“It all seems so absurd … so fantastic.”
So says a character early on in Suspiria, offering what pretty much captures my reaction to this wild, Italian horror entry from director Dario Argento. Inspired aesthetics run smack dab into awkward storytelling and unhinged performances, creating a fever dream where the gap between high art (the film is set at a German ballet school) and low (it’s horror, after all) is obliterated by psychedelic bursts of color.
I’ll get to the movie’s use of color, but first the basics: Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) is an American ballet student who arrives at the prestigious Tanz Dance Academy and almost immediately senses something is amiss. Her first hint is the girl who opens the front door, screams into the storm raging outside, and then goes running into the night. But there are other signs, even before the gruesome murders start: Suzy’s teacher (Alida Valli) has eyebrows that alone qualify as demonic; the school’s headmistress (Joan Bennett) is followed around by a pale young nephew (Jacopo Mariani) who looks like he may not have survived a bout of tuberculosis; and a towering, mute servant (Giuseppe Transocchi) skulks the halls.
But those weirdos are nothing compared to the colors, which are often the most terrifying specters in the film: glaring reds, nauseous greens, and ominous blues. Argento, working with cinematographer Luciano Tovoli and production designer Giuseppe Bassan, clearly has a favorite. He employs so much red in the film that it goes from being a motif to a cliche to an obsession. The film opens with Suzy’s arrival at the airport, where the lounge already has an eerie, molten glow. On the taxi ride through the storm, brake lights cast stop-light slashes across her face. And wouldn’t you know it, when they pull up to the academy, the entire facade is crimson. The film’s standout scene, at least in terms of production design, comes midway through the film, after a maggot infestation (hmm…) has forced the students to bunk together on cots in a rehearsal space. White sheets have been hung up for privacy, onto which red lights are projected, creating an unnerving shadow show.
That scene also includes Suspiria’s most horrifying sound: a death rattle of a snore coming from behind one of the curtains, possibly emanating from the aging body of the academy’s mysterious founder. Also haunting is the film’s score, composed by Argento and the Italian prog-rock band Goblin. The music begins delicately enough, with the tinkling air of a fairy tale, but soon gathers harmonizing, insinuating whispers that seep into your subconscious. Both spooky and oddly playful, it must have influenced Alexandre Desplat’s work on Moonrise Kingdom, with its bells, chimes, chanting, and lulling rhythms.
All of Suspiria’s laudable qualities are sensory, then. Anything that relies on reason or logic—narrative, say, or character development—suffers. The movie is a collection of ghoulish creative impulses (some of them gorily sadistic, as when a character is trapped in a room of barbed wire) rather than a coherent story. And the ending involves so much psychedelia that it takes the film out of horror and into a different realm altogether (in truth, it’s closer to camp). Say this for Suspiria, then: it’s a bloody trip.