In drawing up a list of the most stylish horror films, it would be impossible to overlook Suspiria. Set in an elite German ballet school, Suspiria’s set and costume design is untouchable: everything seems just perfect. Almost too perfect. This rarefied setting is what makes it so unnerving and thrilling to watch when the plot begins to take sinister turns.
Suspiria was made in 1977 and directed by Dario Argento, an Italian filmmaker who would pioneer Italian horror, specifically giallo—an eroticised horror subgenre that peaked in popularity during the 1970s. Classic giallo typically is both gory and glamorous, mixing slasher violence with psychological manipulation and surface-level titillation. Sexuality plays a prominent role, but so does alienation and paranoia. Suspiria, following an American dancer who has newly arrived at the prestigious Freiburg academy, nails this from the get-go: our protagonist is a young woman, most likely away from home for the first time, who arrives at a foreign and unwelcoming place in the middle of a thunderstorm. Her alienation is palpable.
Suzy’s arrival also coincides with the dramatic and violent murder of a recently expelled student; her fellow classmates are reeling from shock. But even aside from this, there is something just… uncomfortable about her whole experience at the academy. The teachers seem rigid, her fellow students aloof. She begins to feel weak of health, and after fainting during a ballet lesson, is prescribed a bizarre but gruelling meal regimen of mysteriously gloopy red wine. The sense of unease only escalates as the film progresses, with vicious dog attacks, maggot infestations, strange whistling and, of course, more murders.
The plot of Suspiria is thrilling. But it’s the film’s aesthetic vision that really cements its place in the pantheon of horror. Its visual impact is largely down to its strong colour scheme, using mainly primary colours and in particular, red. The film was shot using imbibition Technicolour, used on old Hollywood classics like The Wizard of Oz. The technique was outmoded by the seventies, and Suspiria is one of the last feature films to use it. Argento’s decision to revive this old format gives the film its otherworldly saturation – an intense and hyperreal cinematic mood, perfect for supernatural horror.
The set of Suspiria is equally lavish. Ornate Art Nouveau detailing abounds, with oversized furniture bearing organic, curvilinear forms and surrounded by plants—lush green leaves popping against the predominantly pink/red interiors. Italian film studies lecturer Giulio L. Giusti argues that Suspiria’s use of Art Deco and Art Nouveau links it to 1920s German Expressionism—a cinematic movement also driven by the narrative use of lighting and colour. Giusti cites Anthony Vidler’s theories of “the architectural uncanny”, arguing that Argento’s “highly artificial colour palette” and Deco/Nouveau references “are granted the same ‘expressionist’ function”.
There’s a folk tale or fairytale-like quality to Suspiria. “I wanted to detach radically from reality, and try and embrace a fairytale-like tone”, Argento wrote in his memoir Paura. The film’s heroine, Suzy, is pure, virginal—Argento has linked her with Snow White, the 1937 version of which was also shot on Technicolour. Argento initially envisioned the ballet students as children, but found use of child actors was too heavily unionised. Instead, he hired adult actors, but kept the characters child-like and naive. Their journey through the disturbing ballet school, with its crone-like headmistresses, becomes a journey into the violence and trauma of adulthood.
Suspiria’s gothic fairytale mood is heightened through the use of melodrama and spectacle. The film is flooded with artificial light. Its director of photography, Luciano Tovoli, would filter light through velvet panels to stain the actors’ faces with colour. The thick, gushing red blood was also deliberately unreal—this was largely for practical reasons (Argento managed to avoid a VM18 rating based on this premise), but the irreality also creates a psychological distancing that feels fitting with the films supernatural subject matter.
In his Italian Gothic Horror Films, 1970–79, Roberto Curti claims that it was Argento’s then-partner, Daria Nicolodi, who spiked Argento’s interest in the film’s occult themes. Nicolodi’s grandmother was enrolled in a demanding piano school in the same region of Germany as Suspiria’s ballet school; she would tell a young Nicolodi sinister tales about the experience. (It was also Nicolodi who suggested the title for the film, taken from Thomas de Quincey's 1845 essay Suspiria de Profundis.)
Fascinated by the concept of the ‘magic triangle’, the region on the borders of France, Germany and Switzerland allegedly home to occult activity, and where occultist Rudolf Steiner founded his anthrosophic community, the young couple travelled Europe in search of inspiration. Argento recalls: “We studied the most famous esoteric and alchemic texts of the 19th and early 20th century, we investigated the theories of Rudolf Steiner, we visited cathedrals that smelled like incense, libraries that smelled like mold, and many places that were considered ‘cursed’...”
The film’s focus on witchcraft may also be linked to the rise of the Italian feminist movement, whose slogan was “Tremate, tremate, le streghe son tornate!” (“Tremble, tremble, the witches are back!”).
The film’s lush visuals and air of occult uncanny is enhanced by its mesmerising soundtrack, produced by Italian experimental prog group Goblin. The band combined rich, arpeggiating synth melodies (in a time when synthetic movie soundtracks were uncommon) with European folk instruments such as the Greek bouzouki. This was layered with haunting, whispered vocals and at its climax, a cacophony of blood-curdling groans and wails. A super-spooky complement to Suspiria’s witchery, Goblin’s soundtrack was commissioned before filming began so that Argento could blast out its spine-tingling arpeggios during filming, spooking the actors into their roles. Goblin’s frontman, Claudio Simonetti, has since referred to the soundtrack as the band's “masterpiece”.
In recent years, there have been rumours of a Suspiria remake. As a vintage fanatic, this notion seems bizarre to me—no one can recapture the magic of Argento’s stylised and saturated Technicolour original, with decadent décor and cartoonish fake blood, wedding ballet school gilt and glamour with gothic horror and occult motifs. Any remake would have to flip the giallo genre on its head and create something totally new. But then why would you want to when the original’s this good?
Rosa Abbott / @VertovVertov