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Reign in Blood: The Legacy of Dario Argento’s ‘Suspiria’

With a reimagining from Luca Guadagnino on the way, we take a look back at the 1977 original—a hallucinatory, erotic, still terrifying Italian horror masterpiece, equal parts ‘Snow White’ and opium dream

Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo

Responding to criticisms that his 1965 crime thriller Pierrot le Fou was too bloody, Jean-Luc Godard famously told a journalist, “It’s not blood, it’s red.” Always good for a one-liner, the French New Wave innovator was also being profound; his joke suggested that for a filmmaker, as for a painter, violence was not a matter of morality but of palette, and the screen was just another splattered canvas.

Godard’s snarky remark resonated in the 1960s, a decade framed at either end by groundbreaking gory horror films that eschewed color for practical and artistic reasons. The chocolate syrup swirling down the Bates Motel drain in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was evidence that the Master of Suspense was working with a TV-sized budget, but also a tacit admission of restraint. Despite his stated desire to play the audience like a piano, he understood that the swooning, hallucinatory color scheme of Vertigo would be too overwhelming if applied to its follow-up, a ruthless serial-killer narrative. For 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, George A. Romero opted for a black-and-white newsreel style that looked cheap in the year of Rosemary’s Baby, yet lent brutal authenticity to his images of cannibalism and mutilation.

By the time Romero made Dawn of the Dead in 1978, he knew that audiences would no longer accept monochrome mayhem. The floodgates had been opened by everybody from Stanley Kubrick (A Clockwork Orange), to William Friedkin (The Exorcist), to Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre), to Brian De Palma, who famously bathed Carrie’s homecoming queen in blood as a devastatingly funny homage to Hitchcock’s shower scene. There was also Romero’s friend and soundtrack composer Dario Argento, whose output had by then made its way across the Atlantic and was boldly color-coded in every way. Not only did the Italian auteur work in a subgenre grouped by hue—the so-called giallo thriller, so named in honor of the cheap, yellowed paperback novels of the 1940s and ’50s—but his artistic mandate could be summed up by the title of one of his characteristically baroque art-slasher classics: Deep Red.

A former journalist and film critic who got his start in filmmaking as a screenwriter for Sergio Leone—a director who didn’t exactly hold the sauce when it came to his delectable spaghetti Westerns—Argento made his directorial debut in 1970 with The Bird With the Crystal Plumage. It’s a wild thriller that established some of the motifs that would come to define his run as the major European genre director of the decade: convoluted narratives; neurotic, pent-up heroes; faceless, black-gloved killers; hapless, helpless female victims; a fetishistic insistence on style over substance—or, more generously, style as substance—that simultaneously heightened and undermined any potential revulsion at the explicit, often sexualized violence. Argento took Godard’s maxim and pushed it as far as it could go: The sets, the costumes, and even the blood in his films were so purposefully florid—so profondo rosso—that taking serious offense seemed like the drabbest, most pallid response possible.

Suspiria is Argento’s masterpiece. The 1977 film is the story of a secluded ballet school housing a sinister witches’ cult. It was recently remade by Call Me by Your Name director Luca Guadagnino. The new film has already stirred up controversy, both for its unfathomable brutality (which traumatized its star most of all) and accusations of copyright infringement. It received wildly mixed advance reviews (and apparently made that old softie Quentin Tarantino cry) While such polarization is often the sign of an interesting movie—I can’t wait to see it—everyone seems united in one sentiment: Trying to live up to—or go beyond—a movie as canonical as Suspiria is either ambitious, stupid, or both at once.

In an excellent Ringer essay about why the 21st century’s glut of reverent, well-made horror remakes seem destined to be forgotten, Keith Phipps located the problem as one of superfluous, film-nerd nostalgia: “We dredge up yesterday’s ghosts at our own peril. Usually, they’re best left alone.” Or, as Argento himself said in 2016, when Guadagnino’s project was announced: “Either you do it exactly the same way—in which case, it’s not a remake, it’s a copy, which is pointless—or, you change things and make another movie. In that case, why call it Suspiria?”

The title Suspiria is derived from the Latin phrase suspiria de profundis, meaning “sighs from the depths.” In 1845, the English author and opium-enjoyer Thomas De Quincey used its conflation of hellish torment and erotic ecstasy to name a collection of essays of “psychological fantasy” derived from the visions he’d experienced during his various drug-induced trips. In the centerpiece entry, “Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow,” De Quincy imagined a trinity of sisters variously embodying the ominous, tender and terrifying aspects of human experience—Our Lady of Tears; Our Lady of Sighs, and Our Lady of Darkness. “They are,” he wrote, “of one mysterious household; and their paths are wide apart; but of their dominion there is no end.”

