Arguably the most beloved of Italian shock-cinema maestro Dario Argento’s various bloody cinematic freakouts—beloved by a certain stripe of masochistic viewer, that is—Suspiria is like a tone poem written in the form of a fan letter to Fangoria. Taking place in some bizarro alternate universe comprised entirely of horror-movie clichés, Suspiria is a nasty piece of work that takes perverse pleasure in getting a rise out of viewers, yet what separates it from standard slasher fare is the surrealistic artistry of Argento’s filmmaking. From the disturbing music (more on that in a minute) to the crazy lighting, which casts blazingly hot beams of bright colors across almost every scene, Suspiria is cranked up to overdrive from start to finish.
The story, which couldn’t possibly matter less, concerns wide-eyed American dancer Suzy Banion (Jessica Harper), who is invited to enroll in a European dance academy. The night she arrives, one of the students is stalked and murdered by a psycho, and as various creepy things happen around Suzy, our intrepid heroine slowly, dimly, excruciatingly figures out All Is Not Right.™ Yes, even the hoary cliché of the Unbelievably Stupid Young Woman™ is represented in Suspiria, although with a trippy twist: The nutjobs running the dance academy start drugging Suzy soon after her enrollment, so for all intents and purposes, she’s high throughout most of the movie.
It seems reasonable to assume that some of the folks behind the camera were toking as well, since Suspiria feels like a funhouse-mirror version of reality. Walls are alive with shadows and mysterious movements; maggots infest an attic; the exterior and interior spaces of the school look like backdrops from some experimental theater piece; and everyone talks in stilted phrases with no discernible relation to actual human speech. (Strange-cinema mainstay Udo Keir’s performance is particularly absurd, since dubbing magically erases his thick German accent.) More importantly, for shock value anyway, all of the characters are so weird that any rational person would run for the hills upon encountering these ghouls. Yet Suzy just hangs out, even as innumerable clues and otherworldly goings-on suggest her teachers are witches, because that’s what people do in over-the-top horror pictures: They linger because They Don’t Trust Their Own Senses.™
As straight narrative, Suspiria is a disaster—when it’s not tediously repetitive, it’s insultingly obvious—but as an exercise in sicko style, it’s impressive. The picture’s crucial element, without question, is that aforementioned music, by a rock group called Goblin (with help from Argento). Played at punishingly loud volumes, Goblin’s music features surreal, jangling death rattles mixed with a vocal motif that sounds like a distant echo of a child’s lullaby. When those sounds are juxtaposed with Argento’s Day-Glo montages of women getting mutilated, it’s impossible not to react, because the audience is getting bludgeoned as mercilessly as the characters.
If there’s any point to this exercise in excess other than trying to make viewers ill, however, it isn’t immediately apparent. So, if you go for this sort of thing, Suspiria is some kind of milestone achievement. If you don’t, it’s merely an unpleasant audiovisual assault created by One Really Sick Dude,™ a sobriquet one suspects Argento would consider a compliment.