Directed by Dario Argento
Written by Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi based on the book by Thomas De Quincey
Starring Jessica Harper, Alida Valli, Udo Kier, Stefania Casini, and Joan Bennett
Cinematography by Luciano Tovoli
Suspiria is most remarkable for the mise-en-scenes that demand rather than invite the viewer’s attention. It’s a highly stylized technicolor wonderland so superficial as to be almost avant-garde, almost an abstract expressionist parody of a horror film, detached from its content and yet infused with an earnest passion for the art itself. The story is introduced by a voiceover narration during the opening credits, and opens on an extremely dark and very, very stormy night. Immediately, the monochromatic color schemes and lighting designs are put into full effect during the film’s first murder scene in which a student of the prestigious ballet school tries to escape to her friend’s house. The sets are elaborate, dizzying, and labyrinthine – almost gothic save for the synthetic surfaces and lightweight architectural framework. The lullaby soundtrack grates insistently throughout the film, taunting and mocking the characters by abruptly dropping in and out of the audio mix. It’s hard to tell where the diegetic sound ends and the non-diegetic sound begins at times, since the music frequently coincides with haunting screams, deafening moans, and shuffling footsteps; the characters almost seem to react to both at once.
The acting is theatrical and campy, with Jessica Harper’s natural femininity and innocence providing the quintessential contrast to the witches’ contrived performances either of masculinity or over-ripe femininity. Mirrors, windows, and reflections provide a visual motif of false transparency, with characters frequently peering at an almost opaque-looking glass surface, trying to make out a figure in the night. At other times, a glaring reflection seems to conceal the danger behind the surface. The usual tropes associated with witchcraft are in full effect: exaggerated maternalism coupled with injections, force-feeding, and care-taking which become increasingly coercive. The horror/comedy blend that Polanski mastered with Rosemary’s Baby plays out with a good sense of fun, although both the horror and comedy are lacking at several points.
Argento shines as a director who is able to transcend his own willfully superficial material through sheer forcefulness of ambition as a filmmaker. His elegant tracking shots and long takes are beautifully choreographed, so that even an extreme closeup following a woman’s leather boots as she walks over a maggot-drenched floorboard acquires a kind of abstract beauty. Another extreme close-up shows a glass of red wine, but what’s striking is that Suzy’s face and mouth are outside the frame as she tilts it toward her lips; all we see is the ruby light slowly filling the frame. That motif is mirrored by another sequence in which the camera tracks steadily upward until the scene is viewed through a lit ceiling bulb. When Sarah turns the switch off, the room is bathed in green light from an unmotivated source and we see her blurred and distorted image through the empty bulb as she were trapped in a fishbowl.
As far as the plot is concerned, the usual debate over the nature of our protagonist’s suspicions takes place rather late in the film, when Suzy consults two psychiatrists with opposing views on witchcraft. One doctor tells her that “as a believer in the material world and a psychiatrist to boot, I’m convinced that the current spread of belief in magic and the occult is part of mental illness. Bad luck isn’t brought by broken mirrors, but by broken minds.” That conversation ends with a long-lens rack-focus from the characters to their reflections in a glass building – perhaps indicating the superficiality of science, although it’s probably a stretch to analyze the meaning behind a film that revels in style for its own sake. In any case, the author of a book called “Paranoia or Magic” believes that “witchcraft is an important appendage of psychiatry” (one of the film’s most satirical lines). The slightly loopier doctor, of course, is right.
The screenplay is structured well enough based on Hollywood conventions, yet it still manages to be incomprehensible given the antagonists’ random and unmotivated actions and the other students’ calm complacency in the face of numerous deaths. It’s easy to see how lesser horror films have adopted Argento’s model with a cynical disdain for their audience. Even the love-interest here never pays off beyond the first thirty minutes, casually abandoned in favor of bloodthirsty dogs and razor wire. And unlike the new movie Black Swan, which draws inspiration from Argento’s genre-defining classic, the ballet school setting here is entirely irrelevant. Natalie Portman is signed to reprise her role as a naive ballet student in the upcoming remake of Suspiria, but this time around, her alleged dancing abilities will not be necessary.