In these troubling times, one might be forgiven for overlooking Suspiria– a 1977 Italian Horror film- in search of comfort. Indeed, if one is in search of comfort, there is little to be found in the technicolour vision of director Dario Argento. An Italian Film, in English, but set in Germany and made on a modest budget, one can understand that Suspiria is, in places indicative of its 1970’s era. However, with that being said Suspiria is an entirely unique viewing experience that commands respect in its artistry and abstraction. Suspiria has its fair share of conventional horror tropes with a stylised hyper-violence that even Tarantino would aspire to, but to say that this film is a conventional horror film would be doing a disservice to the mastery of colour, tone, and atmosphere elicited within this psychedelic artefact of the horror genre. Following the story of an American Ballet student arriving at a prestigious, yet mysterious dance academy in Germany and the growth of her suspicion, Suspiria is a film not quite like any other.
To give a sense of honesty to this review, I must say that Suspiria is one of my favourite films, and I was immensely excited to see it available to stream on BFI Player, a welcome change from the rather pedestrian selection too often offered by Netflix or Amazon. Before the film commences, a brief foreword was presented, stating that the edition I was about to view was an updated, remastered version done some years ago in celebration of the film’s 40th Anniversary. This is an important note as it highlights one of the most striking things about Suspiria, its innovative, psychedelic use of colour across its scenes. The greens more verdant, the blues deeper, and most importantly for a horror film, the reds all the richer. The use of colour in Suspiria is something I have not quite seen replicated anywhere else, with the colour of the scene shifting across the spectrum; reds, blues and greens almost intrude on the scene itself, giving the moments of true horror in this film a dream-like (or nightmarish) quality.
This duality of dreams and nightmares is a motif seen throughout the film, most notably in another obvious strength of Suspiria, in the sheer attention to detail paid to the direction of scenes throughout. One can only compare the direction in this piece to Wes Anderson, with wide, symmetrical shots accompanied with intimate, direct close ups. However, Suspiria really comes into its own with the breaking of this symmetry, eliciting a sense of destabilisation and horror. The film generates much of its horror through radical, immediate instances of contrast. For instance, we are often shown methodical, patient wide shots of open, expansive areas only for that expanse to be intruded by invasive and frenetic close ups, eliciting a sense of horror with this sense of personal invasion, almost creating a feeling that the film itself is invading the personal space of the viewer. This sense of horror generated through intermittent seizure and relaxation of horrific freneticism and more latent tension is even replicated in the tone of the film, with some of the most horrific, panic inducing moments often juxtaposed with the calming notes of ballet classes at the dance academy, and in some cases, a glimmer of romance around our main character. This contrast serves in the most part to underline the hyper-stylised horror at the heart of the film, but moreover fosters a false sense of security in the viewer, engendering a suspicion of normalcy that is mirrored with the growing suspicion of the central character as more and more seems amiss in the strange world of this elitist dance academy.
Finally, it would be remiss for a review of Suspiria not to mention the unique soundtrack that is a constant presence throughout this film. One might not expect that a film set in a ballet school would have a soundtrack performed by an Italian Experimental Rock band named Goblin, but this abstraction perfectly fits the nightmarish nature of the film. The violent shifts in tone from calm to horror in this piece are only amplified, and in fact may owe a great deal of their success to the near ever presence of the mystifying soundtrack at work here. Throughout the film, lilting chimes and whispers give way to intense, science fiction effects, which devolve into abstract, tentative pluckings on a guitar, a return to a by-no-means-comfortable calm. These radical shifts in soundtrack are a fundamental aspect of the elicitation of horror seen within this film, combining an eerie sense of calm with abject horror in equal manner.
To conclude, Suspiria is, as aforementioned, one of my favourite films (not without good reason, as I hope to have elucidated upon even only partly). First and foremost, Suspiria is special. Unique in its use of colour, sound and tone, I have been desperately looking for something to elicit the same fascinated reaction in me the way Suspiria does, and to this date, nothing has quite lived up to the mark. This is, as you might expect, not my first viewing of this film, but even after innumerate viewings of this unique, psychedelic piece, the unadulterated artistry at work here commands respect, with the film remaining criminally underknown and underrated outside of its cult following. I acknowledge that many people may not be incredibly well versed on the Italian Horror genre of the 1970’s and, honestly, who could blame you. However, if you are looking for a new answer to the question of ‘what’s your favourite film’ before changing your answer back to Pulp Fiction after being met with a vacant look, then Suspiria is the film for you, with it’s nightmarish, psychedelic charm begging for a wider audience.