Foreign Film Week: Red, Blue, and Giallo: Dario Argento’s "Suspiria"

Written by Max Thornton.
I started getting into film when I was a teenager. Growing up with daily power cuts, both scheduled and unscheduled, is not conducive to childhood as a cinephile, and anyway my parents did not consider film a “real” art like literature or music – I can vividly remember being forced, at age seven, to quit Video Club and join Chess Club instead, because my mother did not think that sitting around watching videos constituted a worthwhile extracurricular.
(I am still breathtakingly terrible at chess.)
So, partly as the cultivation of an indoor hobby in response to the unpleasant British climate, and partly as the world’s meagerest teenage rebellion, I started watching films. In particular, I sought out horror films, thanks to the friendly proprietor of our local video rental store (now sadly gone the way of all such places in the Netflix age), who would happily rent the bloodiest, goriest, most revolting 18-ratedmovies to an obviously-14-year-old me, always with a cheery, “Enjoy!”
Most of these.
I was neither a discerning nor an educated viewer, but even so I quickly cottoned on to the fact that certain Italian directors had produced some above-average horror flicks in the 1970s, characterized by a cavalier attitude toward nudity, pervasive Catholic imagery, and lashings of gore. Ignorant of the term giallo, I proceeded to dub this subgenre “spag-horror,” which isn’t actually an awful name for it.
As my initiation into the worlds of sex and violence, many European horror films of the 1970s no doubt occupy a Freudian subspace of my psyche. Probably the Ur-example of this genre and its strange, ambivalent attitude toward women and sexuality is Dario Argento’s 1977 meisterwerk, Suspiria.
From its kickass score by prog-rockers Goblin to its borderline incomprehensible plot, I love damn near everything about Suspiria. For starters, it’s set in a ballet school, which is a direct line to my heart; and it features Udo Kier (UDO! KIER!); plus, it’s a strikingly female-dominated story. Argento says of the film: “there are only three men in it: one is blind, one can’t speak and the other is gay. It’s the women who have the power.” Which is such a problematic statement on so many levels, but let’s just focus on the undeniable fact that the film is mostly about women.
The film opens with American dancer Suzy Banyon (played by a young Jessica Harper – did you know she writes children’s books and has a cookery blog now??) arriving at a German airport on a rainy night. Pretty much the first thing we see is her repeated attempts to hail a taxi; her young face, rain- and wind-swept above the virginal whites of her clothes, expresses a vulnerability that will recur throughout the movie. Her big, frightened eyes peer out of the taxi at the gushing storm-drains, the phallic tree-trunks in the spooky woods, the bright red facade of the ballet school (on the subtly named Escher Strasse). Untoward goings-on, shockingly enough, are underfoot at the school, and Suzy soon finds herself completely out of her depth as things get steadily creepier.

Suzy and Sara, swimming.
What’s particularly interesting about Suspiria, especially in relation to the giallo genre as a whole, is its lack of nudity or overt sexuality. There’s a pretty good reason for this, as Argento explains:
To begin with, I imagined the story set in a children’s school, not of teens. I thought that it could be interesting that the school was for very young girls, eight, ten years old. This was the first version. The distributor strongly opposed this choice, and the film was made also with American money, from Fox, and they were against that too. So I changed the script and raised the girl’s age, but I kept a sort of childish attitude, so the characters behaved like children. The decor too… I used little tricks, for example the doors have the handles not at a normal height, but at face level, the height at which a child of 8 years old would find the handle. It gives the impression of dealing with children, even though they have adult bodies.
I don’t think it’s reading too much into the film to find some Freudian undertones in the whites and reds, in the repeated motif of water, in the pivotal role of irises. There is a strong fairy-tale quality to the film’s artifices, its primary colors, scenes awash in blue or red; the story of the young girl entering a world of danger and threat carries echoes of Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Snow White – Bruno Bettelheim would surely have something to say about that.
Make no mistake, this is a pretty violent movie. There are some quite fantastically grotesque murders. Within the first fifteen minutes, we see a still-beating heart stabbed and a woman’s face split in two by plate glass. Throughout, the lily-white garments of the murdered women are streaked and splattered with bright red blood. We also get a revolting maggot infestation, some magnificently scary chase scenes, and a truly bonkers climactic sequence.
Red, the color of a very murdered woman.
And yet Suzy retains a sense of childlike innocence and vulnerability throughout, relating to her friends and teachers like the little girl she was originally written to be. It’s a very weird juxtaposition, and I think it crystallizes the strange combination of female empowerment and ingrained misogyny that characterizes classic European horror. What, in the end, are we to make of stories where women are both the brutally murdered corpses and the proactive investigators of the mystery; both the pure childlike heroine and the monstrous villain; both desexed and penetrated by sharp objects; both agents and victims?
It speaks volumes to the general lack of such female-dominated stories in our broader culture that I even find myself asking this question.
Max Thornton blogs at Gay Christian Geek, tumbles as trans substantial, and is slowly learning to twitter at @RainicornMax.