Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), arrives in Germany from New York to attend a famous dance school in Freiburg. Mysterious situations abound until Suzy discovers the dark secret at the heart of the dance academy, and that's about it as far as story is concerned. Dario Argento has never been one to pay much attention to story, in his later works this has led to many a narrative muddle. However the basic story here is wholly appropriate, Dario using a simple folkloric tale as a frame for his most pure horror movie. So often technically gifted horror film makers force themselves into a corner by sticking rigorously to narrative structures that have nowhere to go, with Suspiria Argento is only concerned with using the tools of the medium itself to terrify us.
Suspiria (1977) is the darkest of fairy-tales, this is exactly the type of film the brothers Grimm would have made if they existed in the age of motion pictures, even so far as sharing the same Black Forest setting as many of their stories. The German connection can also be found in its obvious influence from the German Expressionist films of the 20's, the atmosphere at times literally painted on the walls. The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (1920) can be seen as an obvious predecessor to Suspiria. From the aggressively pointed architecture and the tilted framing, to the deep red of the walls of the academy and the often distorted mise-en-scene, visually everything is designed to accentuate the nightmarish tone. At one point the shadow cast from a door frame resembles a head bleeding from the neck.
Suspiria is famously known for being one of the very last films in Europe to use the technicolor dye transfer process to print the movie. The use of colour in the film is extraordinary, the exaggerated luminosity of the blues, reds and greens just another weapon in Argento's arsenal in his quest to terrify his audience.
Another weapon Argento uses with great flair here is sound, specifically the soundtrack by Goblin. The opening credits instantly attack us with an aggressive hit of drums and strings. This initially heavy aural assault then segues into a simple but creepy musical tone, the type of which could be found in the kind of musical box you would be advised to send to a priest for immediate exorcism. As this melody plays again it is joined by the whispering accompaniment. To this day hearing someone whisper the word witch sends a shiver down my spine.
After so many repeated viewings over the years the faults with the film become more obvious. The process found in many 70's Italian genre movies of having actors speak phonetically then dubbing the entire film in different languages for each market is present here, and while it doesn't grate too badly this can lead to otherwise bearable dialogue coming across as incredibly stilted. Some of the earlier scenes seem to drag on where they didn't on the first few viewings, however much of the movie still retains its power to enthral. The final scenes of Jessica Harper discovering the dark heart of the academy and coming face to face with the Mother of Sighs, are still as entrancing as they ever were.
The films power can certainly be described as an assault on the senses, however In this film more than any of his others Argento knew exactly when to use the visual and aural tools at his disposal to keep us in suspense and keep ratcheting up the tension. Argento has a reputation for gore in his movies, and there is some on offer here if that's what you are looking for, but in Suspiria the physical act of violence is almost a relief, a sudden respite from the tension. What disappointed me most about the finale to the three mothers trilogy, The Mother Of Tears (2007), is that it tried to exist solely on the thrill of gore, Argento seemingly failing to understand that this is not what made Suspiria so thrilling 30 years before.
The threat here is not the knife to the heart but Argento's camera itself. Yet unlike the ADD camera work of the Saw films, Argento's camera moves with grace when it is needed. Suspiria is a work that proves the point that true horror film makers know that full on attack dulls the senses, but if you can sustain the tension for long enough, you can convince your audience to follow you into any nightmare.