suspiriaWere Suspiria a bad movie, it would sink under the weight of its flaws. The acting is dire, the plot is over-explained, and the dialogue, when coherent, is laughable. Plot threads come and go, silly and inscrutable. There is a stupid bat attack. And what’s with that little Aryan kid?

But, due to the alchemy of director Dario Argento, cinematographer Luciano Tovoli, and production designer Giuseppe Bassan, Suspiria is a frightening movie – a beautiful movie. From the base elements of a splatter film, they have created something extraordinary.

The premise – girls are murdered at a dance school – is just a hub for the weird goings-on (accented by the music of Goblin). Characters aren’t developed, and we identify with Suzy (Jessica Harper) more by fiat than anything else. She’s pretty, and bad things happen to her. Voila! Tension. The film is episodic. Rather than build a cumulative horror, it moves in individual sequences. If it were crafted any less skillfully, it would fall flat.

Suspiria has some of the most beautifully filmed macabre in a movie. Argento is known for extreme violence, but it grows out of the sets and the swooping camera, not personal cruelty. (It is said that Argento plays the murderer’s hands in all his films.) The scenes of violence are the meat of the movie. The camera dances, and the music it dances to is effective and loud – it can frighten us with nothing. Calling film violence “balletic” is a cliche, but Suspiria takes place at a dance school, so I think I will. Hitchcock was proud of the shower scene in Psycho because it scared us with “pure film.” Argento does the same here, only he throws in more gore since he’s working in color, and red looks good.

Argento’s technique is to create a sense of life out of nothing – that the camera is a character1, and a malevolent one. This, coupled with aggressive, unnatural lighting, makes the film a nightmare.

Look at the murder sequences2, how people are killed. On two occasions, an invisible force flies after the victim. On a third, the killer wields a razor blade whilst struggling (forever) to open a lock. These aren’t murders of the killer-shows-up-knife-goes-in variety. The supernatural aspects and deliberate illogic make them feel unreal, but no less implacable. That the murders are as relentless as they are strange makes Suspiria all the more terrifying.

However, the movie is overrated. It is gorgeous and frightening, but it abandons narrative cohesion for style. Mainly, the special effects work, but a few are dated (e.g., the bat). If you are in the mood to dislike what you are watching, Suspiria offers plenty of ammo. It is not a film of respectable terrors and reserved chills. It is exuberant and excessive – it wades boots in horror. (Unfortunately, the boots don’t match, and they aren’t laced right.) You may laugh at it and hate it. I will see it again to marvel at the way it looks and feels, even if it doesn’t think.

1Another cliche, but I mean it literally. The camera represents a sort of watching intelligence.

2A moral aside: If the fact that I can write so glibly about the murder sequences is offensive, then perhaps the genre is not for you. I have my own compunctions – slasher movies tend to have a repugnant moral context for their slayings. (Character behavior results directly in death, as if the “monster” were some sort of societal force wreaking havoc on transgressors. Scream mocks this but fails to give a suitable context. At least its victims [who are amoral in outlook] don’t have to earn their punishments.) In Suspiria, the victims have transgressed against the “monster,” but they have not been “bad.” Neither have they been killed randomly. Thus, moral order. Thanks for your time, you can go back to the review now.

About Kent Conrad

To contact Kent Conrad, email