“The Three Mothers. Mater Tenebraum. Mater Lacrymarum. Mater Suspiriorum.”
With a single passage of dialogue, Suspiria launched itself into one of the most unlikely trilogy of horror films (Suspiria is followed by the New York-set Inferno and the much-later Rome-based Mother of Tears) and into the halls of lauded horror canon.
Dario Argento’s blood-soaked classic and arguably his most iconic film debuted in 1977 to critical acclaim. A viscera-soaked supernatural slasher in the giallo style of Italian cinema, Argento’s plot follows young American ballet dancer Suzy Bannion (a glowing Jessica Harper in her biggest role to date) as she arrives in Berlin to begin attending a prestigious dance academy. However, at the same time, she encounters a former student of the same school – Pat Hingle (Eva Axen) – who escapes from the academy with a warning about the ‘blue irises’ and soon turns up dead in a spectacular opening sequence that pairs Suzy’s arrival and Pat’s… departure.
The other actors, largely dubbed into English, are solid in their own right – Joan Bennett is archly fabulous as a ballet madam and headmistress of the academy, with Alida Valli as her cloyingly sweet and sinister assistant, and Stefania Casini as Suzy’s new best friend Sara – but it’s really Jessica Harper who shines here. She’s vulnerable and malleable, a curious, likable protagonist just wanting to make friends and fit in as an outsider amongst her stylish and elegant European classmates. She fills the role of final girl here well enough, even if she’s miles away from the self-assured warriors of the Eighties onwards – Suzy is still investigative and smart and able to do what needs to be done when the time calls for it,
A large appeal of the film is its immaculate, hyper-saturated palette; every splash of crimson blood or azure swimming pool or inexplicable golden light is an all-consuming hue, often battling other gleefully gaudy shades for prominence in a frame. The result is a heightening of our senses, making this akin to a pitch-dark fairytale, too dark and deadly to be serious or part of our world, the exuberant staging declaring its true nature as a horror story, or perhaps as a cautionary tale about trusting mysterious dance instructors or staying Stateside for school.
The immaculate design shines most of all in its ‘action’ sequences, wherein several immaculate ballet beauties are dispatched in a variety of gruesome manners, most particularly in the first fifteen minutes when Pat and her unfortunate roommate find themselves attacked by Satanic forces and which result in slayings that teeter on the line between inventive and positively gratuitous.
This same gleeful gore is part of the reason why Suspiria has enjoyed such longevity; for every scene of gloomy shot of the academy in the rain or performance piece of the students, there’s the execution of a teacher as they have their throat torn out in vivid red or the sight of a hapless student crawling their way to freedom through a sea of razor wire, a mixture of macabre and mesmerizing.
Everything is thrown to the wall stylistically – the potential poisoning of Suzy via blood-red wine (for recuperation at the insistence of the teachers naturally) evokes classic gaslighting in Gothic horror, while aggressive bats, snarling dogs, and an insidious infestation of bugs, give setpieces a feeling of gross-out body horror or animalistic violence just bubbling underneath the surface.
Just as notable and iconic is the fantastic Italo-metal soundtrack from prog rockers Goblin that is childlike and menacing in equal measure – the opening beats of xylophone evoke songs of childhood while dissonant drum beats and demonic choirs add to the sensation of being seduced into a Black Mass or into the heart of a dark plot. The sound design is sumptuous, playing with the disharmony of the film, of something innocent pursued or tainted by evil itself, framing the film in malevolent synths and infernal whisperings as the Tanz Dance Academy welcomes you into a special circle of sonically-sublime Hell.
As the 2018 remake of Suspiria prepares to dive into theatres, for many people it will be their first time around with the Three Mothers, which is both a blessing and a shame, allowing for a fresh, clean exploration of the mythology Argento crafted, even if it means not having the excellent progenitor as a touchstone. Exploring the world that Argento created is a spectacle in of itself, one that Luca Guadagino will be sure to have paid homage to.
Just remember: never trust a witch and watch out for those blue irises…
Are you a fan of the original Suspiria? Let us know!