In interviews, Argento has admitted De Quincey’s influence on Suspiria and his larger “Three Mothers” trilogy. In many ways, the film was a new beginning, introducing supernatural elements to Argento’s arsenal. Where the uncanny, unsettling events of Deep Red could ultimately be boiled down to an account of aberrant psychology—a nightmare rooted in contrived but concrete trauma—Suspiria was conceived as a tale of the occult, indebted as much to fables and folktales as the lurid, sex-and-death ethos of the giallo tradition. It was an influence that extended to its visual design as well as its narrative. “We were trying to reproduce the color of Walt Disney’s Snow White,” Argento explained, and the various crimson shades of the film’s sets and costumes function as the glistening, poisoned apple in that fairytale equation. The early sequence, in which a terrified young woman (Eva Axén) is stabbed to death and dropped in a noose through a stained-glass skylight by an unseen force, is goofily kinetic and austerely beautiful; a Looney Tunes cartoon suitable for hanging in the Louvre.

The misogyny of the imagery is unmistakable, and yet Suspiria complicates audience reactions—then and now—by filling its narrative almost exclusively with female characters, with the male performers (including a young Udo Kier) reduced to the sidelines. The giallo staple of the brooding, drooling sex-crazed psychopath is nowhere to be found. Instead, Suspiria burrows into archetypes of sisterhood—the ballerinas are cloistered like nuns—and, more daringly, maternal rivalry, restaging Snow White minus the seven dwarves (or a heroic huntsman to save the day). The “fairest of them all” in Argento’s tale is Suzy (Jessica Harper), the impossibly dewy, implicitly virginal American ballet student enrolled at the Tanz Dance Academy in Freiburg. In the indelible opening scene, we watch her arrive at the Munich airport and make her way (just like her cartoon doppelganger) through the “Black Forest” to reach her new home, which resembles nothing so much as a grimly enchanted castle. The evil Queen, meanwhile, is the aforementioned Lady of Sighs, imagined here as the Tanz’s imperious director, whose not-so-secret identity is the script’s driving enigma—when will Suzy finally realize she’s in an “all of them witches” situation?—and a boringly foregone conclusion.

In contrast to muscular ’70s horror classics like The Exorcist and Halloween, Suspiria’s greatness does not derive from the conventional satisfactions of narrative set-up and payoff, nor does it offer much in the way of characterization. If Suzy makes for a sympathetic heroine, it’s more to do with Harper’s beauty as a camera subject and the alienating effect of her European co-stars’ dialogue being mostly dubbed than any kind of bravura acting, a la Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby.

Rather, like Nicolas Roeg’s splintered, subliminal masterpiece Don’t Look Now or Brian De Palma’s giallo-inspired The Fury (both of which build to deep-red money shots), Suspiria is first and foremost an exercise in atmosphere, drawing power from confusion and disorientation, and leaning into its nonsensical aspects. It is powered by Goblin’s throbbing musical score, which rivals The Exorcist and Halloween for ’70s synth supremacy.

In its best moments, Suspiria’s connection to De Quincey’s prose poems runs deeper than concept of the “Lady of Sighs.” Prowling through the Academy’s corridors at night, surveying its exquisitely vulnerable array of sleeping beauties, Argento and his cinematographer Luciano Tovoli generate a kind of cinematic opium daze (Tanz rhymes with “trance, after all).

The absence of any real sobriety in Suspiria’s collection of gimmicks and gross-outs means that it’s possible to watch it as camp. When Lela Svasta’s decrepit crone Helena Markos—a dormant figure for much of the movie’s running time—confronts Suzy with the truth of her situation and croaks, “Hell is behind that door,” it’s more an invitation than a warning (and the film’s final scenes are worth the price of admission, bathed in giallo-plus-deep-red shades of fiery orange and anticipating the title of Argento’s next movie—Inferno).

In the finales of The Exorcist or Halloween, we’re meant to be shaken by the possibility that the forces of darkness are still lurking in every stairwell and behind every bolted door, but the end, Suspiria doesn’t aim for that kind of eerie effect. When it’s over, it’s over, with Suzy, slightly worse for wear but wiser about the world, like any good fairytale survivor, escaping into the same pitch-black night that backgrounded her arrival. What lingers is not a sense of evil but exhilaration in how far Argento and his fellow filmmakers were willing to go to shock and delight; the movie’s sheer exuberance is the cinematic equivalent of a blood transfusion.