Any witches’ covens looking for a cover could do worse than a dance academy. Open the doors of your remote labyrinthine pile and waifs of good family will simply flock to be subjected to severe sado-masochistic discipline. As played by Jessica Harper with an unsurpassed 40-year-old-woman-in-the-body-of-a-14-year-old-girl oddness, Suzy Bannion is the natural prey of the sort of humourlessly leering Teutonic dykes and faded beauties made up to a grotesque parody of their former selves who run such establishments. Horrible as it is, Suzy accepts this situation as her lot: maybe this distracts her from the even more horrible truth.
It’s not as if there aren’t enough danger signals right from the off. Indeed, Suspiria almost doesn’t recover from a blistering opening 15 minutes. Horror movies generally take some time to establish a notion of normal life, gradually allowing the supernatural or murderous to infiltrate. Here, it’s all up in about 10 seconds. As the opening credits run, a bland voice-over tells us Suzy is coming to Germany to study dance. The arrival board flashes up, Suzy passes through security, and she is already saucer-eyed. Seconds later, she is soaking in a howling gale as Goblin‘s pulsing, hammer dulcimer-led theme kicks in. After an angsty taxi ride, out of the blackest storm there floats towards us a Gothic pile so ruddy it seems to be engorged. So this is the dance school. To make matters worse, as Suzy tries to get in, a deranged girl runs out. By now Goblin are drumming and howling fit to burst, and we follow the raving girl to a friend’s apartment block. It seems a dubious refuge: the bizarre, oddly-luminous panelling of the lobby itself seems murderous. And in a way it is. Knifed and noosed by an unseen assailant, the girl’s still twitching body plunges through the stained-glass lobby ceiling, stopped short of the floor by the tightening noose. As the camera pans down, we see her friend on the floor, her face bisected by a shard of stained glass.
From this point there has to be a retreat into some sort of everyday, but even then it’s a weird one. Suzy’s classmates – hissing, preening, would-be prima ballerinas – are witchy enough in all conscience. But even the more Chalet School moments are undermined by the weirdness of the sets. So oppressive is the academy’s gory facade, Argento struggles to make it look less scary in daylight. Suzy’s digs are brightly lit, and in black and white, marking a welcome release from the tyranny of saturated colour. But even here the wallpaper wants to coils its tendrils round you. Everywhere else is marked by strange geometric panelling, pulsating with light, as if to merge with the stained glass that crops up from time to time. All this is framed by glistening lacquered boards, panels, and art nouveau arabesques. The whole is frequently heavily filtered, with occasionally paradoxical lighting, as one part of a shot is bathed in warning red, another in bilious green, like the ‘before’ segment of an ad for a hangover cure.
Goblin’s theme music matches and amplifies the infested quality of the visuals uncannily. In fact, it seems almost immanent in the very air of the film, rendering conventional distinctions between diegetic and non-diegetic sound moot. You find yourself wondering how Suzy can’t hear it, it is so evidently the sound of what is there before you visually. Despite the many quite apparent warning signs hinted at above, Suzy’s first serious realisation that all is not well at the academy comes as she encounters the stares of a whiskery hag and malevolently angelic Midwich cuckoo in Fauntleroy garb halfway down a corridor. A blinding flash from a strange pyramid of metal the hag is polishing physically strikes Suzy, leaving a sort of snowy cloud in its wake. As Suzy staggers on to the end of the corridor, she looks like she’s moving through treacle. Insanely loud, Goblin’s music is the thickness of the air she is moving through.
This scene is sandwiched between Suzy’s two forlorn attempts at actually doing some dancing. The dance studio is one of the few areas of modern décor, clean lines and surfaces, normal daylight and air. Yet, even here there is an odd counterpoint to the rest of the academy. What we see are bodies controlled by music, students prancing to a maddeningly jaunty piano waltz. It’s sinister enough in its way, and it proves too much for Suzy: she spends the rest of the film more or less bed-ridden. The nightmarishness of dance is confirmed in a brief respite from the academy when we follow the freshly-sacked répétiteur to a Bavarian beer hall. Here, in one of the most chilling scenes in the film, we witness – horrors – the synchronized thigh-slapping of group Lederhosen dancing. It is perhaps the pianist’s good fortune that he is blind. Were he not, this would be one of the last things he sees as, on his way home, he is mauled and eaten by his guide dog.
Working out the steps is, on the other hand, how Suzy starts to fight back. Here we enter what you might call the Nancy Drew phase of the story as Suzy, along with classmate Sarah, first figures out that the teachers only pretend to leave the school at night, and then works out their mysterious movements by noting the number and direction of their steps. Following the steps leads Suzy to freedom, and poor Sarah to a tangle with razor wire. But never mind the story: sit back and let the pullulating sound and vision crawl all over you.
Buy Suspiria (Blu-ray) [DVD]  from Amazon
Buy Suspiria [DVD]  from Amazon
Listen to the podcast of the Dario Argento interview + Goblin Q&A led by Alex Fitch at the Supersonic music festival in Birmingham.
Watch the trailer for Suspiria: