Written by Samantha Wolfe
A common question asked amongst film-lovers is what is it, exactly, that makes a film “good?” Often, films that get everything right on the technical side feel dry and loveless, while the popularity of “so bad it’s good” films created by the likes of Tommy Wiseau (The Room) and Neil Breen (Fateful Findings) prove that a movie doesn’t actually have to be well made to be enjoyed. My favorite film, Italian director Dario Argento’s 1977 magnum opus Suspiria, falls somewhere in the middle. A combination of over and under acting, an incredibly disjointed score, and genuinely gorgeous visuals work to create a campy horror classic unlike any other.
The film surrounds Suzy Bannion (played here by Jessica Harper, star of other cult classics such as Phantom of the Paradise) an American who moves to Germany to attend the prestigious Tanz Academy, a school for ballet. Upon her arrival, she immediately notices things aren’t quite as simple as they seem. As she arrives, she sees a woman running from the school in fear into the surrounding woods, who is then never heard from again. Her teachers feign concern while remaining intensely focused on Suzy herself, from what she eats to where she sleeps. Throughout her time there, more and more of her classmates go missing, until Suzy investigates where her teachers actually go at night, only to discover that they are a homicidal witch coven. She escapes, and the movie ends.
The plot of the film is nothing new or extraordinary. It follows the conventions set by horror films and slashers that came before, clearly inspired by classics such as Rosemary’s Baby and Black Christmas. What makes this film so incredible is the insane score (thanks to the experimental rock group Goblin) and the colorful neon lighting that creates an ominous mood from start to finish. Dressing the characters in emerald green lighting, then switching it to reds and blues without rhyme or reason may make a film confusing or even annoying for some viewers. But somehow, it works in Suspiria.
The cinematography is gorgeous, even outside of the lighting. Frequent uses of still, wide shots help add to the mysterious menacing energy that exists within Tanz Academy. Its blood red walls, strange textures, and spiraling murals collaborate to make the building exist as its own character, while hiding the secrets that lay inside.
The film was remade in 2018 by director Luca Guadagnino. The films are extremely different upon comparison, although the overall plot is mostly the same, which goes to show how malleable a basic plot can be under the right hands. The new version opted to replace the array of colors for a palette of greys, browns, and whites, which causes the building to feel menacing in a different way. It makes sense that this change would be made, as ridiculous and seemingly needless colorful lighting may be a hard sell these days. What worked for a tiny, budgetless Italian flick in the ‘70s may not hit the same way today.
Suspiria remains adored in the horror community for its experimental visuals, insane soundtrack, and shamelessly bonkers style. A film that would typically be considered “good” may not have experimental hard rock soundtracks or some truly bad performances, it works for Suspiria. While it is not a film for everyone, those like me that have a love campy horror and overly stylized film will likely find a new favorite in Suspiria.