She never scales the clouds, nor walks abroad upon the winds. She wears no diadem. And her eyes, if they were ever seen, would be neither sweet nor subtle; no man could read their story; they would be found filled with perishing dreams, and with wrecks of forgotten delirium.
– from Suspiria de Profundis by Thomas De Quincey
For pure sensation, there’s no finer modern horror movie for me than Dario Argento’s delirious bad acid trip Suspiria (1977). Its opening scenes are hypnotic, disorienting, and nightmarish. This is what a horror movie is supposed to be like! Watching it for the first time back in the late 1980s–it had just been released on VHS uncut and letterboxed–I was startled by its ferocious style. I’d read about Argento and had only seen Creepers a.k.a. Phenomena by this time. I desperately wanted to see more of his movies, but at this point–at least in the U.S.–they were hard to come by, especially if you didn’t have friends who knew some guy who knew some guy who could get you a prized Peruvian third-generation bootleg of his work. I’d been lucky enough to see Demons (a movie he produced) in the theater, but nothing could have prepared me for the dark spell that Suspiria weaves.
There are only a handful of movies that evoke the supernatural with such horrifying menace–The Seventh Victim, Curse of the Demon, Kill, Baby… Kill!, Toby Dammit, Don’t Look Now, The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (not overtly supernatural, I know, but it evokes a sense of occult unease throughout), and The Tenant. Suspiria and its follow-up, Inferno, are right at the top.
A young American ballet student, Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper), arrives in Germany to study at a dance academy and quickly realizes that the school is actually run by witches. Suzy arrives at the airport looking slightly bewildered (as you do when arriving in a foreign country for the first time) and a narrator gives us some expository details as to who she is and why she’s there. But Argento smartly dismisses the voice-over after a few seconds. It’s as if the director immediately wants to shut down any preconceived notions we may have about this movie. Up to this point, Argento was known as a director of gialli, such as Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The Cat O’Nine Tails, and Deep Red–aggressively stylish thrillers loaded with convoluted plot detours and Grand Guignol-styled death scenes. Suspiria, however, immediately signals that it is something different… weirder… less interested in plot, character, and ideas of realism. This is an adult fairy tale unbound. And beyond the looking-glass, the world moves to much stranger rhythms than the one we know.
During a powerful thunderstorm (It was a dark and stormy night…), Suzy manages to flag down a taxi. She instructs the gruff driver (the coachman who will whisk her to the castle of her nightmares) that she wants to be taken to the dance academy. They drive through the fabled Black Forest and Suzy plunges deeper into a netherworld of sadism, murder, and diabolism. But just as Suzy arrives at the academy, Argento shoves her aside and focuses instead on another student (Eva Axén) who flees into the night and to a friend’s apartment… toward her ghastly demise. Her prolonged death is mesmerizing in its savagery. It’s also oddly beautiful, perfectly keeping with the tradition of Decadence that Argento is clearly an adherent of.
Below is my small tribute to this glorious masterpiece of death. It focuses only on the opening scenes and in the future I’ll do another one focusing on other parts. I’d like to do one for the equally terrifying Inferno as well.
Enter… play loud!