Dario Argento’s 1977 masterpiece, Suspiria, has finally been restored, and the new version is a revelation. It shows subtle genius at work in the film and will do a great deal to establish this film’s place within the canon. Made just after Deep Red (which is also often argued as being Argento’s best film), Suspiria deals with witchcraft and the occult, and Argento uses an unusual and dreamy color scheme to show a world of hidden things to his audience.
All Argento films show a profound interest in seeing, and Suspiria is perhaps the best demonstration of this. The sophistication with which he handles the theme of vision helps to make the case for Argento as a major figure in world cinema. Suspiria invites us to attempt to see the unseen, and this has a basis in occultism. By using unreal color schemes and baroque framing on shots, we are brought into a dreamlike structure that feels like a fairytale. The self contained nature of Suspiria as its own dreamy world of incongruity makes the film like no other experience. The bright technicolor images haunt us, disrupt our place within the normal world, and draw us into Argento’s very different reality.
The restoration is crucial to the reception of this film, because mood and visual structure convey a large portion of the meaning of the film. Watching lesser prints with pale greyed colors over the years was unfulfilling and left only the film’s simple story intact, when much like Michelangelo Antonioni, Argento uses other specifically visual aspects of the medium to create his film with less emphasis on traditional narrative. As opposed to the profound humanism of Antonioni though, Argento gives us a very strange supernaturalism.
It is fair that Antonioni has the larger reputation given the universality of his ideas and the perfection and revolutionary nature of his work, but Argento deserves to be taken seriously for using a profound visual sense in Suspiria to take us out of the ordinary and into the occult in a way that no one else ever has. Occultism rests on an idea of unseen forces, and where most films leave that as silly creatures or jump scares, Argento turns this into a beautiful world of odd events and images which don’t make much sense on a normal level. He makes the unreal seem real for the 98 minutes of his film, and he changes the way that we see in doing so.
The story centers on a young ballerina who heads from Italy to Freiburg, Germany to attend a dance academy. Odd and unpleasant events ensue, and Jessica Harper’s portrayal of Suzy Banyon leaves us with sympathy for an innocent and decentered protagonist who we get to know mainly from being in far over her head. As the odd events continue, we discover that the school was the center of a witchcraft scandal and that the witch died. Of course, Argento shows us that the witch remains alive, but her existence turns out to be some other form from normal life entirely. Rather than explaining this, Argento relies on the use of striking unreal imagery to bring us into a dreamlike state of believing in an unseen force that is much larger than any person actually shown on film.
The reference to seeing continues into a a blind pianist who is murdered and eaten by his own dog under a full moon, as though a nocturnal type of seeing that is not normal perception is present. No one in the movie really can see what is going on, and that is the point of the film. We all seem to sense something just beyond the horizon of the image, and the baroque images of the film successfully portray this in an additive way that is masterful. It is one of cinema’s best accomplishments, and the restoration which Synapse Films has put together from original camera negatives with oversight from cinematographer Luciano Tovoli (who worked with Antonioni prior to this film and is not always in fine form in his later work but is brilliantly on top of his game here) make it possible to finally see this film on its own terms.
The music in the film is absolutely crucial to both the development of cinema and to electronic music. The score by Goblin is one of the most otherworldly and over the top compositions to ever be used in a film. Strange electronic sounds with wild keyboards and disturbing percussion draw us into a frenetic dreamworld that is haunting while at once being urgent and unstable. There is an all pervasive circular sense to the sounds as though something is always lurking around us with no way to pin down what it is. When artful stylized murders happen in unreal color schemes, the music has an eerie way of anticipating them.
Argento has had a problematic reception for a number of reasons. His films lie somewhere between the horror film and art cinema. While he is clearly a genre director, his aesthetic sensibilities take on a far more artful view than most of the genre with sophisticated issues being raised in his films. Some of his contributions have not been noticed due to being judged principally as an icon of the horror film. In particular, the place of seeing, reporting, sexuality, and psychology in his films is worthy of the most serious filmmakers. Many of the films feature journalists trying to uncover the truth, and Argento uses cinema as a means of helping the audience to interrogate the world through images.
His films often stand as fairytales, less aimed at disgusting us (though they are famous for that) than at warning us about dangers not everyone notices around us and offering a cathartic release from these concerns. His underrated later film, The Stendahl Syndrome, shows a woman struggling to overcome sexual trauma and examines its psychological effects on who she is. For Argento, we are all fundamentally unstable and face the risk of being split apart by our surroundings which may have dangers we don’t recognize. These dangers don’t only take the form of absurd killers or supernatural forces as is often caricatured about his films, but institutions as well are traps. We see this clearly with the dance academy in Suspiria, the boarding school in Phenomena, the research center in Cat O Nine Tails, the apartment building in Inferno, etc. Argento suggests that if we could learn to see better we could free ourselves, but searching for truth carries dangers in his world, because the people we notice might not appreciate our awareness. So reporters are regularly either in danger or else tricked into blindness and delusion, left to live as naive or else attacked by crazed people. Mere seeing is almost never enough for them to make their way around to the truth.
For many of his characters, surviving trauma becomes a centerpiece of self discovery, and Argento is inviting his audience to enact that experience. While the late films might not hold the brilliance of his heyday, the best period of his work is brilliant, running roughly from Bird With the Crystal Plumage to The Stendahl Syndrome, but admittedly at its best from Deep Red through Opera. Of that run, some films are stronger than others, and Suspiria is the pinnacle.