top of page
  • Benjamin May

Suspiria (1977) Review

On a cold and rainy night, American student Suzy Bannion travels to a prestigious dance school in picturesque Freiburg to study the art and history of ballet. Upon arriving, she sees a girl flee the school in a fit of terror. Later in the night, that same girl is viciously murdered. Afterwards, a series of bizarre and sinister events lead Bannion to believe that an ancient evil controls the school and is killing off its' students. Will Bannion be able to solve the grisly mystery before the next victim meets their fate?

Directed by Dario Argento, 'Suspiria' is a visually arresting, thickly atmospheric horror film that is wildly entertaining and very memorable. With a screenplay from Argento and Daria Nicolodi, the film is a psychedelic trip into an occult world of fear, blood and horror. This is not to say it's particularly well-written, as the dialogue is consistently stilted and expository, the story itself is quite meandering and there is little characterization of anyone- even Bannion herself. It wouldn't be unfair to say that it isn't exactly unpredictable, either, especially in its' latter half. However, one doesn't mind all that much, as the film is more about the visceral experience and atmosphere you feel when watching it, rather than cohesion or depth in terms of the narrative.

Inspiration for the somewhat vague, diffuse story- as well as the fantastic, absurd visuals therein- is credited to Thomas De Quincey's 'Suspiria de Profundis,' his continuing essays on the hallucinations he experienced while under the influence of opium. The images in 'Suspiria' are extraordinary and kaleidoscopic in terms of color. Giuseppe Bassan's production design is lush and rich, the decoration of the ballet academy being particularly striking and unforgettable. The whole movie resembles a Technicolor, art-deco nightmare set in a Grimm's fairy-tale- or perhaps one of De Quincey's opium trips.

Under Argento's direction, cinematographer Luciano Tovoli's artful camerawork heightens the feeling of hallucinogenic unreality running throughout the film. His framing of images is beautiful, even when the images in question are the darkest, vilest imaginable. Franco Fraticelli's editing is lyrical and frantic, adding to the film's rapid, uneasy pace. The sound design, as in most good horrors, is well-balanced and frightening, heightening the already tense mood established by the disquieting images on screen as well as the incredible musical score.

Argento and the band Goblin composed the soundtrack, and it really is terrifying. Not since Lalo Schifrin's unused score for 'The Exorcist'- rejected because it was "too scary," if rumors are to be believed- has there been such horrifically creepy, over-the-top and atmospheric music written for a film. It is so unsettling that even peaceful moments when nothing happens- two girls swimming tranquilly in a pool, for example- are terrifically uneasy and scary. It is magnificent, evocative work that must be heard to be believed.

Less magnificent are the performances and the horrendous post-dubbing of the majority of the cast. Jessica Harper stars as Bannion and doesn't deliver a totally wooden performance- but it is close to it. She doesn't have much screen presence here, which is odd considering her great work in earlier films like 'Inserts' and 'Phantom of the Paradise.' There are a few bright spots in the supporting cast- Joan Bennett, Stefania Casini and Alida Valli are all terrific- but most of the performances in the film are either stilted or over-the-top. However, even the good ones are hindered by the aforementioned post-production fiddling with sound and voice.

The bizarre infatuation with post-dubbing and post-syncing of voices has marred the impact of many Italian films from the 70's and does so once again here. There are certainly practical reasons why it was done: they could film quicker while not having to worry about recording live sound and could utilize an international cast of actors without spending months teaching them all English. However, when the result is as off-putting and slip shod as it is in 'Suspiria' it's simply irritating and takes you out of the film, while also lessening the power of the cast's performances.

Taking all that into account, 'Suspiria' is a very unique horror made with an artistic sensibility- though it is far from perfect. Subpar post-production work hampers the film's impact, as well as the majority of the performances from the cast. It is visually stunning though, and there have been few musical scores as terrifying and atmospheric. While it's not Dario Argento's magnum opus, it is entertaining, and- to borrow and paraphrase a line from Longfellow- when 'Suspiria' is good, it is very, very good- but when it is bad it is horrid.


bottom of page