On the surface the film is about Suzy the talented ballet student, coming from abroad to study at the famed Tanz Akademie in order to ascend her skills. Underneath it is a ghoulish fable, about a naïve girl who wanders into a world she thinks she understands and is casually swept up into its strange and inexplicable realities. All the clues pointing to something diabolical are there, but her sense of practicality only creates logical suspicions. When she arrives at the school in the dead of night, just in time to spy the flight of one of its panic-stricken students into the shadows of a nearby forest, she doesn’t assume anything otherworldly – only the sense that she might be running from anger or argument. How unfortunate for her that she doesn’t witness the next several minutes of the girl’s plight as she escapes into a building to seek shelter with a friend, only to be attacked (and murdered) in a grizzly show of vibrant pageantry by an unknown assailant who is able to reach her from the vantage point of a high-rise window.
Suzy’s orientation into the school presses on, even as peers and instructors whisper in corners or shoot gazes of suspicion at one another in the aftermath of the murder. Her trust, at least, is guarded, especially given two odd extremes on staff: Madame Blanc (Joan Bennet), the headmistress, a stuffy sort who seems to dress for high-brow socialite gatherings instead of school activities, and Miss Tanner (Alida Valli), a disciplinarian with the precision and temperament of a drill instructor. Blanc is formal and courteous enough on her first meetings with the new American student, but Tanner detects her strong will – first seeing it as a source of fascination, and then later as a liability that must be chipped away. Their iron rule is contrasted by the more relaxed temperament of the dancers, including Olga (Barbara Magnolfi), a third-year student who dismisses the dead girl as a troublemaker, and Sara (Stefania Casini), who believes there is much more to the story of her demise than just a randomized attack.
The gruesome murder of the early scenes frames the mystery of the film as a whole. Something powerful, enigmatic or, at the very least, ulterior is occurring within the labyrinth of halls and open spaces that make up the school’s interior, with Suzy – a watchful outsider and then a guarded sleuth – absorbing details with the practicality of a person not yet compromised by the logical gaps associated with the experience. When she overhears Madame Blanc feign ignorance about what exactly caused poor Pat Hingle to flee into the night to local authorities, she interjects to inform them of all that she saw upon her arrival, including the movement of the girl’s lips, which suggests she was speaking to someone in the doorway just before departing. Blanc concedes the detail might be valuable to the police, but her cold gaze underscores another possibility: that perhaps Suzy Bannion knows more than she should, and could prove a hindrance in whatever secrets the school holds.
The theory is all but validated by the events that come right after. When Blanc clears a room in the school for Suzy to take up residence in after she has moved in with Olga off-campus, her refusal is met with annoyance, just before she shows up in Tanner’s class and falls ill in the middle of her first recital. When she awakens, she is sentenced to bed rest by the school doctor, her belongings conveniently moved back into the dormitory. Later, following a series of exchanges with Sara regarding the whereabouts of the staff in the late hours of evening, a maggot infestation from the ceiling forces them all to sleep downstairs – in the open and without privacy. The blind piano teacher, who speaks of his loyal guide dog with the utmost glee, causes a more prominent break in the narrative’s momentum: when the dog attacks Madame Blanc’s nephew and mauls him outside, he is angrily banished from the school, where he drinks his sorrows away at a local bar just before wandering foolishly into an empty town square in the dead of night. And then the music returns to help the unseen villain take another casualty.
Ordinary movies might be weighed down by logical improbabilities. Argento embraces them as part of an elabrate descent into a macabre visual surrealism. Every detail, every shot drips with sumptuous excess, down to velvet patterns on the walls of hallways to the gold-leaf framing that surrounds doorways or important passages. This is not a literal world in the sense of a specific era or place, but a heightened dream-like one where flesh and blood individuals are subjected to all the rules of ordinary characters – including the manner that they may fall victim to the horrendous carvings of a straight razor. That gives the material a rather disarming quality, particularly when it comes to the violence. Attacks are facilitated like ballet dances with death. Blood pours from wounds with agonizing emphasis. An exposed beating heart is stabbed in shocking close-up. All of this is done under the rich blanket of three-strip technicolor, an old process that was nearly extinct by the time Argento came around to it; color saturation on the print is so vivid, so prominent, that it elevates the material into something more than just a show of actions or exchanges. Apply this logic to the critical scene of Sara running from an attacker after she and a drugged Suzy have deduced the staff must be walking towards a secret passage at night instead of the front exit – when she crawls through a window into a room she thinks will provide her escape, she falls into a pit of razor wire, where a struggle under a deep blue light ensues. Would the scene play as painfully, or with such a visceral sting, if it had been done without the kaleidoscopic color palette?
If the aesthetic is key to the experience of the film, so is the music. Composed by Italian band Goblin, the score is a harsh and bloodcurdling blend of childlike innocence and adult menace, heightened by a supernatural energy that underlines it as a whole (notice how the darker pieces seem to be accompanied by a low demonic whisper). Their strategy provides the film with all its key emotional cues; when a particular piece begins playing over the speakers, it signals one of several notable events, ranging from ensuing chases, important discoveries, chance encounters and, finally, to the bloody murders themselves, which seem purposely prolonged in order to let the music finish. Combined, they are movements in a visual symphony of terror. Little wonder, then, the band remains so closely associated with the material even as the years pass along, and when a remake of the movie was nearing release in 2018, the popularity of the original soundtrack inspired the band to tour with it all over again, well over 40 years after it first ingrained itself into the horror movie zeitgeist.
Dario Argento, of course, was no stranger to that status. One of the principal architects of the technical excess that became synonymous with the “Giallo” label, his early films were celebrated equally for their texture as their compelling narratives. The greatest film of his early career is “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage,” a murder mystery set in Rome, although a case could also be made for the wildly popular “Deep Red,” about the killing of a psychic; that film’s own striking color palette is like watching “Suspiria” in embryo. He would replicate the savory blend of deep color saturation with strategic murder fantasies in a handful of films scattered across the 80s as well – none more effective than “Opera,” containing the famous shot of a bound and gagged opera singer forced to watch the slaughter of her peers while a row of needles hold her eyelids open. In another form, perhaps a more grounded or pragmatic one, subject matter this extreme would be too gruesome to reason with. Under the lens of Giallo’s arresting visual fantasy, it becomes captivating performance art.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Horror/Fantasy (Italy); 1977; Rated R; Running Time: 92 Minutes
Jessica Harper: Suzy Bannion
Stefania Casini: Sara
Joan Bennett: Madame Blanc
Alida Valli: Miss Tanner
Flavio Bucci: Daniel
Barbara Magnolfi: Olga
Udo Kier: Dr. Frank Mandel
Produced by Claudio and Salvatore Argento; Directed by Dario Argento; Written by Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi; based on the book “Suspiria de Profundis” by Thomas De Quincey