Countless horror movies end with the Final Girl left insensible after a terrifying ordeal. For she has run the gauntlet of the cruel, the strange, the perverse, sometimes the supernatural and always the transgressive. In a film’s closing moments, we – and they – register and acknowledge that nerves have been shredded, bodies bruised and bloodied and minds scarred for a lifetime. Yet Dario Argento’s Suspiria, somewhat surprisingly, does not toe the genre line.
No one is ever going to claim the Italian director of stylish and popular gialli thrillers is a feminist. In his radically envisaged gothic fantasia, Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper, whose big, expressive eyes recall silent icon Lillian Gish) flees from a burning dance academy having defeated a coven of evil witches. Instead of screaming at the top of her lungs in the style of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s Sally Hardesty, she momentarily appears bewildered and then does something which feels profound yet contradictory to the ironclad tenets of horror cinema: Suzy smiles.
It isn’t a Norman Bates ‘I’m mad, me’ grin or a surprise twist-ending smirk, suggesting Suzy has become possessed by the spirit of a dead witch. It’s the smile of somebody feeling a sense of elation, comparable perhaps to a narcotic that’s suddenly taken hold. She even licks her lips and is seen taking tactile delight in being soaked to the bone by a torrential downpour.
Suspiria marked a major departure for Argento. It settles on an unambiguous supernatural premise which sees witches running a German dance school. Elements of giallo are thrown in for good measure, while an exclusively female-led cast (men are banished to small supporting roles) is another notable rarity in the director’s back catalogue, as is the involvement of a female co-writer (Daria Nicolodi). The main source of inspiration for Suzy Bannion and the film’s febrile colour palette might surprise too: Walt Disney’s 1937 pioneering feature-length animation, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Both used a three-strip Technicolor dye imbibition process to produce its dreamy primary colours.
In the past, Suspiria has been dismissed as incoherent and nonsensical, but that’s a grave misunderstanding, tantamount to an insult. Argento crafted what today would be considered (like Luca Guadagnino’s forthcoming remake) ‘elevated horror’. A narrative of fairy tale simplicity is violently disrupted by dream logic, gory interludes and eardrum-shattering blasts of music. All of it designed to offer an unforgettably arty and bombastic rush of colour and sound. Revelling in artifice throughout, Argento uses counter-cinema techniques for total sensory impact.
This bold tactic is there right from the very beginning, when Suzy exits Freiburg Airport. As with the guileless estate agent Hutter walking over the bridge into the land of vampires in 1922’s Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror, Suzy crosses a secret border between realities. Both scenes are about characters unwittingly crossing thresholds. Upon seeing Murnau’s iconic silent picture, surrealist writer André Breton swooned at the inter-title he remembered (incorrectly) as, “And when he crossed the bridge, the phantoms came to meet him.” Suspiria swapped an old wooden bridge for automatic doors, but the symbolism is the same. When Suzy left the arrivals terminal, the witches came to meet her.
Pervading unreality is the guiding principle of Suspiria and explains why none of the cast acts realistically at any given moment. The lead’s curiosity, moments of confusion, horror and fear, for example, are consistent with dreamlike reactions. And as in a dream, we are drawn to danger rather than repelled. Add to the aesthetic arsenal: an introductory narration; a booming, cacophonous score made up of liturgical chants; pounding drums; nursey rhyme melodies; shrieks played at rock concert volume; unnatural lighting effects and setups; characters who exist purely as gruesome set-piece fodder and a heroine who sticks her nose into witchy business and accidentally vanquishes evil in a manner which feels almost apologetic.
Suzy is akin to Alice (of Wonderland fame) or Snow White saying sorry for misunderstanding a matter of etiquette. “Curious and curiouser,” is Suzy’s attitude to strange goings-on. To top it all off, Argento ends the cinematic danse macabre with an on-screen message proudly boasting: “Avete visto Suspiria” (“You have been watching Suspiria”).
Having stopped Mater Suspiriorum, the saga ends on a literally explosive note. The school begins to crumble and the coven’s malefic hold and influence has been lifted. A fierce wind blows, fire guts the building, rooms quake, objects crash. Suzy moves through it all as if delivering an avant-garde performance piece, her body poetically responding to the mayhem. Stepping out into the wild night, a momentary wince and sign of distress transforms into a look of relief. But what’s most vital is that smile. It tells us the young girl will shake off the whole peculiar saga as nothing more than a bad dream. Suzy’s going to be all right.