~Dr. Frank Mandel
Down the Rabbit Hole...
Upon her arrival, a panic-stricken young woman is fleeing the building, and is soon thereafter murdered (in a uniquely Argentian baptism of gore). After Suzy begins settling into life at the academy, several strange occurrences including unexplained dizziness, hemorrhaging incidents during dance practice and additional murders complicate matters significantly for our poor, naïve protagonist. Suzy will go on to discover that the academy is in fact run by a coven of witches who plan to eradicate her, and she must summon her courage and overcome her innocence to defeat the head witch, the ancient Helene Marcos.
An Anti-Fairytale: The Maiden versus the Hag
The female archetypes portrayed in the film run the gamut. Our pure-as-the-driven-snow protagonist, Suzy, offers a counterpoint to the devious and malevolent women that populate the film, most notably the omnipresent and omnipotent Helene Marcos, who serves as the polar opposite to the goodness that Suzy represents. Like the “Hag” and “Maiden” archetypes of fairytale literature (Gould), Helene is the evil Queen to Suzy’s Snow White; we are not actually introduced to her until the very end of the film, and even then we are only allowed to see her in pieces. Ostensibly her visage is so horrifying we cannot be allowed to gaze upon it. Even Suzy’s fellow students, when they are introduced to her, are catty and cruel. Can Suzy ever really trust anyone?
Helene’s academy is inhabited by her coven of witches who do her bidding, and the most dominating presence in this vein is clearly the sadistic Miss Tanner; her thick German accent and severe presence evoke Nazi-era monsters such as Ilse Koch, dubbed “Buchenwälder Schlampe” (The Bitch of Buchenwald) by the inmates who suffered horrifically at her hands. Miss Tanner serves as one of several fascist elements in Suspiria. In her essay “The ‘Mother’ of All Horror Movies”, Linda Schulte-Sasse explains: “What was National Socialism if not a historical version of what the witches achieve on a seemingly apolitical level: a systematic reign of surveillance and paranoia, a disciplining of the body and social behaviour (those punished in Suspiria are the ones with a "strong will"), a process of selecting who belongs to the ‘we’ and elimination of who does not.”
A Blood-Splattered Space: Carol Clover’s “
The action of the film revolves entirely around the chilling dance academy, an absurdly stylized space that seems to defy logic almost as much as the film’s plot, characters and subject matter completely flout reason. We are ushered into experiencing the spaces of the film as such in the opening apartment scenes, when the fleeing girl and the woman are gruesomely murdered.
Killed by falling compass in a geometric nightmare
It is this space that echoes the idea set forth by Carol Clover in her essay, “Her Body, Himself” of the “Terrible Place” in the slasher film canon, the veritable fun house of horrors in which our protagonist will experience the most unspeakable of terrors, where she must face down and defeat the slayer or become yet another victim of the meat grinder. In Clover’s estimation, “The house or tunnel may at first seem a safe haven, but the same walls that promise to keep the killer out quickly become, once the killer penetrates them, the walls that hold the victim in.”
A phantasmagorical version of the NBC Peacock
Undoubtedly the most striking element at work in this film is the use of color. Color which at once saturates, overwhelms and assaults the audience, not a single shot is free of its heavily stylized use. Reds (the most prominent of the film’s colors) permeate the image to warn us of impending doom; softer lavender and blue hues steep the frames in their ominous glow. Indeed, it is the colors and the image that dominate this film, carrying the audience beyond the narrative. Schulte-Sasse explains that, “Throughout the film we are held captive by image and sound; each movement from space to space—whether the drive from the airport, a walk up or down the gilded school staircase, or a subjective traveling shot through the red Jugendstil corridor of the dance school—is experienced more aesthetically than in narrative terms.” (Schulte-Sasse) According to an un-credited source in the trivia section of the Suspiria page on www.imdb.com, the film was shot on standard film stock and printed using the outdated 3-strip Technicolor process on one of the few remaining machines to achieve the over-saturation of color.
Malicious Melodies: Goblin's Soundtrack
The film’s menacing score is provided by Argento-favorites Goblin, an Italian prog-rock band who also scored Argento’s Deep Red and George A. Romero’s horror classic Dawn of the Dead.
Their unnerving score perfectly compliments the ominous tone of this film, offering timely portents of danger. The music is heavily laden with frightening sound effects (screams, whispers, etc.) that add to the hysterical pace of the film.
While its highly stylized manner may alienate some, I believe it truly adds to this richly surrealistic nightmare of a film. Personally, I found Suspiria difficult to review, due to the overwhelming amount of symbolism and metaphor it contains and my desire to write many more pages. As a long-time fan of Profondo Rosso, I highly enjoyed this film, and I would certainly recommend it to both Argento fans and horror fans alike.
Suspiria at IMDB.com: http://imdb.com/title/tt0076786/
Suspiria at Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suspiria
Reviews at Rotten Tomatoes: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1020662-suspiria/
Review at Slant Magazine: http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/film_review.asp?ID=405
Comprehensive site on the life and work of Dario Argento: http://www.darkdreams.org/
Goblin’s website: http://www.goblin.org/____________________________________________________________________
Gould, Joan. Spinning Straw Into Gold: What Fairy Tales Reveal About the Transformations in a Woman’s Life.
Schulte-Sasse, Linda. “The ‘Mother’ of All Horror Movies.” Kinoeye. 10 June 2002. http://www.kinoeye.org/02/11/schultesasse11.php
Clover, Carol J. Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film.