One of the characters summed up Suspiria quite concisely at the start of the film. She said, “It’s all so absurd, so fantastic.” I can’t think of a better way to begin a description. Sure the gore factor is fake and overkill, the horrible dub job is laughable, and the story is just a jumbled mess that gets loosely tied together by a witch subplot with fifteen minutes left, but there is a lot to like here. The absurdity works for it by creating a dreamlike state and journey through an otherworldly German dance school. Its fantastical elements lend a way to become absorbed in its lush settings, helping allow us to forget the incoherence of it all. The cinematography is quite stunning at times and the use of color and light just magnificent. Add in a killer synth soudtrack from the Goblins and you have some very unsettling stuff. Can one appreciate a film for its artistic merits despite its crude script and performances? I say yes.
With a plot concerning an American girl coming to Germany in order to be educated at a prestigious dance academy only to find money-hungry women and grisly murders, you can expect over-the-top craziness. When the darkness between two Greek inspired monuments can cause a dog to bite a man’s jugular and kill him and a girl can jump out a window to safety only to fall into a pit of barbed wire, there are no rules. Writer/director Dario Argento seems to have used his fantasy theme as an excuse to show he can creatively kill off characters without being held realistically responsible. The occult plays a huge role in the film and all the weird deaths are easily linked together as events caused by an evil force emanating from the coven of witches that occupy and run the school. Dark magic has no bounds and it will inhabit whatever necessary to inflict the desired action. Whether it the wind, a yellowed snakelike eyed creature outside a window, an otherwise benign seeing eye dog, or one’s own body, anything can become a vehicle for homicide.
The end of the film really delves into the nightmare/dream state set forth from the start, making it remind me a lot of “Twin Peaks” and Lynch’s Black Lodge with the Red Room. Every architectural setting utilized in the film seems to be a labyrinthine puzzle box to explore. Our lead Suzy eventually finds herself searching through the passageways and hallways in order to finally get some answers to what is happening around her. Turn the purple iris, open the door that holds the living dead, count the footsteps of the instructors to gauge where it is they are going—Suzy is strong willed and sets her mind without faltering. Unafraid to talk back to the headmistress about wanting to live offsite, praised for her strength by the militant Miss Tanner, she will not be stopped or scared away from finding out the truth.
Played with just the right mix of naïveté and power, Jessica Harper does an admirable job holding the film up. Her Suzy is caught in the middle of a struggle against dissenters at the school. No one can just leave because once they glimpse the truth, they know too much. She is drugged nightly, manipulated into staying at the school, and constantly experiencing death and disappearance of those around her. Effective as the innocent waif, she also makes her horror movie cliché actions appear thought out and possible due to her curiosity rather than stupid and plot progressing like most horror. She opens a door because she wants to, not because that’s what we expect in the canon. The rest of the acting is effective, but unfortunately the performances that stick out are because of the horrible over-dubbing. Udo Kier, Mr. Thick German Accent himself, is dubbed over with flawless speech devoid of any accent. You could tell me that it’s actually him dubbing his own lines, but I will not believe it. And then there is Rudolf Schündler as his professor colleague; his words are so off track from his mouth movements that I wouldn’t be surprised if he was speaking a different language in the visuals. I guess it’s all part of the charm and cult quality people have come to love.
I will, however, completely praise the artistic merits on display. The set designs are sumptuous and extremely ornate. Each room is painted with a unique pattern and bright, bold colors. Whether an organic, flowery motif or geometrically sharp angles, the camera always tends to settle for at least a brief moment to show off the work. The apartment building that becomes the setting for our first murder is gaudy to perfection with its symmetrical design and colored overhead window. Even the shards of glass sticking out from a woman’s body have a sense of beauty to them. But, it is the use of light that truly warrants accolades. The use of red is very prevalent, the connotation to blood an obvious connection, and the light and shadow working along with it helps set the mood with the loud, jarring soundtrack. Composition is carefully planned and through close-ups we are treated to some stunning visuals. The long depth of focus shots are my favorite, between the shot of a maid and the headmistress’s nephew shrouded in bright light reflected from a knife to the view of the entranceway as we await Miss Tanner to walk through storming into the rehearsal room, nothing compares to the absolute first sequence. Commencing with Suzy in white against the crowds’ sea of red, her approach to the exit is filled with the overpowering score as the camera cuts sharply to her face before the foreboding cut back to the door as its opened, letting the storm brewing outside to be shown. All the safety and security of her once simple life is about to be subjected to the tempest that will threaten to consume her.