Dario Argento's 1977 film Suspiria is a masterpiece of horror cinema. On a technical level and emotional level, very few films hit such a tonal strength as Suspiria. At its core, its an exploitation film but its handled with such beauty and spiritual power that you are hypnotized and unnerved by all of its scare tactics. Heavily influenced by the work of Mario Bava and the success of Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (and possibly Jerry Lewis' The Ladies Man), director Dario Argento crafts a ballet of nightmares come true and glorious dreams shattered. Its a film with so much refined taste and deep primal intelligence, that it overshadows what is amateurish in acting or special effects. Actually, the bizarre acting, dubbing and surreal makeup only adds to the nightmarish qualities. It doesn't come off artificial. It becomes transcendent and otherworldly.
Since my last viewing of Suspiria, I've watch most of Dario Argento's work. And now the film's greatness is even more evident. Argento hit his peak here with the perfect concept, the perfect plot, the perfect lead actress and the perfect amount of fear. With this film he opened up a canon of extraordinary horror/suspense films that changed horror and Italian cinema for good. But also I now see the wide influence the film has had on cinema. John Carpenter (one of Suspiria's biggest fans) took the unique camerawork and female characterization to make his immortal Halloween. Lucio Fulci has lifted whole sequences and plot elements. And the current generation plagiarizes Argento endlessly in It Follows, American Horror Story, Scream Queens and Black Swan. Mainly, filmmakers are impressed with Argento's psychedelic audiovisual talents and copy. But they lack the reasoning or understanding behind his methods. In this viewing I appreciate Argento's elegant storytelling and subtle allusions made with editing, casting, symbolic use of color and the subtext of traumatic sexual maturity. There's real artistry here in audience manipulation and painstaking work to inject meaning and spiritual gratification from what could've been just a shallow exercise in pretty girls, scares and moody cinematography.
But what really makes it a horror movie heavyweight is its understanding of fear, particularly with the unseen. The occult, witches to be exact, are the source of all the shocks. This was a popular fear in the 1970s, with religious skepticism and psychological madness rising. It worked for Rosemary's Baby, The Omen and The Exorcist. Suspiria is not as well known, cherished or regarded. But I say it should be. Its as effective and haunting as those films, only lacking in levels of high terror because its more interested in a fairytale version of reality, rather than the brutal realism of its contemporaries. Its more metaphysical and more suggestive, less graphic and less believable, by design. But you still walk away from the film with a powerful unease about witches, witchcraft, magick, the occult, secret societies, covens. Things that are very personally understood by Argento. He paints the film with real dynamics found in his subjects. Also the subjects of artists, violence, beauty, sexual discovery and his favorite muse, women. What American horror took most from Suspiria, by way of Carpenter's Halloween, is the dynamic between the virginal "Final Girl" and the wicked, hateful, corrupt female characters who dominate the film. This is standard in horror now, but it was innovated here. Along with big, elaborately staged, special effects driven death sequences and grotesquely Freudian scares.
Following Rosemary's Baby, Argento builds the tension towards an all-out climax that wraps everything up neatly. While Polanski gave you two possible endings and left you guessing until the end, Argento is putting together puzzle pieces, revealing multiple possibilities and antagonists as you go along. This has to come from his experience with Italian thrillers and mysteries ("giallo"). He works from a very cerebral base and then paints around it with dizzying hallucinations and psychosexual suggestions. The climax is not as terrifying as Rosemary's, so Argento works on the build and execution of scenarios before his climax. And even then, the ending is very satisfying. And shocking.
Suspiria has become popular with a new generation thanks to a throwaway reference in "Juno" and it will probably be remade at some point. I'm not anticipating any remake of this film because it really can't be improved in any way. Its weaknesses make it stronger and its strengths come from an independent artistic vision and fluid style of filmmaking that doesn't exist right now. But whatever helps this 1977 classic live on is welcomed.