Suspiria (1977)

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Aside from his works in the Giallo genre, Dario Argento’s most ambitious work comes in the form of the Mothers trilogy. This trilogy of horror films tell the story of a triumvirate of witch mothers who control the world through magic, secrets and manipulation – The Mother Of Sighs (Mater Suspiriorum), The Mother Of Darkness (Mater Tenebrarum) and The Mother Of Tears (Mater Lachrymarum).

Suspiria is the first entry into the Mothers trilogy. The film’s story is about a young American woman, Suzy, who becomes a student of an opulent dance academy, only to realize that there’s something strange connecting the school, the ‘Directress’, and a strange spate of deaths that all link back to the academy in one way or another. Thematically, Suspiria is a film that strays far away from Dario Argento’s traditional Giallo styling, and it feels completely different to any of his other films, even if the film contains his particular brand of hyper-violent imagery and fantastically gory deaths. As a fan of Dario Argento’s work, I would firmly state that Suspiria is Dario Argento’s most risky, most original film to date, and it stands out from his repertoire because of it’s reputation as an ‘art-house’ horror film.

Commercially, Suspiria was a huge success upon it’s release. It gained acclaim from fans, critics, and it’s a film which is famously studied in many a film school because of it’s wonderful aesthetics, it’s use of imbibition Technicolor,  and the film’s intense horror sequences. Today, Suspiria is widely regarded as Dario Argento’s greatest success, a horror classic, and the most vivid and visceral film to emerge from late 1970’s horror cinema.

The story-line to Suspiria is definitely one of Dario Argento’s darkest ventures. Despite it’s tale of evil witches, the film contains a lot of subtle plot points and complexity that lurks underneath the film’s story. Suspiria is definitely slower, more atmospheric than Dario Argento’s Giallo affairs, but there’s no escaping the feeling of dread that comes with every scene, the feeling that everyone who inhabits the school is in danger, that there’s something lurking under the pretty surface that threatens them all. On the surface, the film feels like it’s telling a traditional ‘fish out of water’ story-line about an American woman trying to survive in a foreign place, albeit with witches involved, but what bubbles under the surface is a cauldron of subtext. I find that the film plays on Faustian ideas of entrapment, threat and deal-making, coming from the idea that the dance academy is a student’s dream where the greatest are taught, but there’s a heavy price that comes with joining the academy, and they can never leave, nor show any sign of misbehavior, else they face a cruel and grisly death. The film’s idea about witches makes a lot of references to Pagan mythology: for example, all the respected dance academy staff and students are women, with men being  subordinate to them, playing on the idea of the triple goddess: The Maiden, The Mother and The Crone. The students are the Maidens: representing youth and youthful enthusiasm. The teachers are representations of the Mother: representing stability, fulfillment, power and life. The Directress herself is the Crone: representing wisdom, repose and death. I’m guessing that these ideas stem from co-writer Daria Nicoladi, herself a neopagan white witch, and I feel that Daria Nicoladi’s story-telling talents and inventiveness are another reason as to why Suspiria is such a legendary horror film.

That being said, though, I find Suspiria to be lacking in some important areas. The film’s premise could have been better explored. The film’s story is about a cruel and prestigious dance academy run by a vicious witch, but I wanted to see the film explore more of Suzy’s time at the academy. I wanted to see what her dance classes are like, and how the high expectations of the academy’s prestigious teachers affects her emotionally. I wanted to know more about the relationship between the staff, the pupils and the Directress. I wanted to see the Directress have much more of a threatening impact on the students at the academy. These aspects of the film’s story are merely hinted at, but I wanted them to be more fleshed out. Instead, the film focuses on the mystery of the Mother Of Sighs instead of in-depth character development, and any chance for character development is passed over in favour of intense imagery and gory spectacles. In my opinion, intense imagery is good, and gory spectacles are shocking to watch, but they need to be supported by coherent substance, and I felt that Suspiria lacks a lot of the substance that’s needed for the film to become a powerful, emotionally overwhelming work of art. The film’s premise grants incredible promise, but I don’t feel that Dario Argento capitalized on the opportunity. If he did, he would have created not only an unforgettable cinematic experience, but one of the greatest films in cinematic history.

However, despite what I may think of the film’s short-comings, there’s no denying just how wonderfully beautiful Suspiria is to witness. The film’s aesthetics combine wonderful, Gothic architecture with intense psychedelic lighting, which is supported by creative camera angles and near perfect framing. I’d go so far as to say that every single shot of Suspiria is a work of art. The lighting of Suspiria is the most surreal and vibrant that I’ve ever seen in a horror film, as it combines vivid psychedelic colours, soft shadows and dark tones to create a visual feast for the senses. Suspiria steers well away from realistic cinema, and instead it shows the utter beauty of creatively intense lighting and expert cinematography. After looking at Dario Argento’s notable works, Suspiria is definitely his most artistically daring in terms of production, and through evident effort and thorough detail, Suspiria is one of Dario Argento’s most memorable works just for the visual style alone, and one of the most vivid films in horror cinema.

As it stands, Suspiria is a very good film. The visual style alone is worth witnessing. All I would say is that a potential viewer of Suspiria needs to be aware that the film doesn’t have the depth and character development that the film deserves, but I would definitely recommend experiencing Suspiria because it’s visual style is simply amazing to witness. No film before or after Suspiria, not even the films by Dario Argento, have ever been so astounding to witness as Suspiria.

Also, I ‘m very excited to see the remake of Suspiria by Italian film-maker Luca Guadagnino, which is being released later this year…

2 comments

    • Indeed, but I’m not done with Dario Argento yet.
      Tell me, have you seen the other two entries into the mother trilogy?
      Because I’ll be looking at them in the next two days with reviews coming soon.

      Like

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