Dario Argento’s Suspiria turns 40 this year, but age hasn’t diminished its status as one of the scariest, goriest, and most gorgeous films ever made. With the Dakota Johnson-starring remake on the horizon, there’s no better time to lace up those ballet slippers and revisit the original.
Suspiria isn’t the only memorably shocking and stylish Italian horror movie to emerge from the genre’s 1970s-early 1980s heyday (see also: the works of Lucio Fulci, Mario Bava, and Umberto Lenzi, and just about every other Argento movie, too). But Suspiria is special, because it takes all of the elements that make the genre so distinctive and amplifies them, to maintain its unique tone of disoriented terror from start to finish.
The plot is simple, but thatt’s necessary to make room for everything else in the film. American ballerina Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) arrives in Freiberg, Germany, to study at a prestigious dance academy… only to slowly realise the school is run by witches. That’s it. The rest of the movie is taken up by brilliantly-coloured sets and lighting, agonizing suspense and dread, and lingering scenes of unbelievable violence — emphasised by Goblin’s musical score, which is practically its own character in the movie.
One of the much-discussed trademarks of Italian horror movies is that the story begins not from a place of reality, as most American horror movies do, but in a place that’s already surreal and nightmarish. As soon as Suzy lands in Germany amid a Biblical downpour and a disorienting cab ride, things get “absurd and fantastic,” to quote one of the film’s ill-fated characters — foreshadowing that sets both Suzy and the audience on edge.
Suspiria‘s atmospherics drip with danger. But the movie balances its heavier qualities with off-kilter acting and bizarre interludes that often inject quite a lot of humour, although whether that’s intentional, or as a result of dubbed performances and Italian-to-English screenwriting, is up for debate. Suzy quickly realises that improving her ballet skills will be taking a back seat to her supernatural detective work, especially after she befriends Sara (Stefania Casini), a fellow student whose witch-centric research has driven her to the brink of madness. When Suzy searches for answers (in the only sequence in the film containing any exposition) from a professor who’s written a book entitled Paranoia or Magic, he promptly informs her that “magic is everywhere, and all over the world, it’s a recognised fact.” In Suzy’s case, it’s the worst kind of black magic, and it makes maggots fall from the ceiling, seeing-eye dogs attack their blind owners, and girls who ask too many questions to meet ghoulishly gory fates.
The Suspiria remake should be hitting theatres this year, to be directed by Luca Guadagnino (yep, he’s Italian) who’s said to be a huge fan of the original. His frequent collaborator David Kajganich adapted the screenplay from the 1977 version, which was co-written by Argento and his then-partner Daria Nicolodi. There are good intentions there, and Jessica Harper herself has a supporting role. (The remake has also Tilda Swinton as the school’s increasingly spooky “vice-directress,” which is also a great choice.)
But without the luscious cinematography of Luciano Tovoli, the music of Goblin, and the delightfully insane guiding hand of Argento, can it possibly match the original at all? I suspect its magic cannot be replicated. After all, Suspiria was and remains one of the greatest horror films of all time — and all over the world, that’s a recognised fact.