A singularly ravishing, visually mesmerizing genre work reminding of a children's storybook as written and illustrated by Hieronymus Bosch, Dario Argento's "Suspiria" is arguably the Italian horrormeister's most successful motion picture. It is certainly his most aesthetically impressive. Saturated in the kind of atmosphere some of the most talented filmmakers in the business likely can only dream about at night, the film's every shot is worthy of being framed and hung at Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art. Inspired by "Suspiria de Profundis" by Thomas De Quincey, Argento and co-writer Daria Nicolodi's tale of foreign displacement and the black arts has been further injected with the vivid, primary color-based style of 1937's animated milestone "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." Luciano Tovoli's painterly cinematographyone of the final films to be processed in Technicoloris nothing short of hypnotic, while the fiendishly guttural music score by Goblin (with aberrant "witch"-whispering vocals from Claudio Simonetti) carries the enraptured viewer through an appropriately alarming soundscape.
It is a dark and stormy night when American ballerina Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) lands in Munich, Germany, catching a taxi to the Freiburg dance academy where she has been accepted. Just as she arrives, distraught student Pat (Eva Axén) passes her by as she flees from the building and into the forest. By the next morning, Pat will be dead, having been attacked and brutally disemboweled while seeking shelter at a friend's house. Suzy attempts to settle into her new life away from homea difficult prospect when she falls mysteriously ill on the first day of classes, then is relegated to a cot in the gymnasium when the dorm rooms are infested with maggots. New friend Sara (Stefania Casini) fills her in on suspicions that the faculty are involved in more behind closed doors than simply teaching dance. Seeking the guidance of psychologist Frank Mandel (Udo Kier), Suzy learns that the academy was founded by the scarcely glimpsed directress, Helena Markos, believed to be a witch.
It has been documented that Dario Argento originally conceived the protagonists in "Suspiria" as 12-year-old girls. When the studio balked at this, he changed them to college age yet did not tweak the script. Thus, much of the dialogue and interplay between Suzy and the rest of the students has an offbeat, childlike toneall the more fitting, actually, for what is set up as a grim fairy tale. Argento builds a nearly unsurpassed aura of doom over the proceedings, beginning immediately in the opening scene as Suzy is accosted by the wind and rain as she exits. Subliminal imagery runs rampant, from a demonic face horrifyingly showing up in the taxi's glass separator as lightning flashes, to the blink-and-you'll-miss-them shadows of broomstick-riding witches cast across the fašade of Munich's Athens-inspired Königsplatz. Audience anxiety slashes like daggers in scenes of immense intensity, as when Suzy and Sara quietly exchange words in the gym as the intimidating directress sleeps just beyond the glowing-red curtain separating the students from the staff. Pat's sprint through the dark forest is equally gorgeous and unnerving, while the murder setpiecesone involving a stain-glass roof and another featuring a pit filled with razor wireare absolute showstoppers of operatic grisliness.
Jessica Harper is a lithe, almost angelic presence as heroine Suzy Bannion, but she is not an aloof figure. Caught up in a mystery where the key, she believes, are in the words she heard Pat yell ("secret" and "iris") on that first night when they briefly crossed paths, Suzy actively seeks the truth to the baffling goings-on around her. As instructor Miss Tanner and Madame Blanc, Alida Valli and Joan Bennett are perfectly matched, skirting the line between natural sternness and hiding some far more dreadful. And, although his screen time is brief, a strikingly young-looking Udo Kier owns his scene, turning a relatively thankless expository part into something more lingering and charismatic.
Dario Argento was responsible for a number of fine features both prior to and after "Suspiria," but it is with this particular magnum opus where he innovatively turns genre filmmaking into an undisputable art form. With Sara have disappeared and the rest of the students away at the theatre, Suzy uses the trick her friend showed her, counting the footsteps she hears as a means of being able to retrace their path. This she does, leading her to a hellish discovery as phantasmagoric as it is trenchantly inevitable. "Suspiria" embraces its own skewered logic while weaving a fabled spell that could give rightful nightmares to even the brothers Grimm. From top to bottom, this is sublime filmmaking, alive with imagination.