Long the most popular of Dario Argento’s schlock masterpieces, Suspiria (1977) is the film where all the director’s recurring motifs and tics came together, the Goldfinger of his uniquely disreputable Eurotrash oeuvre. American student Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) arrives at an esteemed German ballet academy on — what else? — a dark and stormy night. In short order, innocent little Suzy and her fellow dancers face maggots, bats, blind piano players, a room carpeted with razor wire, and paranormal psychologist Udo Kier. Most frightening of all, though, is head instructor Miss Tanner, played by the legendary Alida Valli, an actress who, as the poet Kevin Killian has put it, “channels the most forbidding aspects of Garbo, Bergman, Hedy Lamarr, Joan Bennett, and Satan.” (Bennett, Fritz Lang’s one-time go-to femme fatale, is the academy’s headmistress, in her final role.) [You perhaps read about a weekend screening of another of Bennett’s most iconic roles earlier today. -Ed.]
It can fun, even for serious Argento enthusiasts, to mock Suspiria‘s softcore ridiculousness-not to mention the expository dialogue, all of it dubbed badly in postproduction. But atmosphere, not storytelling, is Argento’s forte. Suspiria‘s Art Deco set pieces, shot in neon-light by Antonioni cinematographer Luciano Tovoli, are his creepiest ever, owing as much to the carnal claustrophobia of The Conformist as German Expressionism.
Suspiria is technically the first movie in a witchcraft trilogy that also includes Inferno (1980) and The Mother of Tears (2007) — the latter starring the director’s iconic vamp daughter, Asia, who cut her teeth as a teenager acting in Italian horror pictures her father had scripted. But context isn’t particularly necessary when the basic premise involves pretty girls getting mangled in a haunted house by supernatural forces. Sadistic, lurid, gruesome, and campy: Suspiria lies in a category of cheese all by itself.