by Evan J Peterson & Heather Marie Bartels
On Tuesday, August 2nd, we’ll gather in Scarecrow Video’s screening room for another session of SHRIEK: A Women of Horror Film & Discussion Class. This month, we’ll examine Suspiria, an Italian film with an international cast that risks much and achieves essential placement among the best horror films of all time.
Director: Dario Argento
Writers: Daria Nicolodi and Dario Argento
Nudity: None (somewhat unusual for an Argento film)
Major actors: Jessica Harper, Alida Valley, Joan Bennet, Barbara Magnolfi, Eva Axen, Udo Kier
Body Count: At least five
Major Protagonists: Female
Does it pass the Bechdel-Wallace test: Sure does.
Tickets available here.
Suspiria is a surreal trip of a film. Part lush gothic art film, part creatively gory slasher flick, part prog rock music video and part campy supernatural cheese fest, this film simply shouldn’t work. It especially shouldn’t hold a 93% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, or be listed on nearly every collection of the Top Horror Films of All Time. And yet, here we are.
Dario Argento’s 1977 masterpiece is unique in its vision and perfect in its execution. Even the ADR, which would normally degrade the quality of a film, adds to the hallucinatory feel of Suspiria.
The storyline follows doe-eyed American ballet dancer Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) as she arrives at a German dance academy located in some creepy woods, at night, during a rainstorm. Things are beyond strange at the academy and Suzy’s health begins to decline rapidly. She must unravel the mystery of the missing students and save her own life.
One thing that makes Suspira a great choice for our discussions at SHRIEK is that the cast is almost entirely women. The handful of men that are in the film are fleeting characters: a cute ballarino, a creepy little boy, a pianist accompanist, some helpful professors, etc. Suzy is the star, through and through, and she needs no one to save her. Unlike many heroines, she’s not presented as overly badass, sexualized, or desexualized. She’s fragile often, but never gives up. She’s pretty, but in a natural way. She’s smart, but not nerdy. She just seems…normal.
Women are often caricatures in film and there are plenty of those here, from the hard-ass faculty to the vampy dancers, but Suzy is just a regular lovely girl. The kind you would want to be friends with and have at dinner parties.
There is plenty of violence in this film, some of it direct (a woman’s face being smashed through a window) and some of it indirect (a man being attacked by a dog), so it is difficult to say if Suspiria fits into any particular horror subgenre or stereotypes as far as its presentation of women is concerned. Argento has never been regarded as a feminist filmmaker (he famously stated “If they have a good face or figure I would much prefer to watch them being murdered than an ugly girl or man.”), but it appears that a feminist argument could be made for Suspiria.
Suspira, Dario Argento’s iconic horror fairy tale, is even more bonkers than most of his other work. Co-written with his sometime girlfriend and muse, Daria Nicolodi, it begins like a slasher movie, complete with extravagantly creative murder, but it ends in a very different reveal.
Set at a German ballet academy, the film is completely dominated by women. The protagonist, Suzy, is played by Jessica Harper, a darling of cult cinema (in Phanton of the Paradise as well as the Rocky Horror Picture Show sequel Shock Treatment). Men are merely perfunctory in this film, there to assist and/or die. Even the protagonist’s love interest is barely a part of the plot. Argento and Nicolodi have said that the film was originally intended to be about younger girls, but they changed it to an older cast. Check out how the two most prominent female authority figures at the school, Miss Tanner (Alida Valli) and Madame Blanc (Joan Bennet), are polarized in gender. While the poised Madame Blanc is often in regal dresses, the gruff Miss Tanner is usually in an austere blazer and white collared shirt. The unsubtle suggestion is that these women are a lesbian couple. The German setting, the supernatural elements, and the mostly-female cast all reflect Argento’s intention of creating a dark fairy tale, a departure from his usual oeuvre.
Argento is known for giallo films, an Italian genre of non-supernatural crime thrillers, but this is one of his occasional supernatural films, part of a loose trilogy that includes Mother of Tears and Inferno. As my ex-boyfriend summarized Inferno, “Here’s a bunch of things that happen. The end.” This sort of non-plot is not unusual in an Argento film. Suspiria’s script is continually interrupted by ultra-stylized visuals. The characters don’t really arc. Suzy herself doesn’t really learn anything or change, even though she shows cleverness and fortitude. Is it any wonder that recent plotless and gorgeous thrillers such as The Neon Demon or The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears are directly inspired by this genre and especially by Argento’s contributions to it?
While many of Argento’s films pivot on a character seeing something they can’t quite remember or make sense of, Suspira moves that to the ears. In a film with such nonstop whackadoodle visuals, from Art Deco death scenes to M. C. Escher wallpaper, it’s not about what the protagonist saw but what she heard: an incomplete ramble about secret flowers that must (?) be the key to solving the murder mystery. Combine that with one of horror’s most iconic and stylish soundtracks, courtesy of Goblin, and this film becomes an auditory as well as visual feast—or an assault.
The film’s gore is also remarkable, particularly at the beginning. For its time, it’s even more lurid. For instance, a character isn’t merely stabbed in the chest; we instead see her beating heart through a gaping hole as the knife penetrates. Pair that with the surreal, Mario Bava-inspired lighting scheme, and we have a live-action cartoon in which characters scream in emerald and die bathed in blue. We’ve sometimes shown films at SHRIEK that are arguably not horror—suspense thrillers, dark biopics, etc. Suspiria, make no mistake, is a bloody horror extravaganza.
Why does the film start as a slasher movie, yet finish as supernatural horror? Why do the sets move breathlessly from a German beer hall to a clearly Italian palazzo? As my ex-boyfriend puts it, “Does it even matter?” The point is not sense; the point is the stunning poetry of the gore amidst sumptuous sets.
Join Heather and Evan this Tuesday, August 2nd, for SHRIEK: Suspiria! Contact wordmercury [at] gmail dot com for more info. Tickets available here.
Evan J. Peterson is a college professor, author, and journalist. He is a Clarion West alum, and he received his MFA from Florida State University. His writing has been featured in The Stranger, Weird Tales, Queers Destroy Horror, and The Rumpus. His books include The Midnight Channel, Skin Job, and Ghosts in Gaslight, Monsters in Steam: Gay City 5. He lives in Seattle with his werewolf, Dorian Greyhound.
Heather Marie Bartels is the Managing Director of the Rainier Independent Film Festival, graduate from the University of Washington Cinema Studies department, and host of the film and feminism podcast “Turn Up The Ladybro.” She spends most of her spare time introducing the uninitiated to the wonders of horror and finding the best ramen in town.