Witchcraft Month: “Suspiria” (1977)

Year: 1977

Runtime: 99 minutes

Director: Dario Argento

Writers: Dario Argento & Daria Nicolodi

Stars: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci, Miguel Bose, Barbara Magnolfi, Udo Kier, Eva Axen, Alida Valli, Joan Bennett

By Calum Cooper

Witches are among the first villainous archetypes many of us come across in our stories. Although I was personally introduced to these magical women via much friendlier interpretations, such as “Kiki’s Delivery Service” (1988), “Harry Potter”, or even Julia Donaldson’s “Room on the Broom”, others would look to “Snow White” (1937), “The Witches” (1990) or any number of others for more maniacal examples. However, few stories take the concept of witchcraft to its extreme, revelling in the sheer dread such a common villainous template can exude.

Enter Dario Argento’s “Suspiria” (1977), a techni-coloured gore-fest that not only revels in the eerie aspects of witchcraft, but also happens to be a staple in Italian cinema.

Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) is a young American ballet student who flies to Germany to study at the prestigious Tanz Dance Akademie. But, almost immediately, she encounters paranormal activity. Another girl, Pat Hingle (Eva Axen), leaves as she arrives, talking of absurd secrets. Pat is gruesomely murdered that very night. Suzy, meanwhile, begins experiencing headaches and fainting spells, as more people, students and teachers alike, begin dying or vanishing. As more strangeness occurs, Suzy begins to realise that the school is run by a coven of evil witches.

Jessica Harper in Suspiria (1977)

Where Luca Guadangino’s eventual 2018 homage focused more on real-world horror and trauma, Argento and team were much more interested in creating a 90-minute sensation of raw fear.

When I describe “Suspiria” to people who have never seen it, I call it a nightmare come to life. It’s a film best personified by its explosive colour palette and peculiar technical choices, such as dubbing over its actors (everyone spoke in their native languages during production). But there is a dreamlike quality to these choices, as well as its tone. It feels like something akin to a rogue fairytale. Daria Nicolodi, who co-wrote “Suspiria” with Argento, has often cited fairytales like “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” as inspirational to her style. In combining these inspirations with Argento’s love of the occult, based in part on Thomas de Quincey’s 1845 essay “Suspiria de Profundis”, the two of them have crafted something as haunting as it is bizarrely hypnotic.

“Suspiria” excels at generating a feeling of dread throughout, even when nobody is being brutally cut to pieces. I feel it is able to do this by capitalising on the mystical aspects of witchcraft commonly seen in fairytale lore; weaponizing them for narrative and especially stylistic benefit. Where Luca Guadangino’s eventual 2018 homage focused more on real-world horror and trauma, Argento and team were much more interested in creating a 90-minute sensation of raw fear.

Although it is obvious from the first usage of Goblin’s iconic score that this is going to be an off-kilter film, the witches – or at least their identities as witches – do not reveal themselves until the final half. They keep to the shadows, manipulating the circumstances around their victims, and only confronting them towards the end. This creates a barrage of hideous kills and spine-chilling cinematography that obscures the perpetrators in favour of their bloody results. Music, lighting, and set design all contribute to producing an atmosphere of complete suspense. We do not know when or where these witches will strike next. All we know is that there is no escape if they do.

Eva Axén in Suspiria (1977)

“Suspiria” conveys just how chilling being at the mercy of witchcraft can be, especially when their motives seem purely for the sake of being evil more than anything else.”

Many of the film’s singular moments, such as the witches’ pursuit of Suzy’s friend Sarah (Stefania Casini) through the school, or when maggots begin seeping through the roof one night, could showcase this. But it is the death of the school’s blind pianist, Daniel (Flavio Bucci) that I feel best demonstrates the horrific power of witchcraft. Filmed in Königsplatz Square in Munich, it sees Daniel and his guide dog standing in the centre of a vast, empty courtyard with no-one else in sight. Argento’s direction establishes just how middle of nowhere the environment is, but still Goblin’s phenomenal score ululates, right up until shadows move across the buildings – giving the impression of witches on broomsticks – and Daniel’s dog, as if in a trance, savagely tears his owner’s throat out.

Not only is it so unique a scene for a horror film – as it inverts the often exploited feeling of claustrophobia into one of agoraphobia – but it encapsulates the sinister nature of witchcraft best. It is not in a witch’s appearance that makes them so scary, but in the seemingly endless potential of their magic. By being able to tinker with even the tiniest details with a flick of the fingers or the incantation of a word, virtually anything can be bent to the spellcaster’s will. In presenting many of its most horrific scenes in unconventional spaces, settings, or even lighting, “Suspiria” conveys just how chilling being at the mercy of witchcraft can be, especially when their motives seem purely for the sake of being evil more than anything else.

There is also the angle of how witches are an embodiment of male fears, particularly given the history of witch trials. But there are almost no men to speak of in “Suspiria” outside of a few supporting players, such as Daniel. Almost every role is female. In fact, so huge is its female cast that the film has been hailed as feminist and been accused of misogyny. All but one of the film’s victims are women after all.

Jessica Harper in Suspiria (1977)

If the word fear could be translated into a visual medium then this is probably what it would look like.

Argento said he wanted to explore an all-female world, as well as its capacity for dark magic. In that regard, witches, as well as how much fear the word can incite even in a modern setting, are an ideal archetype to pit against Suzy’s final girl persona. One can read the choice as a reflection on the influence of alleged witchcraft, even in contemporary settings, or perhaps as a demonstration of the spectrum of good and evil in humanity, specifically in women. Since the only fairytale-esque omission Argento and Nicolodi seem to make is that of a Prince Charming figure, “Suspiria” becomes that female-dominated world Argento wanted to examine; one in which Suzy must rely on her cunning and ingenuity to face a coven of evil whose abilities seem limitless. And that is precisely what she does in the film’s staggering final minutes in which the crescendo of fright reaches its most disturbing, and its most colourful.

There are many ways in which “Suspiria” can be interpreted or analysed. Whether that is due to its multi-layered craftsmanship or its arguably incoherent plot is in the eye of the beholder. But its vividly bright style and soul-stirring suspense has remained timeless, particularly as it grows in cult status among horror enthusiasts. For me, “Suspiria” is like a prolonged night terror with its evocative imagery, uncanny technical choices, and that otherworldly music that just seems to get scarier the more I listen to it. If the word fear could be translated into a visual medium then this is probably what it would look like.

Its incorporation of witches makes its finest qualities all the more petrifying. Its fairytale feel, its atmosphere, and even its gore is elevated by their presence in the story, for it harkens back to what makes the concept of witches so frightening in the first place. While other films, like Robert Eggers‘ “The Witch” (2015) probably do the archetype more justice in this regard, few pull it off with this amount of visual flair or unrestrained suspense. It’s this very willingness to go all out with its look and feel that makes it one of my favourites in all of horror cinema. “Suspiria” is a film that I don’t always understand, but I nevertheless love unconditionally.

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