Dario Argento’s Nightmare Fuel: the Surreal Horror of Suspiria

Entertainment, Horror Movies
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Much more so than many other “surreal” or “nightmarish” horrors, Suspiria truly captures the feeling of being trapped in a bad dream and being unable to awaken from it. There’s a self-contained logic that is never fully explained and real life is never allowed to intrude on the macabre story that unfolds.

There’s a tendency in horror movies to over-explain the horror. If a horror movie has a haunted house, the movie feels that it’s necessary to explain who it’s haunted by and why and what the spirits wants. If a horror movie has a demonic entity following a family, the movie feels that it’s necessary to explain that one of the family members is a chosen one in the ongoing battle between Good and Evil. A sequel in a slasher series might explain that said slasher is really, after so many movies, trying to really kill their long lost sister. And so on, and so on.

In Suspiria, what we know is that a very prestigious ballet school in Europe is secretly run by a coven of witches. We don’t know why. Why should we care? We can draw our own conclusions. Perhaps the witches require money and tuition for such a school can’t be cheap, so each new student brings a sizable income. Maybe they just need innocent victims for their sacrifices. A witch, especially as defined by this movie, isn’t really human, so we would never understand their motivations and any sort of logical motivation relatable to us mortals would cheapen the dark suspense beneath the action. What we know is scary enough: A coven of witches run a school and the student body is subjected to their mysterious, evil whims.


The story that Suspiria has to tell is as basic as they come. A young American girl, a fish out of water, is accepted to this school with an evil secret, and terrifying things happen to her. A mystery of sorts unfolds and she discovers the secret. At the end of the movie, she’s either victorious or another victim. Very few surprises are hidden as the movie ends its finish—it’s little more than a basic framework giving the director creative license to find creative ways to kill young girls.

But, as a great film critic once said, a movie’s quality isn’t so much in what’s it telling, it’s in how it’s told. The direction, by Dario Argento in his prime, is gorgeous. Much of the film’s beauty is in its photography, lensed by cinematographer Luciano Tovoli utilizing imbibition Technicolor prints (the process used by classic Hollywood films like The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind). The music by Goblin is excellent. The setting of the school is a wonderful source of labyrinthine mazes where anything can jump out around any corner like some sort of funhouse with dire consequences.

Much of the film’s charm lays in its innocence. These college-age students are actually stand-ins for what should be, logically speaking, prepubescent girls. Look at the way in which they interact with each other.

The producers behind the film felt that Dario Argento could never get away with such graphically violent acts against children. So, he kept the characterizations intact from his script and set doorknobs higher up on doors on the set so that they would effectively be children while having much more commercially viable victims at a suitable age being slaughtered. This works to the film’s advantage, however, in that the world we live in when we watch Suspiria is unlike any other world we’ve ever visited. Adults act like children and the guardians of those women-children act like Nazis… who are somehow even worse than Nazis, really.

The gore, while graphic, is always beautifully staged in a sort of operatic form, reminiscent of the Grand Guignol. Each death scene is its own set piece. Each death becomes some sort of artful display. No one simply dies in Suspiria, they must have their beating heart beneath their ribcage exposed and displayed before being stabbed; a woman mustn’t simply be trapped in a bottomless pit of barbed wire after stepping outside of a door to nowhere, she must have her throat opened like a zipper; if you have a seeing eye dog, god help you. The blood always looks like thick paint on a canvas dedicated to all things horrific.


Suspiria is my favorite horror movie. I remember when I was a young teenager seeking out all-things-f’d-up, I watched The Evil Dead and it left me terrified for days. I read Leonard Maltin’s review in his handy little review book and he noted its similarity to Suspiria, and I had to wonder if a movie that inspired my nightmare fuel would be equally terrifying.

I watched Suspiria in my friend’s trailer on a warm summer night and at about the time when maggots began raining down from the ceiling in the school, a police helicopter began circling the general area that we were in and their spotlights were shining through the slatted windows.

Sometimes a movie is about what is has to tell and sometimes it’s about how it’s told, but sometimes a movie is about how you experienced it. I will never forget watching Suspiria with coyotes howling and yipping into the moonlight as I immersed myself in the macabre for an evening.

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