A good horror movie doesn’t need to be colorful. Films like The Blair Witch Project, or perhaps the Saw franchise, have made a mint — as well as built quite a cult following — with a nearly unintelligible — or depressingly one-note — color scheme applied to nearly ever shot. But we are only animals, after all, and color is our way of sensing danger… which might be what makes legendary Italian filmmaker Dario Argento’s 1977 masterpiece Suspiria all the more effective and shockingly beautiful nearly 45 years later.
The film opens with American ballerina Suzy arriving the middle of the night at Tanz Dance Academy — Germany’s most prestigious ballet school — only to be turned away. That same night, another student flees the school and arrives at a friend’s apartment with a bizarre story to tell before they’re both brutally murdered by an unknown assailant. Suzy is permitted the next morning to meet Madame Blanc and Miss Tanner, the vice-director and head instructor of the school respectively, who convince her to live in the school’s dorms after a brief fainting spell. The film only gets more wild as the story unfolds, with more and more bizarre happenings occurring within the academy walls, ending with the reveal that the school is actually admina front for a coven of witches run by the school’s founder Helena Markos — a gruesome creature whom Suzy overpowers and destroys. Without Markos’ power, the rest of the witches perish and Suzy escapes the school just before its implosion.
This may seem like a wild ride from the plot description alone, but for Dario Argento, the peculiar and sinister story concept is just the beginning.
In Argento’s hands, using the same three color process used years prior for The Wizard of Oz to achieve his desired aesthetic, red becomes something of a weapon in and of itself. The walls of the ballet school, the lipstick of the dancers, the backlighting, and, when it finally arrives on screen, the horror itself are all presented in a neon blitz of fire engine red. In contrast, and with an unsettling and masterful nod to the unwary color palette of the eras fascination with psychedelia, the film’s vibrant blues and electric greens drive home the movie’s lack of subtlety, allowing the viewer to fall into a world of dizzying torment; a colorful nightmare of realism mixed with Giallo thrills and dramatics. The self-indulgence and lusciousness only proves to further push the audience into the world of black magic and witchery at the center of the story.
The colors begin with subtlety, building into something otherworldly and grand by the end of the film: reds wash over the screen at seemingly every turn, a creative move on Argento’s part to not only display the passion and violence within the story, but also the beautiful fear that permeates the very core of the school. Mixed with the aggressive acting, wild music (courtesy of psychedelic band Goblin), and bloodlust of the central antagonists, Suspiria — in all of its garishly-colored glory — remains a sensory over-loading experience that not only breeds an unmatched fear, but a sense of awe in the wake of it’s radiance.