Dario Argento unleashed something masterfully simple and profoundly horrifying in his 1977 film Suspiria. The violence depicted and put on display in Suspiria is so graphic and wild, rather than just being cheap and bad taste, it twists into near fantasy; it is trying to say something and explore primal and animalistic themes. Argento constructed a visual and audio attack on the viewer, with insane colors and camera use and an absurd soundtrack. What makes Suspiria such a good watch—and rewatch—is when you think you know what you’re in store for, you try and prepare yourself at least, but with each rewatch something new overwhelms me or takes me by surprise.
The first deaths in Suspiria are famous for a number of reasons. First, they are often seen as the most grotesque and horrifying of any of the deaths; although, I would argue that the barbed wire death is much more horrifying and brutal. They are shot in a whirl of confusion and chaos. You don’t fully comprehend what is happening, and you aren’t meant to. This is Argento’s introduction into his world. It is not a slow build into understanding the setting and people, but a sharp entry into the damned world Suspiria is able to exist in. Those moments with the women who are barely even mentioned or named is such a jarring sequence. It feels so impersonal and distanced.
The opening sequence is used by Argento to shove us into the world. We don’t have a connection to the victims, we don’t care who they are or why they die. That’s the point. Argento’s film is extremely challenging. It takes much of what horror had been up to this point and what horror certainly would be with the slasher films after and turns it on its head. We don’t have a deep-rooted investment in the people. The characters here aren’t the people, the characters are the themes, colors, sets. This is not innately successful, but in the hands of Argento, he is able to pull it off.
The plot in Suspiria is minimal, if not even non-existent. An American girl goes to a ballerina academy and uncovers a cult of witches. There are no dramatic twists or heavy plot points. The events play out much without the protagonist’s ability to influence them. This is the strength of Suspiria, however. It doesn’t rely on story; it relies on basic instincts and senses to scare you. There is not much of a deep sense of character either. Suzy, the protagonist, is the most fleshed out, but even she has some lapses. The lore, the world, the feeling one gets from watching this film—reds, blues, yellows, flashing in their eyes while screams and wails screech from the soundtrack—is enough to make the skin crawl. This is what good horror can do. Much like Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw, horror doesn’t need a deep plot to scare but good visuals and elements that incite terror and fear.
Suspiria, by no means, is a master class film. Films like Psycho or The Shining use almost every ounce of the medium to scare. Suspiria keeps it simple, and it makes for a refreshing and rich film. It succeeds in creating a genuine reaction in the viewer. It doesn’t worry about the plot making sense or having complexities; it doesn’t waste time with dragging character development. It sticks to the core of what a horror film is and what a horror film is supposed to do and when it does that, it does it very well. You leave the film and feel uncomfortable. The soundtrack runs through your head while you sleep, the colors flash in your dreams. You see blues and reds differently and people’s actions feel off tilt and strange.