Now, I know that 42 years may seem like an odd anniversary to celebrate, but given that we got a new Suspiria just a few months ago, we figured why not revisit the original while it’s on the brain? There’s never not a good time to gush about Dario Argento’s technicolor masterpiece. The film has only gotten more popular due to its cult following and appreciation but Suspiria is not without its critics. One critique I’ve never been a fan of though is “style over substance”.
This critique is usually handed to films whose stylistic choices take precedence over themes and narrative. It’s hard to pinpoint where this phrase came from, but I can only imagine it was one of its earliest criticisms. It’s unfair really because Suspiria isn’t about an intricate plot. It’s all atmosphere and one of the best to ever do it. So to celebrate the classic, I want to break down why Suspiria‘s style is the substance.
Down the Neon Rabbit Hole
Alright guys, secret time: I saw Suspiria for the first time last year. Lucky for me, I got to see it on the big screen and no joke, I literally cried through the opening sequence. I was so overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of this film. Luciano Tovoli’s cinematography and Goblin’s score were a match made in heaven (or hell). I hadn’t experienced anything like it. And this was in 2017! imagine the reactions from moviegoers 40 years ago when it was originally released. Aside from making cinematography nerds drool, the opening makes very specific choices, setting up the neon nightmare we’re about to enter with poor Suzy. As soon as Suzy exits the airport, she’s thrust into a turbulent thunderstorm. She hails a cab and as she makes her way to Tanz Dance Academy, we’re exposed to the vibrant color palette that will engulf the remainder of the film.
The colors are as bright as they are because Suspiria was one of the last films processed using imbibition Technicolor film, which emphasizes primary colors yellow, blue, and most prominently like most Giallo films, Red. The movie was also shot using anamorphic lenses, distorting the wide shots to give the film its surreal look. The movie’s plot can be boiled down pretty simply: Suzy attends a mysterious academy with danger lurking around every corner. Argento’s direction deliberately keeps the narrative vague to allow the sounds and visuals to tell the story, making Suspiria one of the most unique atmosphere-driven horror films ever.
“This is not the world your used to. Nothing is as it seems…”
The opening also gives the audience one of the film’s most iconic images right out of the gate. Within 15 minutes, we are given the death of Pat Hingle as she is stabbed and hung from the skyline of the hotel lobby. Her body dangles, and she drips blood akin to the paint of hotel lobby. The color is unnatural, the consistency is strange, but that’s exactly the point: This is not the world your used to. Nothing is as it seems and death can strike at any moment.
The tone set here lingers the entire film, a sense of dread perpetuated by the surrealness of the film’s surroundings. Suspiria takes the beauty of the cinematography and weaponizes it, assaulting you with vivid colors. Think about it; when we see these vibrant glows bathing the scene, where are they even coming from? The infamous slumber party scene is drenched in red and nobody questions it. How does anyone sleep at this academy!?
The use of color in the film is definitely a highlight, but everyone knows what the true backbone of this film is: The Score. Think, Mozart meets Rob Zombie, directing a choir of actual goblins. The score is so integral to the film, it was composed before the film was even shot! The main Suspiria theme is one of the most iconic tracks in cinema, instantly recognizable, and has been used in various other forms of media, including Raekwon & Ghostface Killah’s Legal Coke.
I often compare Suspiria to Alice in Wonderland in the way that that the sights and sounds are alluring, though you know how dangerous they are. The score is another character that brings the film to life, with every synth note backed up by creepy voices and cackles.
“Mozart meets Rob Zombie, directing a choir of actual goblins”
The sounds are integral to establishing the paranoia of the film but where is that sound coming from? More importantly, what is that sound coming from. And clocking in at 45 minutes, the score is present for nearly 50% of the film. Again, this isn’t our world and the ever-present score disorients the audience, just as it does Suzy.
There’s also the matter of the famous dubbing situation. When shooting the film, Argento shot the cast speaking in their respective native languages and would later have the film dubbed in English. This was normal for Italian films at the time and the effect unintentionally added to the films surreal nature. It also complimented the over-dramatic acting displayed by the cast. This might normally distract the audience, but in this case, most seem to be unbothered and rather enjoy it.
Style Equals Substance
Why can’t there be substance in the style of a film? There are many reasons one chooses to make a movie. To tell a fascinating story, to connect us with interesting characters, or transport you to another world. Suspiria exists to take you on a strange journey and evoke emotion. Suzy is definitely not the most interesting character, but she’s written that way for the audience to project themselves onto her. Suspiria succeeds in taking you to another world that is uniquely its own and the release at the end of the journey is so satisfying, you immediately want to plunge back it.
And let’s say style is over substance in the film. Who are we to say that’s wrong, and a detriment? At the end of the day, directors are artists and style is what defines an artist. With Suspiria, Argento creates a film with a vision that is solely his own. Suspiria has stood the test of time as one of the most unique films of all time due to its distinct personality. There isn’t another film like it. If that’s a legacy my own film had left behind, I’d be good with style over substance any day.
“Argento succeeds by overwhelming you with his style, forcing you to dive into the treacherous waters of [Suspiria‘s] world.”
Suspiria was released February 1st, 1977 and is one of the most acclaimed horror movies of all-time, sporting a 92% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes and appearing on multiple “Greatest Horror movie” lists. The identity of Suspiria was so strong that it lead Luca Guadagnino to take his Suspiria in a complete opposite direction, favoring a more in-depth plot and colder production.
Over the years, the “style over substance” critique has been used increasingly more often, commonly with auteur directors such as Nicolas Winding Refn or Darren Aronofsky. Some consider it a valid critique, but I say it’s more evidence of the audience being too distracted by not getting what they want narratively, unable to fully immerse themselves into the world. Argento succeeds by overwhelming you with his style, forcing you to dive into the treacherous waters of the film’s world. Suspiria is a moody masterpiece of atmospheric horror, which firmly cements it as one of the best in the genre.
Celebrate the anniversary of Suspiria by revisiting the saturation soaked world of Tanz Academy. What’s your favorite shot or track in the film? Dance your way over to Twitter, Reddit, or Facebook to let us know!