First released in Italy 40 years ago, on 1 February 1977, Suspiria has a nightmare ending with a smile. Not a wicked smile or a Norman Bates-style madman’s grin, but a victorious smile to be read as an act of reassurance and female empowerment. Not something you’d readily associate with the cinema of Dario Argento.
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As she staggers away from the roaring inferno engulfing Mater Suspiriorum Helena Markos’s dance school – the malefic witches and their familiars defeated, rain pelting down – heroine Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) is allowed a momentary look of triumph. Pleasure, even. It’s Argento signing off his neon-gothic fairytale with something akin to ‘And they lived happily ever after’.
Crying, permanently traumatised Final Girls fleeing from a scene of carnage; a coda where normality has been restored and attempts are made to crack on with life, before a sting in the tale suggests the nightmare isn’t over – these are time-honoured staples of the horror film. But Suspiria’s parting shot goes against the grain. It’s surreal, unexpected and resolutely empowering. For while the coven take measures – directly and indirectly – to make aspiring ballerina Suzy their latest victim, she never truly succumbs. The girl’s fearlessness and ‘curiouser and curiouser’ inquisitiveness saves the day – and her life.
Suspiria is the horror movie as high art. Acclaimed for its febrile tone, experimental score by Goblin, garish lighting and baroque violence, it’s a 98-minute barrage of primal terror, blood and guts, eardrum-piercing noise and dreamlike imagery. “Avete visto Suspiria” (“You have been watching Suspiria”), the on-screen message proudly boasts before the end credits roll. And don’t you know it.
Here are some of the ingredients and inspirations that Argento stirred into this strange brew.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Director: Robert Wiene
Robert Wiene’s German Expressionist oddity, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, is a key influence on Argento’s entire career but on Suspiria especially. This pioneering arthouse horror experience is striking for its outrageously mannered approach to its sets and lighting, which are designed specifically to create an unsettling aesthetic and a dramatic impression upon the viewer. The film’s revelling in artificiality provided a template for the Italian auteur to follow and riff on. “For Suspiria I was inspired by everything that German Expressionism means; dreams, provocations, unreality, and psychoanalysis,” Argento commented.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
Director: David Hand
During pre-production on Suspiria, Argento asked Luciano Tovoli, the cinematographer, to take a gander at Walt Disney’s landmark feature-length animation, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The Technicolor process and its vibrant results were ideal for the distinct look the director wished to achieve. Suspiria is awash with bold colours, but its use of darkness and velvety black textures is equally important. Tovoli made some photographic tests and the boss was so impressed, claims the DoP with a great deal of pride, that Argento walked up to the screen transfixed and touched it.
Cat People (1942)
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Jacques Tourneur’s Freudian frightener, Cat People, is directly quoted in Suspiria. Students Suzy and Sara (Stefania Casini), by now exploring the possibility that the faculty at the Freiburg Tanzakademie are up to no good, take a dip in the school’s indoor – and very creepy – pool, to converse at a whisper. It’s a short sequence that’s brimming with menace and vulnerability (as is the similar scene in Cat People). Camera angles, wide shots and cacophonous Goblin scoring suggest the girls are being spied on, their conversation being noted by the coven from afar.
Blood and Black Lace (1964)
Director: Mario Bava
Mario Bava revolutionised genre flicks practically single-handedly throughout the 1960s. A landmark giallo, Blood and Black Lace’s expressive use of colour and gory set-pieces had a major impact. Of all Bava heirs, Argento is the one who reinvented the giallo with pictures such as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) and Deep Red (1975). Does Suspiria qualify as a giallo movie or not? That’s the great debate. It certainly draws upon this Italian crime sub-genre’s iconography, tropes and narrative conventions, but it gives them a palpable supernatural twist.
The Witches (1967)
Directors: Mauro Bolognini, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visconti and Franco Rossi
The Italian cinema has an affirmed predilection for fatal women – from silent era ‘diva’ pictures to the true birth of Italian horror with Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960) and beyond. The Witches, a star vehicle for Silvana Mangano, in which she plays five different kinds of witchy woman in five different short stories, is directed with panache by big names, including Luchino Visconti, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Vittorio De Sica. The film is notable, too, for featuring macho Clint Eastwood like you’ve never seen him before or since: as a henpecked husband.