Jessica Harper plays Suzy Banyon, a young American who travels to Freiburg in West Germany to attend Madame Blanc’s world-renowned ballet school.
|Despite never usually being associated with Agento's giallon canon, the basic whodunnit set up of that genre is present and correct in SUSPIRIA despite all its supernatural trappings|
She arrives amid a fierce storm of wind and rain and quickly hails a cab to take her to her new educational abode. When she reaches the front door of the school, she sees a young woman standing in the open doorway, shouting inaudibly.
The woman flees into the dark forest surrounding the academy and Suzy promptly buzzes on the intercom, when a voice on the other end tells her to go away.
Returning the next morning, all seems to be quickly forgotten, and Suzy sets about meeting her fellow students and taking her first lessons. But a series of strange goings-on, including violent murders, disappearances, a maggot infestation and strange footsteps in the night lead Suzy and her new-found friend, Sara (played by Stefania Casini), to believe all is not as it seems, and that the famous ballet academy might merely be a front for something far more sinister…
Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA is rightly regarded as one of the director’s greatest works. It is something of an epoch in the Italian master’s canon, as its expressionistic, nightmarish and hallucinatory aesthetic differs vastly from the straight-up Giallo thrillers that marked his earlier career.
|Suzy (Jessica Harper) and Sara (Stefania Casini) listen out for witches|
The use of colour is perhaps Argento’s greatest feat regarding SUSPIRIA, as sharp, pointed shadows clash with vibrant reds, blues and greens to create a dazzling, trippy, chaotic aesthetic.
Murder set-pieces, albeit few and far between, are typical Argento; stylised and artistic, yet brutally violent and gory.
In terms of its status as a slasher film, the application of the nomenclature might be considered contentious, to say the least. Suspiria’s Gothic and expressionistic feel mirrors the German horror films that saturated Western cinema in the early half of the twentieth century, not to mention the folklore legends perpetuated by the Brothers Grimm, while the film’s thematic treatment of witches and the supernatural, distances it from the teen stalk-and-slash formula that was poised to storm American cinema.
And yet, many of the tropes that are now synonymous with the slasher sub-genre, and indeed that of the Giallo thriller, are in full force.
The American protagonist arriving in a European country and faced with a series of bizarre and violent murders will be more than familiar to those who relish the typical Giallo set-up, while Argento’s use of a sharp kitchen knife and razor blade as the murder weapons of choice will please slasher hounds to no end.
|The dance school in SUSPIRIA is another character in the film|
And, just as the slasher genre would follow in the footsteps of FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) and continuously up the ante in terms of inventive and gory set-pieces, so too does SUSPIRIA confront its audience with imaginative, leering and artistically elegant deaths.
Every murder in SUSPIRIA is a cinematic achievement in itself, from the celebrated opening set-piece, depicting a young woman slashed and hanged by an unseen, male killer, to the now-infamous pit of razor wire that befalls Suzy’s friend, Sara.
While it may lack the revenge motive that would become a stalwart theme within American bodycount films of the Golden Age, the sense of mystery; of some closely guarded secret yet to be discovered, nudges Suspiria in the direction of Giallo territory and, by proxy, the American slasher.
Suspiria was the first installment in what would come to be known as Argento’s ‘The Three Mothers’ trilogy. The second chapter, INFERNO, would follow in 1980, but 1982’s TENEBRAE would see the director revisit his Giallo roots. In fact, the decision to return to the subgenre head-on, with a heightened bodycount, gorier set-pieces (in particular a POV stalk and slash scene featuring a young woman being menaced through a park), was undoubtedly a result of the success the slasher film had been enjoying across the pond and, indeed, in Europe.
|The straight razor that features in many of Argento's more conventional gialli also gets a memorable outing in SUSPIRIA|
John Carpenter has always listed Dario Argento as one of his greatest influences, and the fact that HALLOWEEN (1978) – the American slasher prototype – began shooting in late Spring of 1978, almost a year after SUSPIRIA’s US theatrical release, cannot be overlooked.
HALLOWEEN, of course, was to be a more subdued, realist, indie production, but by the time the slasher began spewing out gore-filled popcorn horror like FRIDAY THE 13TH or MANIAC (also 1980), SUSPIRIA’s focus on climactic and imaginative deaths had clearly played a part in the development of the subgenre. So too did Mario Bava’s BAY OF BLOOD (1971); another aesthetically astute, inventive Italian Giallo.
While SUSPIRIA may not be a typical summer camp or sorority dorm, teen bodycount flick, it did indeed lay down many of the foundations that would be exploited by American and Canadian horror directors in the decade to come, and has rightly earned its place as an influential and worthy addition to the slasher canon.
female:11 / male:2
1) Female stabbed through the heart and hanged with phone cables
2) Female impaled in the head with a shard of glass
3) Male has neck torn apart by a dog
4) Female tangled in razor wire and has her throat slit
5) Female stabbed through the neck
6-13) Male, boy and six females burned to death