Despite the gruesome creatures, flying limbs and buckets of blood, horror as a genre can feel pretty stale. For every excellent film there is a dozen forgettable or terrible ones. And there are so many that it takes a lot of wading through the rubbish to get to the interesting stuff. For each day in October I’m going to recommend a different horror film or film about horror. For the most part they won’t be the accepted classics. My selections range from the genuinely excellent to the delightfully strange with a few that are more fascinating than they are great. Hopefully there will be something for everyone and you’ll find something new to give you a scare or maybe a laugh. This is my 31 days of Horror and today I’m talking about: Suspiria.
For the end of this series I haven’t chosen a particularly underrated or obscure film. Today’s choice is one of my personal favourites as well the film I believe to be one of the scariest horror films ever made. Not only that but it is also one of the most beautiful. The film is Dario Argento’s 1977 masterpiece Suspiria. I first saw this several years ago, as part of an all-night horror event, and it remains the scariest cinema experience of my life. What the film lacks in character depth and even logic, it makes up for with sheer unrelenting terror and vivid beauty. Evil is presented as a force that cannot be understood in any way. It acts without reason or restriction. Some can find this lack of logic annoying but I believe that’s part of the film’s power. It’s like The Shining in a way. It is uncomfortable and even scarier that we cannot wrap our head around this terrifying force. So much of the scariness comes from our inability to predict where this macabre story will go. If you accept that and go along for the ride then you will not only experience an astounding film but also one of the most horrifying and frightening films ever made.
An American ballet student, Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), arrives in Munich on a horribly stormy night to attend her new ballet school. When she arrives she sees a distraught young woman run out of the school and shut the door. As Suzy is unable to get in she goes back to town to stay in a hotel. While passing through the woods surrounding the school (in a taxi) she sees the young woman running through the rain and darkness. We then see that young woman hide in a friend’s flat before getting killed by a mysterious presence. On the next day Suzy goes back to the school for her first lessons. Her room isn’t ready so she’s given a place off-campus. When she says she would rather stay off-campus even when her room is ready she has a strange encounter with the school’s cook and passes out. She wakes up in her dorm at school with a doctor telling her to have a glass of wine a day. The longer she spends in the school the more odd things she notices. Something feels off and horrible things keep happening. Suzy decides to uncover the supernatural secret of the ballet school, but what it might be could be too awful to handle.
As frustrating as it might sound to have a film with uninteresting characters and a story with shaky logic, that is not the case here at all. On the surface they could seem like faults but Suspiria has so much else to offer that it does not affect the experience of watching it at all. One of the major elements to Suspiria that sets it apart from other horror films and enhances its scariness is the look of it. When you think of horror films you think of darkness, shadows and the obscuring of what we are meant to be afraid of. This film completely subverts this by relishing in colour and light. The sets are grand, bright and often covered in primary colours. Everything about the look of the film draws us in. We are so taken in by the wondrousness and stylishness to every shot that even when the horror dares us to look away we desperately don’t want to. It has no pretensions about the reality of it all either. It is lavishly fantastical but we are no less pulled in and enveloped by its world. Like the best fantasy films it creates a wholly unique universe for us to be invested in. Once we are in the world of Suspiria it does not relent until the credits roll. Our eyes are fixated on the screen because of how staggeringly well shot it is and we fall in to its world of horrifying splendour and magic. Even the scenes at night are bathed in colourful light; this does not take away from how creepy things are. If anything the colourful darkness is a reminder of the unseen forces overseeing and intruding on the characters, and by extension us as well.
Another of Suspiria’s more unique and inventive ways of making us feel completely unsafe and always on edge is the score. The Italian prog-rock group Goblin composed the music and it is one of the most interesting and disquieting horror score’s ever. Lots of horror score’s will directly clue us in to when something freaky is about to go down or it they will be just used to give us a jump. Take Jaws for example, the score is excellent but that steady rise lets us know something is approaching. That impending fear is tense but it still lets us know it’s coming. Some other score’s will be pretty intense but then suddenly go silent. This lets us know that something will soon happen, it’s suspenseful but again we at least know to expect a scare. Then there are films like Insidious that blast the music at full volume as a spooky thing happens and it startles us. The sudden burst of loudness is startling but not exactly scary. Goblin’s score for Suspiria is unlike all of these. The first note it is misleadingly serene and suddenly it becomes fiercely intense as if it is the sound of the ever-present dark magic abruptly imposing on Suzy’s life. Guitars, chimes, electronic effects, drums, and ethereal voices proclaim that this is an evil shadowy world we are entering. A cacophony of different sounds comes together to form an almost oppressively disturbing tune. Then it picks up in energy and just doesn’t stop. We’re not clued in as to when a jump could be coming or at what moment we should expect a fright. We just know that this story is leading us is into even more terror. There’s no going back, we are not who is in control. The score pushes us back but the visuals pull us in making for an incredibly anxious and utterly terrifying experience.
As much as we can see in every shot of the film, it still delights in the horrors we cannot see. The amount of open and well-lit shots teases us as no matter how much it opens up there will always be an unseen evil lurking somewhere. In one of the most chilling sequences this fear of the unknown is taken to a diabolical height. After the blind piano player for the school is fired (because his dog bit the cook’s creepy child) he walks home alone in the dark. He finds himself in this vast square. A place where you would think no one could hide. He is out in the open, a place safe from something being able to jump out. How wrong we are. Soon his guide dog becomes distressed. Someone or something is out there. The thing is, we’re as blind to the danger as he is. Evil is not something that can simply be seen. The dog can sense it and we too can sense imminent danger but have no idea where it could come from. This is one of many brilliant scenes that exploit our innate fear of the unknown and unseen. It is a film laden with inventive and original set pieces designed to be as majestically frightening as possible.
Dario Argento’s Suspiria is one of the few horror films that could be classified as operatic. It is a grand twisted fairy tale of magnificence and grotesquery. Jessica Harper may not be playing the most complex character but she’s a perfect surrogate for the audience. She wants to probe further into this world but really it’s the one pulling her further and further in. Argento utilises every aspect intrinsic to cinema in crafting this viscerally terrifying experience. Film is a visual medium so he tells a story that could only be scary in its visualised form. I purposefully ended this series with this film because I think it is one of the heights to which horror can reach. Nothing has hit me like this film did. When I first saw it I didn’t really know what to think because I was so shaken. But as that dissipated I was left with so many images and sounds burned into my mind. As unsafe and pummeled by fear as I felt, when that left I was uplifted. There was that feeling of survival, of having overcome something. I said it at the beginning of this series and I’ll say it again, that is what horror is about. The euphoria of endurance, of feeling like you’re at risk but overcoming that and exiting the other side feeling stronger. Nothing is more life affirming than being forced to feel near death. To feel like something is about to get you and that it’s right at your heels. But you get away, you live to see another day. Suspria made me feel this more than any other film, epitomising why I love horror, and that’s why I had to end my 31 Days of Horror with it.
James M Macleod