Saturday, November 3, 2007

Suzy and the Twisted Technicolor Nightmare: Dario Argento's Suspiria

“Bad luck isn't brought by broken mirrors, but by broken minds.”
~Dr. Frank Mandel

From the opening frames of Dario Argento’s highly stylized nightmare Suspiria (1977) until the frenzied closing, the viewer is inundated with richly nuanced sub text and metaphor. Part of a trilogy told by Argento based upon Thomas de Quincey’s “opium dream” of three mothers in his novel Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, Suspiria tells the story of the wide-eyed, childlike Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) arriving for the first time at the prestigious ballet academy in Germany where she will be studying.

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?

Suzy, in Technicolor

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 “Terrible Place

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

Everything about this space is ludicrously over the top. The architecture of the apartment, the vibrant, screaming color scheme and the almost slap-dash madness of the building’s layout; these elements all help prepare us for entry into the main event, the arena in which the essential action will take place: the dance academy. A bizarre charlatan of a building, bathed as it is in a violent red, the building seems torn directly from Argento’s own phantasmagorical imagination; however, it is in fact an actual location: Haus Zum Walfisch (Whale House) in Freiburg, Germany.

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.”

Bloody Red and Bruised Blue: Color in Suspiria

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, 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

Suspiria at Wikipedia:

Reviews at Rotten Tomatoes:

Review at Slant Magazine:

Comprehensive site on the life and work of Dario Argento:

Goblin’s website:


Gould, Joan. Spinning Straw Into Gold: What Fairy Tales Reveal About the Transformations in a Woman’s Life. New York: Random House, 2005.

Schulte-Sasse, Linda. “The ‘Mother’ of All Horror Movies.” Kinoeye. 10 June 2002.

Clover, Carol J. Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton, NJ: Princeton U.P., 1992.


Eric said...

I agree there is so much you can analyze about Suspiria that it is often hard to do so, I've seen this movie dozens of times yet there's always something new I'm noticing about it.

Interesting fact about the girls in the film - the original script called for them to be around age 12-13 but last minute they decided to hire actresses in their 20's, without changing the script to accomodate this. Therefore that's why in so many scenes these women in their 20's seem so outlandishly childish, particarly in the scene where Olga taunts Suzy and Sara ("Girls with names which begin with the letter S are the names of snakes!").

Anonymous said...

Thank you Jamie for your review, it is full of information and ideas I did not think about. What I found interesting while watching Suspiria was the amount of situations in which the characters had to face a closed door! I connected this with another situation: characters talking without being understood (in the taxi at the beginning, in front of the school with the girl running away, Sara talking to a "drugged" Suzy). I thought that there is a message behind the persistence of these situations, and maybe that is that Argento believes incommunicability is the source of all the evil things happening in this story.

CDAbrams said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
CDAbrams said...

After reading this review, and experiencing the presentation by our classmates, I must watch this film over (and perhaps over again)! You have some very interesting and well articulated insight. I especially appreciate the fact that you pointed out this Fascist theme, or representation. I would like to know, Jamie, if you think that Suzy may be classified as a "Final Girl" according to Carol Clover's coinage? You point out that she is very naive compared to the majority of those around her. Did she become wise enough quickly enough to be considered as such?

AlonsoDelarte said...

"I nomi che cominciano con la lettera S sono i nomi di serpenti!" That's still cracking me up for some reason. And it's not just because I came back from the Circa after drinking with friends. And, as I mentioned in class, for the French dub they did not choose a word for "snake" which begins with the letter S, so for our Francophile friends the joke might not make as much sense.

sficano said...

I truly hate to be too negative with any of these films but horror is another genre of film that I have difficulty investing in. I have problems disconnecting with my own reality enough to fight the urge to want to shake the main protagonist and say “don’t you see what’s happening around you!” On a technical level, the use of color in “Suspiria” was quite interesting and significant, especially as we discussed, the color red having different meanings with different shades on various levels. Yet again, with the wine for example, it drove me crazy watching this film and wondering what took Susie so long to discover her “special” food was poisoned. I do realize, however, this seems to follow the normal conventions of a horror film plot development. This film did have an interesting mix of realistic elements with supernatural ones and I did not expect there to be actual “witches” and super natural creatures to be so significant in the end. At least it ended with a twist!

H Jennings said...

I thought the blog entry was well researched and helpful but I just did not like that film. I had a headache by the end of it. Between the crazy music and visuals I was just overwelmed. I could never figure out what was going on. I still don't understand how anyone was supposed to understand the point of the movie from just watching it.

DMeador said...

As Jamie has mentioned there are many, many things to go over about this film. The main areas are the visuals, the story, and the score. One visual aspect that stays in my mind is the initial shots of Suzy walking through the airport. They are so visually stunning, especially the sliding glass door that shuts behind her. The opening scene was the most chilling part of the movie. There is something about it that separates itself from the rest of the movie, but it’s hard to pin down.

HeatherW said...

Well, as a huge horror fan I was instantly drawn to this film. I love every aspect of it, but I think the most unique part is definately the visuals. The vibrant reds contrasting with the whites send a strong message (or so I think anyways). I view this as red meaning death and white meaning innocence. Therefore the moments in the film in which red and white are merged are moments when innocence is lost, or being tested. That's just how I analyzed that aspect of the film. Amazing film, in my opinion.