This review should be prefaced with the acknowledgement that I am not an expert on Italian giallo horror films. I am such a non-expert in fact, that I have only ever seen one other, Dario Argento’s previous film ‘Deep Red’ (1975). Nor do I have a strong background knowledge, so I am unable to distinguish between elements that are typical of the genre, elements typical of Argento, and elements unique to this film. So this review should be read as coming from the viewpoint of a cinema fan, as opposed to a giallo fan.
With that disclaimer out of the way, the plot of Suspiria follows many traditional B-movie horror tropes. Suzy (Jessica Harper) is an American ballerina who moves to Germany to train at Europe’s most exclusive school. However, there are unsurprisingly surprising goings-ons. Students are disappearing. Strict, authoritarian teachers appear to be concocting sinister plots. And the presence of Udo Kier means that people are certainly not safe.
Many sections of the film are scary. This may not seem like a huge achievement for a horror film, but too many fail on these grounds. Suspiria succeeds because the atmosphere is so uncertain and the director so untrustworthy. There is no certainty in the direction of the plot. It all makes such little sense. Events occur for no reason at all. The final scenes in particular – whilst being some of the silliest in the film – are fantastically terrifying, and are an excellent culmination.
Visually the film is very impressive. In each scene, the screen is filled with bright primary and secondary colours, akin to Douglas Sirk or Pedro Almodovar. Red is particularly strong throughout the film, Argento drenching the screen with wine, red wallpaper and blood. Particularly blood. And even as blood splatters and bodies pile up, the film is a beautiful and sumptuous cross between a nightmarish fantasy and the product of a fevered imagination. It is no wonder that Nicolas Winding Refn described Suspiria as “the ultimate cocaine movie”.
But the visuals are not the only sensory overload. The soundtrack is superb, co-composed by Dario Argento himself and Goblin, everybody’s favourite 1970s Italian progressive rock group. What sounds like an extraordinary range of instruments all playing separate tunes, combine to create a truly unsettling score.
However, while one aspect of the audio is fantastic, another grates badly. The dubbing is done appallingly. Each actor spoke in their native language, and then the entire film was redubbed in English in the recording studio afterwards. The result is stilted emotion and porn-esque monotone delivery. Some horror aficionados may feel warmly towards the amateur ambience this creates, but it is too unrealistic (even compared to the witches, unexplained deaths, and gallons of blood). Additionally, somebody should perhaps have fiddled with the volume mixer, as the dialogue is far too quiet in comparison to the raucous soundtrack.
There is a forthcoming remake starring Tilda Swinton. It is hard to imagine how it could improve on Argento’s version. Whilst it could be ‘made better’, this would be to the film’s detriment. It is tough to name any successful horror remake of a cheap, scuzzy and vile original. They end up too polished and too well made.
Suspiria is certainly a movie of the eye rather than of the brain. It is dangerously silly. But these are positive aspects, and reasons why my personal giallo tally will not stay at two for too long.