SUSPIRIA Review – Argento Melds the Macabre and Supernatural with Cinematic Glamor
Sarah Kirk says Suspiria is a gruesome and elegant amalgamation of visuals with striking cinematography and kaleidoscopic lighting.
Suspiria (1977) is a magnificently macabre supernatural thriller. Directed by esteemed Italian filmmaker Dario Argento, and co-written with Daria Nicolodi, it spurred a trilogy of films, including Inferno (1980) and Mother of Tears (2007), exploring the story of “The Three Mothers.” Partially based on Thomas De Quincey's 1845 essay "Suspiria de Profundis", it’s highly regarded for its vibrant art deco style and hypnotizing cinematography by Luciano Tovoli. Perhaps this is why it’s cemented as a horror cinema classic with its lasting impact on the horror genre. The Italian horror magnum opus emphasizes style and fear in every sense by introducing an element of visual elegance alongside gory scenes with impaled bodies as Argento melds its macabre deaths with cinematic glamor.
Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), an aspiring ballet performer, arrives at the prestigious Tanz Dance Academy in Germany on a dark and stormy night. Upon her arrival, a young ballet student flees the academy, and once settled in, Suzy meets Madame Blanc (Joan Bennet) and Miss Tanner (Alida Valli). A sequence of strange occurrences plagues the academy: Suzy receives a restricted diet, a maggot infestation, and disappearances lead to brutal deaths. A concerned Suzy investigates, eventually discovering a coven of witches running the academy.
Unusual due to its striking vividness and mystical appeal, Tovoli uses light as an indicator of violence and danger. During scenes of death and impending doom, harsh red, green, and blue hues guide the story and indicate the tone. The audience is drawn to deeply saturated colors and enveloping cinematography. Tovoli is an artist, and in some regards, Suspiria is equivalent to a hallucinatory trip, making for a dreamlike experience. While many colors are present, red infiltrates the screen most frequently, representing death and danger. The Tanz Dance Academy’s exterior and interior are coated with blood-red glamorous and gothic walls. The style is so unique that one could take still shots of any part of the film and hang them in an art museum. The immersive camera movements add to the immersion, constantly moving, panning, and following Suzy. Everything is aided by Goblin's terrifying and fanciful score that conjures spells and death from the moment Suzy steps onto the platform at the train station.
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Suspiria embodies the essence of devious forces through the dark power of a coven of evil women. Dark magic and its harmful effects are the story's driving force. In this film, witches are vicious, which is the standard view in many horror films. The occult was a prevalent topic during the late 70s and 80s. Satanic panic is a cultural phenomenon that never really ended. The women's movement opened a discussion about witchcraft, the occult, femininity, and the links that bind them to counter patriarchal narratives and society.
Organized witchcraft perpetrates destruction and violence, targeting vulnerable individuals like Suzy and Sarah (Stefania Casini), and mental illness or a women’s vulnerability is linked to witchcraft. In a scene where Suzy visits her psychiatrist friend, she learns that psychiatrists believe people under the influence of witchcraft or those who believe in it are severely mentally ill—a view not that different from the witch trials that plagued colonies. Witchcraft has always been a part of history and is present in the folklore of almost every culture. Therefore, it’s understandable that black magic's origin is a fascinating topic.
Suspiria is the epitome of mysterious appeal with a surreal ambiance. Argento’s approach is violent and excessive. Art comes to life in a multicolored nightmare. The strategic lighting and hues are advantageous in storytelling, and Argento doesn’t shy away from displaying the brutality of witches.
Suspiria is now streaming on Tubi.