Good evening, you creeps! With apologies for radio silence, I’m back on the airwaves after completing a cross-country move. The boxes are unpacked, and I just really need some horror in my life right now. I aimed high this week. We’re digging into Suspiria [1977, directed by Dario Argento].
This is an Italian horror film, perhaps the most notable in the genre. We travel with Suzy, an American ballerina, and she plummets into hell at a foreign dance school where the students are being murdered.
Briefly, I’ll mention the remake. My basic argument against the remake is as follows: this film cannot, cannot exist in another time. The 70’s were the best period of time for the kind of color saturation, sound, and texture that can be found in this original. This will never exist again in any other form. So let us cherish this gorgeous, bloody gemstone and examine all of its parts.
Lessons in primary colors
Remember how the first time you used food coloring you used like half the bottle, and then realized that was overkill, and then you actually started to like the sickening hue? That visceral color response is the control panel for Suspiria.
Mostly, our eyes soak in heavy shadow and intense light cast against thick, pulpy hues of red, blue, and green. The greens are more of an accent. They only come around in practical moments. Reds and blues dominate and often overlap, but even when overlapped never create any purple, indigo, or violet shades. We are meant to feel both red and blue at the same time and are not allowed to have those purple shades. We are meant to feel both drugged and stimulated. This happens in large and small moments: flares of color come through a dark bedroom, or a crystal jug of water is outlined in neon pink lines.
To my eye, the reds are meant to signify a swelling danger. Blues tend to mean clouded thought or mystery. Greens only appear when something critical is learned, or something is about to be revealed. Having these colors and definitions gives the viewer almost a stage direction on how to feel. Yes, there are real moments of horror, disgust, and terror in this story, but we are too hypnotized to recognize it until later. Very much like being both drugged and stimulated.
White (or the absence of color) is also used in quick moments before it’s taken away from us and used as a canvas. Suzy often wears white dresses, which are frequently colored over and changed into something else. The dorm rooms are all painted white but are instantly bathed in blue and red after sunset. The stark contrast of the white daytime bedroom is fragile against the deep red hallways. We know how quickly a feeling of safety can change.
And we have to talk about texture. I don’t just mean that gorgeous film quality that’s native to most 70’s horror flicks. Walls are covered in blue velvet wallpaper or hand painted murals. Doors are pitch black and painted in a heavy lacquer – we can see the brush strokes and they fracture the light and color when it hits them. Every single shot is like this. Endlessly stunning.
The outside of the dance school is painted a blood red, and sort of looks like a spaceship + a gemstone + a castle. The architecture is just odd. We know that this building exists in its own world, especially when lined up with the other locations (an airport and a business building). The set looks and acts as an operatic stage. The décor is bizarre and unnatural. On Madame’s Blanc’s office wall is a strange mural of multiple fake doors, and we learn later that there is a hidden door among the doors.
Argento is very swayed by German expressionism. Windows have impossible dimensions and shapes. There’s a lot of stained glass without having any purpose except to light up with whatever color it was not a few seconds ago. The inside halls and rooms would never fit into the shape of the outside building. If you want more German expressionism (and have the stomach for silent films), I’d recommend The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari [1920, directed by Robert Wiene]. But you do have to be a mega-nerd for that. If you aren’t, just look up some images.
What does a ballerina’s hell sound like?
The band Goblin is responsible for this freaky score, which basically sounds like the bottled screams of hell poured over an electro-rock opera. The same theme being used multiple times is so effective; every time it cues up the viewer is completely on edge and uncomfortable. Sometimes, we hear the whispers of “witch witch witch,” and other times we just hear women screaming or howling.
I want to mention the dubbing here because it’s an odd thing to me. Some characters are heavily dubbed, and others are not dubbed at all. Not just in accent, but the overall volume can be jarring. I don’t know if this was intentional or not. Dear readers, if you do, please inform me.
Besides the music, there aren’t a lot of sounds being used to tell the story. The girls talk in mostly whispers to each other, and we always hear the background chatter of Madame Blanc from anywhere in the building. Her presence is always known by these girls. There is one other sound that is terrifying: the animal-like snoring of the Directress. It is most effective when played under the panicked whispers of Sara and Suzy.
A view from a prism
I think we’ve talked extensively about color, so I’ll keep this section brief, but wanted to note two things: reflection and light.
