Film & TV

Suspiria: A Retrospective

By Caleb Carter

“Suzy, do you know anything about witches?”

Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria “homage” is around the corner and looks suitably skin-crawling, but it has a lot to live up to: its influential forefather is a masterpiece of sensory assault.

Dario Argento released Suspiria in 1977, a Giallo horror with the logic of a fever-dream. Giallo refers to a specific brand of mystery-horror from the 60s and 70s whose name is derived from paperback Italian books that often had a pulpy, detective plot and Argento’s film follows suit. American ballerina Suzy Bannion arrives in Munich to study at the prestigious Tanz Dance Academy, but uncovers an occultist plot, headed by a coven of high-heeled, hair-pinned witches. The plot is silly, nonsensical and frankly inconsequential – what matters in Suspiria is the craft: a film so aggressively imagined that the style is far more terrifying than the substance.

Suspiria attacks your senses with nightmarish intensity and the gaudy, psychedelic colour scheme is perhaps the most memorable of its arsenal. In Argento’s neon underworld, the violence is extreme and exaggerated, but the blood is crayon red and runs thick like paint; the school’s crimson red corridors act as some infernal womb and source of feminine magick and the lighting is historically intense. Shooting from unknown sources and spotlighting the ill-fated in garish greens and sundown yellows, it is as if the film itself is the slasher and Argento is pulling the fatal strings. This lurid incandescence makes us feel as if we are being stewed in a witch’s cauldron, drenched in its supernatural glow from beyond the screen. Guadagnino spoke of how before he watched Suspiria he never realised that “fear could be so beautiful”. Suspiria stabs us in the eyes with visual flair but the sound design is no less overwhelming.

Fittingly, Argento himself plays a blind man in the film who at one point declares that he is “blind, but not deaf!” It is as if the creation of Suspiria was so violent of an experience that he was rendered sightless, and through improved hearing uncovered the demonic soundtrack. Composed by Italian prog-rock band Goblin, the score to Suspiria supplies ritualistic drums, lullaby keys and demented incantations so intense we wonder if the characters can hear them too. And due to age and budget, sound issues litter the film (including horrendous English dubbing as result of a mixed nationality cast using their own respective languages during filming). But unlike other movies where this would detract from the experience, here it adds to the tone, making it feel all the more like a disorienting nightmare. The mixing is genuinely awful: music sits on such a high level above the shrill screams and breaking glass that the soundscape feels like a serrated edge, violent nails orchestrated on our blackboard ears.

The sum total of the onslaught? An inescapable terror. When Suzy and other characters are in peril, we are led to assume that the ground has cracked open and the dead are reaching up in ghoulish wails and hellish lights to drag them under.

Although the horror genre is quite the departure from last year’s showstopping Call Me By Your Name, I’d say we’re in safe hands with Guadagnino. His love for the original is passionate and his own films are of the tangible, sensual kind that you experience with your whole body; the cast is star-studded, and with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke at the helm of the new score, we might have a rival to Goblin’s original.

But, Argento’s opus is timeless for a reason – an unforgettable, messy film whose chaos and broad, colourful strokes linger long after a watch. And (Guadagnino aside) it has influenced countless filmmakers since: stumbling across Suspiria is like unearthing some ancient mood-board for modern horror, inspiration seeping from its rain-strewn pores.