Published on August 12th, 1977 | by Padraic Coffey1
Though known primarily as a director of Italian horror films, Dario Argento cut his teeth with the likes of Sergio Leone, contributing to the screenplay of Leone’s epic Once Upon a Time in the West. Leone’s westerns were famously ramshackle affairs when it came to audio; typically, peripheral characters would be played by Italian actors, whose voices were replaced with American accents to maintain a consistency with the leading players (Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson et al). This overdubbing stood out like a sore thumb, but such was the grandiose, operatic nature of Leone’s films, it scarcely mattered; indeed, it had a certain charm. Transfer this technique to the horror genre, as Argento would do with his own filmography, and its distracting nature is slightly less forgivable.
Suspiria is Dario Argento’s best-known film, an archetype of ‘giallo’, the Italian subgenre of literature and cinema produced since the 1930s. Public interest in the film was piqued again in 2010, when Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan stormed the Academy Awards and earned hundreds of millions of dollars the box office. In reality, similarities between the two pictures are superficial at best. The ‘plot’ of Suspiria is as follows; Suzy (Jessica Harper), an American ballet student, enrols in a dance academy in Germany. Despite an inhospitable first encounter, when she is turned away during an intense rainstorm and witnesses another dancer fleeing in distress, Suzy soon prepares for her routine of classes. However, strange occurrences in the academy and the domineering attitude of her instructors lead to Suzy unravelling some disturbing hidden secrets.
In reality, a plot synopsis of Suspiria is almost totally irrelevant. Audiences are unlikely to dissect the machinations of the story post-viewing. Suspiria is all about the visceral experience. Argento choose to shoot the film is Technicolor, then an obsolete format, in order for the lavish reds to be saturated on screen, and also perhaps to call to mind Michael Powell’s acclaimed The Red Shoes, another ballet-themed film. Certainly, there is plenty of red in the infamous double-murder which appears shortly after the opening credits. Though understandably dated by contemporary standards, the Grand Guignol nature of this scene sets a precedent that the rest of the film fails to live up to. There are other, similarly gory set pieces – a wolfhound gnawing on the throat of its owner, the fiery conclusion – but much of Suspiria is flatly paced and uninvolving.
The sad truth is that time has not been kind of Argento’s film. The stilted performance, no doubt a by product of the post-production dubbing, are more likely to inspire guffaws than shrieks of terror in contemporary audiences. The exposition-heavy moment in which Suzy seeks the advice of psychologist is almost laughable. This is not to say that horror much be completely bereft of humour, but Suspiria’s unintentional comedy has the effect of undermining the more overtly horrific scenes throughout. In eschewing a more tangible narrative, the film also eschews logic. The infamous moment in which a girl drops into a pit of barbwire is constructed in such a way that the audience might well scratch their heads and wonder how she didn’t avoid such a ghastly fate.
The film’s score, by Italian prog-rock band Goblin, is certainly memorable, and earns a place alongside the themes of other Seventies horrors such as Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, from The Exorcist, John Carpenter’s Halloween and John Williams’ Jaws theme. However, even this is repeated at a deafening volume ad nauseam. It may be unreasonable to expect a distinctly European film to conform to the standards set by American horror cinema, but one longs for the much more efficient filmmaking displayed by the likes John Carpenter’s Halloween, released a year later. Fans of the genre may cry blasphemy, but first-timers may wonder why Suspiria was once considered one of the most terrifying films ever made.