GREAT HALLOWEEN FILMS
1977, 99 minutes
This is a superior example of horror. Dario Argento did not earn his reputation as a horror master from nothing. Suspiria follows a young woman, Suzie (Jessica Harper), who goes to a prestigious European ballet school, but upon her arrival, strange things start happening.
The storyline of the film is follows a familiar arc, but is done compellingly enough that it doesn’t matter. What sets this apart from other horror films is its energetic pace and outstanding production design, both with contribute to the mood and scares. Argento doesn’t go for the “slow-build” type of horror that was common for many horror films of that time. He keeps the kills and chills coming rapid-fire along with the gore. The energy is really fantastic. While horror films with slow builds often work extremely well (Psycho and Rosemary’s Baby are two great examples), Argento’s method works quite nicely too. I am not arguing for fast-paced horror films like people try that today by passing off constant gore as scares, but if done right, fast-paced horror is extremely effective. Dario Argento knows that gore is not what scares people. He knows that atmosphere is a key component to those scares. Argento seems to have been influenced by Roman Polanski’s direction of Rosemary’s Baby, a film thematically very similar to Suspiria, as the storylines and effective use of eerie atmosphere drive up the tension. But, where Polanski and Argento differ is Polanski goes for the atmospheric slow-build (very fitting for the material and very effective), whereas Argento goes for the constant creepy situations and gore. Argento wants your heart rate up the whole time and he succeeds. The technically superb and artful camerawork contribute to this mood.
The production design of Suspiria is something else that distinguishes it from other horror films of its time. While films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Halloween used their low budgets to great effect, going for the “less-is-more” feel, Suspiria is big and glossy. To give the film a fever dream look, Argento has many shots, particularly those at nighttime, lit with bright blues, reds, greens, etc. This lighting lends a surreal look that is particularly eerie. In addition, the wallpaper and set decorations have a surreal, classic western European look that combine well with the lighting. The ballet academy in which most of the film takes place is almost more threatening than the actual antagonist(s) because it almost becomes a character due to the bizarre and creepy design and feel.
The score by Goblin keeps the heart rate up and the energy going. It is a pumping score that rarely lets up. In most other films it would be overwhelming, but not here. The music isn’t subtle, but neither is the movie, so they complement each other well.
Finally, I will tell you whether Suspiria is actually scary. Fortunately, my readers, it is. One of the opening sequences is very suspenseful and tension-filled, so are many other sequences around the middle. The finale is more exciting than scary (Argento moves off of some of the colored lighting which provides much of the mood), but it is nonetheless a very good conclusion.
Overall, Suspiria is one of the best horror films. With a bright-colored color scheme, beautiful production design, a creepy score, wonderful camerawork, and great scares, Dario Argento pulls off a rare feat. With Suspiria, he created an artful, unsubtle, but frighteningly effective film. This is a classic that truly deserves its reputation and should be more widely seen.