In a year dominated by uninspired sequels (John Boorman’s Exorcist II: The Heretic), unapologetic knock-offs (Michael Anderson’s Orca and Ovidio G. Assonitis’ Tentacles), and crass exploitation (Joe D’Amato’s Emanuelle in America and Jesús Franco’s Ilsa, the Wicked Warden), three films from 1977 distanced themselves from their peers to achieve cult status as masterpieces of horror cinema. As stylistically distant as the vertices of a triangle, they each represent different horror traditions. Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes epitomized the washed out, hyper-realistic grit of 1970s American exploitation cinema, the kind that found its apex in Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and which would soon be swallowed up by the kitsch and extravagances of the modern slasher. Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House was Dalí by way of Dada; a chaotic, amorphous curio of absurdist logic, purposefully sub-par special effects, and an anarchic approach to narrative.
But midway between The Hills Have Eyes and House was a film that combined the former’s graphic gore and the latter’s gleeful embrace of artifice. A somnambulistic fever dream, Dario Argento’s Suspiria announced itself as one of the crowning jewels of European horror. Though draped in the trappings of Giallo cinema, that much beloved Italian genre of stylistic thrillers and mysteries that matched explicit sex and violence with dazzling colors, acrobatic camera movement, and unnerving music, Suspiria’s roots are firmly planted in the fairy tale. An innocent young woman named Suzy Bannion travels from America to Munich, Germany to study ballet at a prestigious academy. Her arrival is marked with a cool reception by the stern, tyrannical headmistresses and the cruel disdain of her classmates. Strange things begin to haunt the halls of the academy: an infestation of maggots materialize from seemingly nowhere to blanket the dorm rooms of the women with wriggling white bodies; a blind teacher’s guide dog turns on him one night, tearing out his throat; servants of the academy cripple Suzy with sickness with naught but an evil glare.
And then there are… the disappearances. Female students seem to either get suddenly expelled or decide to leave the school in the middle of the night. Of course, in reality they are being murdered. And Argento’s death scenes here are among the most visceral, demented, and extravagant in all of horror cinema. The most infamous scene is the first murder sequence, where a woman named Pat Hingle is repeatedly stabbed, disemboweled, thrown through a stained glass ceiling, and hung with an electrical cord, leaving her body to drip pools of blood onto the floor below where her friend lays impaled by shards of broken glass.
These murder scenes frequently demonstrate flagrant violations of temporal space and continuity. During Pat’s murder, she is grabbed by a disembodied arm through a third-story window. Later, another victim named Sarah flees from a murderer into a room where mountains of razor wire seemingly apparate out of thin air to ensnare her. Was the killer floating in mid-air as he waited for Pat? Did Sarah just not notice the razor wire, or did it not exist at all until she entered the room and/or the room entered the frame?
But the key to understanding Suspiria is that it is not a film interested in logic. Here is a film where the rhymes echo so loudly they become their own reason. Suspiria is a film of images: gothic buildings and empty hallways; beautiful corpses and ugly bodies. It is a film of sounds: half-heard whispers and strange noises in the night; a bold soundtrack that entreats and ensnarls the viewers with sinister whispers and nursery-rhyme melodies.
And it is a film of colors – oh, the colors! Heavily inspired by the imbibition Technicolor processes of Hollywood epics, Argento drowns his frames with striking, vibrant colors which at times seem reminiscent of the tinting used in silent films. And these colors themselves take on almost non-diegetic proportions. Is there any real reason why an empty hallway would be bright green? A make-shift dormitory cherry red? A bedroom deep blue? Most films would ask why they would be that color. Suspiria responds, well, why wouldn’t they?