One of the more beautiful reasons the horror genre will always remain timeless is because it’s often not so much the story you’re telling, but the way you tell it. Human beings are more scared of sights and sound than we are anything explainable, which is why the best horror traffics in something simple made fantastic. Spray paint a William Shatner mask completely white and you create a slasher icon in Halloween‘s Michael Myers. Show a girl being pulled under the water at the beginning of Jaws and the human mind immediately pictures the prehistoric killing machine below the surface. Chain just two people to a wall inside a single room and you’ll spawn the eight-film Saw franchise. Horror is about doing a lot with a little, and no one captured that idea more enchantingly than giallo mastermind Dario Argento and his candy-colored acid trip, Suspiria. With Luca Guadagnino‘s remake dancing its way into theaters, I revisited Argento’s original only to find that it not only holds up, it only got more bewitching with time.
Suspiria‘s plot might be styled as a mystery, but it’s not exactly complex. An American ballet student named Suzie Bannon (Jessica Harper) travels to the prestigious Tanz Dance Academy in Freiburg, Germany—founded by the mysterious Helena Markos and run by the stern Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett)—only to discover the school is a front for a coven of witches. The truth is revealed through violence and no shortage of dribbling blood, Suzie drives a knife through the horrifically decayed Helena Markos’ neck, and escapes laughing into the rain. Again, a straight-forward story, but one that Argento drops into the middle of a goddamn nightmare.
With the help of production designer Giuseppe Bassan and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli—whose camera is under a spell all its own—Argento constructs settings that never quite feel like they reside on this plane of existence. The Tanz Academy is more carnival fun house than dance studio, where red, red walls and stained glass meet optical-illusion-patterned floors and dis-angled hallways seemingly designed by a madman architect. It’s a topsy-turvy aesthetic that owes a good amount to the OG visual mind-fuck The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the type of circus-meets-insane-asylum vibe that Tim Burton dreams about in his every waking moment. The effect is that even the simplest scenes seem set inside a fever dream, leaving us just as trapped in this whirlwind of angles and color as Suze Bannon herself. Argento’s Suspiria is probably the closest you can get to taking mushrooms without actually taking mushrooms, neon colors lighting up scenes so quickly and jarringly you’re not even sure they happened at all.
The film’s first kill sets this tone early. Tanz student Patricia Hingle (Eva Axé)—who Suzie sees fleeing the academy on the night she arrives—is taking shelter with a friend when a glowing-eyed assailant drives a knife into her several times, ties a noose around her neck, and sends her crashing through the roof’s stained-glass skylight. It’s a brutal scene no matter what, but in Argento’s hands, it’s a violent abstract painting. The blood that pours out of Patricia and eventually coats her free-swaying body is more vibrantly red than a medical professional would probably agree with, so that each knife stroke resembles an artist wielding a brush. The visual of the dancer’s blood-covered body shattering the skylight and coming to rest in front of an equally striking red wall is so jarringly attractive that you’re disgusted with the need to screenshot and make it your phone background. But you do, because Suspiria is one of the better displays of Argento’s guiding principle, the idea that violence—and, just as often, sex—is equal measures beautiful and horrifying.
And what would a nightmare be without the howls of the damned to go with it? Goblin is perhaps the most aptly named band in existence; the Italian prog rock quartet cooked up a score for Suspiria that genuinely sounds like it was composed in a Lord of the Rings cave deep beneath a mystical mountain, all tinkling bells, pounding drums, and howls that turn into guttural screams. It’s perfectly overwhelming, the music often getting louder the wider Jessica Harper’s expressive eyes get. What the film does so well is build that score to an absolute fever pitch like there’s a damn orc army approaching through the woods right outside the window and then swiftly cut it off completely, leaving both Suzie Bannon and the audience to contemplate what the hell is going on in total silence.
Having seen Guadagnino’s remake, I know that it’s a completely different beast, something much more muted and grey, more interesting in a lingering unease than a paint can of horror dumped over your head. (It’s also completely stunning in its own way. Check out Haleigh Foutch’s review here.) But that’s really the only way this could have worked out. Argento’s witches brew is timeless because of such a specific set of ingredients that to try and replicate the twisted sights and blaring sounds of his work would be like trying to dance without hearing the music, a spell cast without magic to back it up.