Suspiria is absurd. The 1977 Italian horror film, dubbed in English and digitally restored for two late-night Halloween specials at Images Cinema, is a garish, technicolor nightmare committed to rattling the senses with every shot. It never attempts to approach grounded realism, and some of its elements are so over-the-top that they inspire laughs rather than screams. When the scares come, though, they hit hard, making it all too clear why Suspiria is a classic of its genre.
Directed by Dario Argento and starring Jessica Harper, Suspiria follows American ballet student Suzy Bannion’s move to a prestigious German ballet academy, which from the very first shot is depicted as a very bad place, with a series of slasher-style murders juxtaposed against an even more terrifying veneer of daytime normalcy performed by the school’s instructors.
She befriends Sarah (played by Stefania Casini), a fellow dancer who has her suspicions about the faculty members’ nighttime whereabouts and whether they’re being truthful about the absence of the school’s director. The duo’s attempts to uncover the truth lead to an escalating buildup of horror where what’s really going on ends up being not all that complicated but terrifying nonetheless.
The film’s stylistic trappings lean into a gonzo horror sensibility. The opening scene of Bannion arriving in Germany intensifies the uneasiness of the archetypal dark and stormy night, with Harper’s face bathed in red lighting in the back of a taxi and progressive rock band Goblin’s theme music providing a relentless backdrop of dread. That soundtrack is used as a signature effect, with the same theme starting up every time the characters’ fleeting respites from danger come to an end as a new threat closes in. The fast-paced synthesizer rolls over menacing vocal effects evocative of satanic chants, which is on the nose but incredibly effective, especially through the immersive sound system of a movie theater. The harsh lighting persists as well; the ballet school rejects a faded noir color palette in favor of a painfully bright red school interior, which only serves to turn hellishly smoldering once night comes and students are caught in the wrong places.
The film is heavy on gruesome on-screen deaths, and its ambition pays off despite the limitations of late 1970s effects. Refreshingly, the all-female setting and surrealist tone detaches the film from oft-problematic tropes about which girls die first. The murders are seemingly random, unless to target someone who suspects something, and the evil being pulling the strings doesn’t have much of a grand plan beyond “because why not?” If the film stalls, it is when it breaks the pattern of inexplicable violence to take a brief sojourn into town so a conveniently knowledgeable outsider can provide an awkward exposition dump, which takes itself very seriously and in doing so provides some unintended, but appreciated, tension-breaking comic relief.
Some of the horror scenes also feel off in their timing, stretching a little too long before breaking the tension and allowing anticipation to turn into impatience, and a few set pieces that provide effective visual escalation aren’t quite attached enough to the central narrative to land perfectly. The payoff when the danger swoops in from the margins to engulf the main characters, however, pulls no punches and delivers exquisitely terrifying thrills.
Ultimately, the film succeeds at the thing that matters most of all: getting the audience to invest in its characters. The setting of a dangerously strict ballet academy is the one element that grounds the horror in reality, and the friendship that Suzy and Sarah form in the face of unknown terror and a treacherous boarding school support system makes it both frightening and painful to realize just how much the odds are stacked against their survival.
The finale is equal parts thrilling and heartbreaking. The reveal of the malevolent supernatural antagonist is big enough to capitalize on the film’s outlandish, nightmare-fueling setup, and sends the audience home with a lingering adrenaline rush of having just barely woken up from the worst nightmare of your life before your subconscious self could meet a bloody demise.
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