The Evil Stepmother of Gothic Horror gets a makeover.
Suzy Bannion walks out of an airplane terminal in Germany into the pouring rain. An unexplained, blood red light shines through the sliding glass doors behind her. The color follows her like a ghost during her brief residency at the prestigious Tanz Dance Academy in Freiberg, haunting her and serving as an omen to the evil that hides behind the walls.
Suzy has just arrived from New York to study dance at the school which also serves as a residence for the young, mostly female dancers there, but there is terror from the very beginning of Suzy’s stay. The first occasion is when a young woman runs screaming from the school the night Suzy arrives. Soon, the woman is stabbed by a faceless man and falls through the glass ceiling of an Art Nouveau apartment building.
From the very beginning of Dario Argento’s horror masterpiece, Suspira (1977), you know you have entered the world of Gothic horror with a capital “G:” evil headmistresses, creepy kids dressed up in velvet page boy outfits, innocent women used as sacrifices to the devil. But where most directors might choose shadow and dark monochromes to tell this kind of story, Argento bathes his frames with brightly colored light and large set pieces that resemble a horror version of Alice in Wonderland. It’s this contradiction, along with the childlike acting of the resident dancers, that defines Suspiria‘s own unique version of terror and secures its reign as a horror masterpiece.
Rosemary’s Baby, The House on Haunted Hill and, well, basically every Hitchcock film are obvious influences for Argento. Watching Suspiria, you realize that many directors since have been influenced by his aesthetic. Suzy’s steely heroine is a possible template for John Carpenter’s Laurie (though Halloween was made just one year after Suspiria.) Guillermo del Toro’s films and Tim Burton’s early films bear a similar storybook aesthetic and there’s even a scene with a Blue Velvet curtain that must have inspired David Lynch.
It’s no surprise that Luca Guadagnino is remaking Suspiria this year. I’m optimistic about his interpretation especially since Tilda Swinton will be playing the psychotic dance teacher, Madame Blanc, but I’m not as optimistic about Dakota Johnson as Suzy. But he was able to coax a good performance from Armie Hammer in Call Me By Your Name, so I’ll stay optimistic.
Suspiria is currently in theaters to celebrate a recent 4K restoration. Go see it mainly to admire all the blood in its original gleaming, shining, oozing red.