Yes, color is reflected off of most surfaces in this film, and so are characters. Shots often pan to the reflection of the character, rather than the actual character. We then as a viewer experience this character from a reversed perspective, and we feel like the character is venturing deeper into themselves.
There’s a reversal happening with light and darkness here. When in light, Suzy and her friend are in the most danger, or the closest to the witches. The cook hypnotizes Suzy with the intense reflection of a knife blade. Or, even more clearly defining the distinction between dark and light, we have the pool scene: Suzy and Sara float in blue. Their bodies are a bit red. As they swim slowly toward the light and discuss what’s causing the murders, the music swells. They then swim backwards into the darkness as the music fades, and their conversation becomes darker in nature.
And finally, the screen goes completely black when something large is revealed. Sara struggles to keep a drugged Suzy awake, shaking her shoulders violently. She whispers, “Do you know anything about – [cut to black] – witches?” The danger is not in this moment. That comes immediately after. There is safety in darkness and in knowledge. When Suzy realizes that the staff has been drugging her, the lights go out again.
Dem Dracula vibes doh
Right, so I’m a little giddy because I’m about to geek out hard, so y’all just brace yourselves. I read something that argued that this story is really the story of Snow White. That is wrong. This film has serious, serious, Dracula references. And they are wonderful and plenty:
- The cab ride in the beginning of the movie sets our tone: a lone traveler in a strange foreign land. The cab driver refuses to speak to her. They travel in silence through hard weather and wilderness. Suzy sees a young woman, Pat, running for her life in slow-motion through some lit trees. I could watch this sequence in a loop, over and over.
- The mysterious source of the grubs raining from the ceiling is a box in the attic. Very much like some kind of coffin, whose contents (and inhabitants) change form.
- Suzy is told she is sick when really, she is being made sick by the staff. The doctor’s explanation of her “hemorrhaging” makes zero sense, and his medical explanation that wine “builds up the blood” is ludicrous. She is held almost as a prisoner, very much like Jonathan Harker.
- All of the staff (and honestly, servants) working at the school are mega creepy. We know they are all in on whatever secret fuels this place.
- The strange staff all move around at night when it’s understood that everyone else should be very asleep.
- Sara flees for her life through the bowels of the estate, stacking up boxes in an attempt to escape through a window. This also reminds me of poor Jonathan.
- I hope I don’t have to explain how the Directress is really the Count here, how she sleeps mysteriously, changes form, and seems to rule unseen through the estate.
- After the girls are made to sleep together in a large room, the Directress sleeps directly behind Suzy and Sara. Her pillow and head have that crown-like appearance that is so upsetting in Dracula.
A few minor notes
There are a few more bits that I can’t neatly fold into this deconstruction, so I’ll supply them here.
I love to see Joan Bennett, aka Elizabeth Collins from one of my favorite shows of all time, Dark Shadows, in this role. She is actually perfect for this part. She is charming and seemingly accommodating while manipulating all of the girls. She is very scary during the final moments when she takes the dark communion. She seems to always be present and threatening.
Likewise, Miss Tanner! She is one moment away from berserker-mode in every scene. Her constant smiling, wide and fixed eyes, and horn-shaped hair make her a terror.
Olga sadly does not reappear after Suzy’s illness. I think that’s a missed opportunity. She really struck me with that one-of-Dracula’s-wives kind of vibe. Her white skin is shocking, and her eyes are wicked.
To enter and exit in a storm
This ending. Oh mercy, this ending. First, let’s remember that Suzy enters this play in a wild storm, and she will now exit in a storm. Suzy witnesses the dark communion and ritual performed by Madame Blanc and the staff, and then flees the scene, stumbling upon the guest room that houses the mysterious Directress. We hear that animalistic snoring. The scene in this room is unlike any other, and the effect is jolting. We know shit’s going to get bananas right now. There’s a weird peacock statue reflecting all of the colors that have bathed the screen for the last hour and a half. The rest of the room is totally dark, with a few white accents to confuse us.
The Directress summons Sara’s corpse – you know, the one that had been crucified, her throat slit, and had needles sticking out of her eyes? – to attack Suzy. This is a masterclass in how to scare with less: all we hear is the Directress’ hoarse threats, and see that black door with the white trim. We’re already done before the corpse even shows up laughing and screaming.
You know what, let’s watch that scene again.
I’m glad to be back and will get back to my twice-monthly promise, dear readers. Let me know how you feel about this Italian beauty.
Until next time.