like a classic 'whodunit?' with a young, ordinary woman just like any of us, steering the story ahead. 'Suspiria' was, in fact, one of those first unique horror films which presented strong female characters who could hold their own.
You've got Jessica Harper exhibiting girl power by choosing not to be the unexciting distressed damsel (generally drooled all over by a monster or masked serial killer at the time) after the primary threat is revealed, and fending 'it' off head-on even after the one girl who 'knew too much' is callously murdered and hung in a hotel. However, 'Suspiria' is more well-known for how it spun the genre around, influencing directors of the coming generation and creating tropes that would be used both deftly and shamelessly, for the next few decades.
It's an artistic, psychedelic and wildly gory nightmare caught on film. Its neon-drenched shots linger in your mind, and the experience as a whole is quite hard to shake off. Horror cinema icon, Dario Argento successfully creates a sinister atmosphere for Suzy's horrific adventure which for the most part is restricted to the splendidly lucent yet spooky and alarming walls of the academy.
What's particularly fascinating is that Argento was one of the first to deal with subjects like Sorcery, Witchcraft and Folklore, and twist them to adapt to the film's 'haunted house' screenplay structure. This was also one of the very first attempts to depict witches as regular-looking women, walking among us and actually posing a threat to the lead character as opposed to the hideous long-haired hags of classic fantasies, equipped with broomsticks and black cauldrons.
Although the main subjects which comprise the crux of the story are cleverly suppressed till the ludicrously entertaining and abrupt finale, Argento doesn't delve much into them, and only scratches the surface. He treats them like the age-old storytellers of giddy children's fables did, never attempting to imaginatively and meticulously explain the big, evil plan at the story's core and why all the killings and terror episodes you've just witnessed were actually carried out. Which is why this cult classic is better judged as an experience; Like a tormenting and dread-filled bad dream which doesn't always add up, because when have nightmares ever made sense? Also, you've got a re-animated corpse, a blood-sucking bat, ugly moths and even cold, cyborg-looking side characters to push the young American tourist to insanity like they're playing a one-sided tag team cage match. Oh, and this is all in majestic Technicolor. What more can a cinephile ask for?
'Suspiria' also offered me my first look at arthouse, expressionist horror in Italian cinema. The creatively illuminated set and art design always give you the feeling that they're watching Suzy's every move (yes, even without the moving-eyeballs portrait cliché ). The fancy high-art interior design of the Tanz Academy, makes you feel inferior and helpless. Just the kind of checkbox a moody horror flick needs to fill. The gore-filled death sequences are excessively over-the-top, with visually piercing close-ups of a knife cutting through skin and blood spewing out in laughably absurd quantities. They're unnervingly ghastly and it's amazingly difficult to maintain your gaze at the glossiness of the imagery on screen. You can't help but squint and grin at the same time.
In the end, 'Suspiria' is a Goth horror milestone and 100 minute lesson in craft that film-newbies tired of dull jump scare tricks should experience to explore the other, truly better side of the genre. I can’t deny that there’s some very corny acting and poor dubbing (Italian/German/French to English) thrown in here along with an 80s action flick style ending, but it couldn't possibly be worse than anything found-footage horror flicks, can it? It's also one of those rare horror films which still has the 'Halloween' party spirit and watching it is like a slow, trembling stroll to the other end of a flashy nightclub, while menacing cosplayers and effective decorative gimmicks obstruct your way at every turn.