Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Space Oddities: Suspiria

Often people believe that horror films are all about the gore, violence and monsters, but this is far from the truth. To build a truly memorable horror film many more considerations must be taken such as lighting, sound, set design and the overall environment. Dario Argento's Italian horror film 'Suspiria' (1977) is a nearly immaculate example of this use of environment to create an immersive horror story despite a severely lacking plot. Argento's use of Technicolor from the 1950's made 'Suspiria' to appear more like a theatre performance than a film. The sets, although highly unrealistic, add to the supernatural occurrences and surreal atmosphere. On top of that, the score used in this film is enough to make ones skin crawl, violently screeching so almost nothing else can be heard.

Fig. 1 'Suspiria' (1977)

'Suspiria' is definitely not the film to watch if you want a intricate, engaging plots with complex characters. However, it is interesting to see Argento's use of lighting and colour throughout the development of this film.  Despite Technicolour being obsolete at this point, "Mr. Argento's methods make potentially stomach-turning material more interesting...shooting on old, very-fake looking sets, he uses bright primary colours and stark lines to create a campy, surreal atmosphere," (Maslin, 1977).

These bright pools of red, blue, yellow (sometimes green) often give away more about the plot than the conversations the characters have (most likely due to the loud music and quiet dialogue). An example of this is when a bright red spotlight shines on Suzy's (Jessica Harper) tray of food, indicating to us that it's been drugged. While these colourful lights seem to have no realistic source, it enhances the other-worldly feel and makes the environment much more fascinating. These bright, colourful lights, that only seem to be present while within the ballet school, further refines the set's supernatural feel and makes the visuals more alluring.

Fig. 2 The Food Tray

Argento's set design for 'Suspiria' is reminiscent of walk-through haunted houses people set up around Halloween. It is unclear how large the actual ballet school is, the viewer never seems to get a wide enough shot to get an idea of the actual scale of the structure. It feels like a giant, looming red beast in comparison to Suzy when she first arrives. As it rains, the water that drips down the red exterior looks creepily like blood. The interior is made up of mostly primary colours, with red still appearing to be the most dominant.

The entire building feels colossal in comparison to the occupants inside. Perhaps the enlargement of the building's exterior and interior is meant to make the characters appear more vulnerable, oblivious and innocent, "an even more impressive manipulation of the mise-en-scéne lies in the door handles...in their higher than usual positions, the handles emphasize the youth and stature of the film's characters in relation to their grotesquely imposing doll house," (Gonzalez, 2001). It feels as though the ballet school is an expansive maze, it contains dozens of secret hallways, rooms and passages that no one imagined existed.

Fig. 3 Hallway

The music is another element in this film that cries for the viewers attention. The loud, violent score often overpowers the quiet dialogue taking place between the characters. Even the narrator in the beginning of the film was overtaken by the music like it was a monster in itself. The obscenely loud score contains an unclear combination of sounds. Although actual music is obviously present, there are also whispers and chants, "...the score, composed by Argento and performed by his frequent collaborators, rock band Goblin, sounds as though Hell's demons rented a studio and decided to jam...screams, wails, hissing steam are punctuated with the occasional distorted shriek of 'Witch!',"  (Smith, 2000).

The music is the icing on the cake when it comes to the atmosphere in 'Suspiria', although it admittedly could have been toned down in terms of its volume in comparison to the muffled dialogue. Despite this and other flaws, namely its somewhat silly plot, provided to be a unique horror experience. It successfully draws the viewer in and creates a surreal and theatrical environment that makes the characters feel vulnerable and helpless. Although this is a horror film, the use of saturated primary colours, both in the lights and within the set, allowed for a captivating environment that still managed to feel menacing. It is clear that Argento had fun experimenting with this film, making it exactly how he pictured it. Playing on the film's strengths with light/colour, set design, and music he constructed a profoundly individual horror experience.

Gonzalez, E (2001) Suspiria At: http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/review/suspiria Accessed on: 1/12/2015
Maslin, J. (1977) Suspiria, a Specialty Movie, Drips with Gore At: http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=990CEFDB1F3BE334BC4B52DFBE66838C669EDE Accessed on: 1/12/2015
Smith, A. (2000) Suspiria Review At: http://www.empireonline.com/movies/suspiria/review/ Accessed on: 1/12/2015

Illustration List:
Figure 1. Suspiria [Poster] At: http://images.moviepostershop.com/suspiria-movie-poster-1977-1000436044.jpg Accessed on: 1/12/2015
Figure 2. The Food Tray [Film Still] At: http://screenmusings.org/movie/blu-ray/Suspiria/pages/Suspiria-164.htm Accessed on: 1/12/2015
Figure 3. Hallway [Film Still] At: http://www.samefacts.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/suspiria-Technicolor.jpg Accessed on: 1/12/2015


  1. A nicely balanced, evaluative review - and I didn't know that about the door handles! Love that detail - just shows you the power of production design and the importance of the mise-en-scene! You've got a few typos in this review, Dee - give it another going over and update accordingly. Good stuff - and I liked too the 'Halloween haunted house' observation too - yes, it's got that travelling fair/cheesy/creepy/disco quality - and it even had a ridiculously campy 'vampire bat'!

    1. Thanks Phil, I knew deep down I should've proofread it more but I guess I feel frazzled because I have a lot I want to get done! I changed/fixed some things, I'll reread it in the morning to be sure I got mostly everything. It's funny because once those colourful lights came on in the ballet school my mind instantly went to haunted house, especially with that music blaring.