Suspiria (1977): A fever you don't want to sweat out
By Danielle Momoh
Two girls tread water in a pool, one whispering strange revelations to the other. We view them from overhead, the camera peeping beyond the balcony’s red railing. A jangling soundtrack swells as the shot pushes in on their movements, an unsettling mix of wailing and microphone feedback. The noise builds as it zooms in on the two women, the seeming prologue to horror about to befall them. But they swim backward, and the music is cut short as the film switches to a medium shot of them talking. The tension remains, now mixed in with a frightened confusion. This moment in Suspiria (1977) is not anomalous to the rest of the film; it is a representation of it. Dario Argento pulls us into a world of terrifying confusion, a world that will have you wound tight with fear but not exactly sure why you are. A fever-nightmare of a film, one that feels too beautiful to wake up from.
The magic of Suspiria lies not in its narrative, but its utter otherworldliness. When our protagonist, Suzy, first steps out of the airport, the film cuts to a closeup of the door sliding mechanism opening and closing. Suzy is now in another country, another realm and she cannot turn back. The logic of the world she has now left behind does not exist here. Rain pours angrily from the sky, making streets look more like tributaries. But the rain only started a half-hour ago. The matron is constantly flirted with by a female dancer. Yet she pays no mind to it and it is never addressed by the narrative. The absolute strangeness of the line “He’s really ugly, isn’t he? Don’t be afraid to say so.” A woman is more haunted by strange snoring than the violent death of her friend. The film fantastically revels in oddity, leaving no aspect of the film untouched by the off-kilter atmosphere.
Of course, one cannot talk about the brilliance of Suspiria without dwelling on its kaleidoscopic colors. Deliciously intense reds and blues and greens cut through the screen and imprint their hues on your eyes. Pink will never feel the same after seeing this film. Every corner of the film has the neon haze lurking, and each time it comes forward in its full glory, it feels life-changing. The visual brilliance does not stop at the lighting. The sets’ intricate wallpaper and Venetian mirrors are maximalism at its finest. They fit right into the world of Suspiria, a place that holds beauty and horror in the same hand, marvelous stained-glass windows set in blood-red walls.
Suspiria is not just visually stunning, its soundtrack is singularly haunting. The Goblins moan, garble and grunt their way through the film. They embody the sonic feeling after a rock concert when all you are left with is the squeal of your overexerted eardrum and the memory of bodies pressed against yours. It raises the hair at the back of your neck, reminding you of the evil that lurks behind the manic smiles of the dance school employees. The soundscape of the film is also terrifying, the sounds blending with the soundtrack. The terrifying snoring of Helena Markos is a combination of ungodly whistling and a rumbling akin to thunder. The tinny splash of rainwater when Pat Hingle steps in a reflection of a building. The scraping whispers of ‘witch’ throughout the film, like the devil himself is trying to speak to you. It all serves to knock you off balance, to question your sanity as the characters question theirs.
Suspiria is a film that seems almost alien, both the film itself and its composition. The dubbing is so offbeat it gives the film an unearthly quality. Both the Italian and English dubs are off: no language can completely translate the world of Suspiria. The film is also darkly hilarious in several spots, inciting a quirked eyebrow and a confused smile more than an outright laugh. A film that is certainly one-of-a-kind and all the better for it. It functions beautifully as a horror classic and a camp masterpiece. I left my first screening of Suspiria stunned and oddly buoyant. Its incandescent colors continue to dazzle my eyes, its perplexing sounds still buzz in my ears.
About the writer
Danielle Momoh is an aspiring film writer and scholar, currently working towards a Film & Media Studies Degree at Boston University. She enjoys bemoaning the lack of camp in modern cinema, wearing too many colors, and rewatching The Social Network. She is frequently spotted roaming the streets of Boston, searching for the perfect quiche. Her more informal film thoughts can be found on her Letterboxd: https://boxd.it/JjAD