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The Classic Horror Flick The Halloween Listicles Forgot

Ballet has never been so terrifying.

It seems customary towards the end of October to publish listicles of “best horror movies of all time”. Although such articles catalogue many fantastic titles (The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby), they seem to be painfully aware of each other, the same tired titles appearing on list after list.

The one film that’s routinely overlooked is Suspiria (Latin for sighs), a 1977 art house classic, and one of the best examples of the genre. It’s certainly the most visually enticing. Horror films err on the side of monochromatic, but Susperia went in the opposite direction: it over-saturated the screen with wild hues of what was by the end of the 1970's the dying technology of technicolor. The reds, purples, golds give the movie an eerie, supernatural feel, infusing it with a deeper meaning.

The film was directed by an Italian filmmaker Dario Argento. Argento himself wrote the score with the prog rock band Goblin (not unlike the director John Carpenter composing the music for his horror film Halloween). Horror is very much a music-driven genre, and Suspiria manages to create blood-curling atmosphere with the spell-binding melodies reminiscent of chants and escalated heartbeat, and at times feel like razor blades slicing the viewers’ eardrums. We can hear toy ballerinas dancing inside of an open jewelry box. It’s generally considered one of the best horror soundtracks.

Jessica Parker stars as Susie Bannion, an American dancer determined to perfect her studies at Tanzacademie of ballet in Germany. (Certain points need to be made about ballet schools, so thank you, Dario Argento.) The actress is perfect for the role of the steadfast ingenue. She has the looks of a fragile porcelain doll, but the one with that tenacious stare in her large, beautiful eyes.

The film co-producer Daria Nicolini originally wrote the main part for herself, but to obtain financing she had to yield the part to an internationally-recognized star. The choice of an American actress adds interesting wrinkles to the story. First, its childlike heroine reminds one of Lolita, introduced into the viscousness of the European continent that, in this case, simply refuses to die.

More importantly, David Kalat notes another interpretation:

Daniel meets his grisly end far from the school, [spoiler] in a faux-Roman town square. Film critic Linda Schulte-Sasse compares this imposing setting to the kinds of backdrops favored by Hitler, as she suggests that Marcos’ coven is a metaphor for fascism. The square isn’t just like the ones Hitler used, it is the one; the pub where Daniel gets drunk before his demise is actually the legendary beer hall of Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch. Although the story is set in Freiburg, a small town in the Black Forest, the exteriors were in fact filmed in Munich. Daniel’s death was filmed at the very spot where Hitler held his most legendary Nazi rallies, and spoke his most chilling words of hate. Like Lang’s Mabuse films, the equation of criminality with fascism is an unambiguous theme in Suspiria. Dario, auspiciously born in 1940 as Mussolini was deposed, has lived his life in the shadow of a not-distant-enough fascist past, and knows as well as any artist of his generation the difference between fictional monsters and the real deal.

How interesting, then, that the person destined to go into the heart of terror happens to be a brave American girl. Perhaps reminiscent of American GIs liberating Italy from fascism?

These days we are bombarded with proclamations that American women are poor darlings whose body parts are consigned to Jerry Falwell (see, for instance, Paulina Porizkova’s recent New York Times OpEd). This is not the portrayal of American women we’d see just a generation ago (not to mention that it’s a terribly misleading stereotype).

Suspiria is often described as a “horror fairy tale” or “fairy tale for adults”. It’s an apt description, and not solely because Argento’s visual choices were inspired by Disney’s Snow White. Traditional tales are chock-full of horror and speak emotional truths. One of the common subtexts of folk tales is young women coming of age.

Female puberty is a horrifying process complete with racing hormones, morphing body parts and blood. Prospects of marriage and childbirth lurk in the near future. We now stumbled on a novel approach of dealing with this dread: load up the girl with carcinogens and chop off her breasts. It’s stupefying and regressive because “transgender” is literal horror; fairytales are make-belief that helps us cope.

Suspiria’s luscious Art Nouveau interiors, winding corridors, flowering entrances into the chambers of horror and it’s saturated hues punctuated with gore speak emotional truths about the young women characters.

The film’s original tag line promised “Once You’ve Seen It, You Will Never Again Feel Safe In The Dark”. I don’t know about that, but if the viewer is not yet creeped out by wallpaper, he probably will be.

Like the heroines of authentic folk tales, Argento’s girls have to find their own ways to confront evil. In their journeys, men are secondary characters. In that sense, it’s a feminist movie.

Argento doesn’t strike me as an ideological artist. I bet his depiction of women, like his depiction of fascism, is guided purely by intuition. When the girl-power modern Disney princesses look, talk and act like products of corporate boardrooms, there is a true creative genius behind Suzy Bannion.

I find the movie enchanting and frightening in equal amounts. Moreover, as a conservative feminist, I find its validation of American womanhood (and womanhood in general) incredibly compelling. You should give it a watch.

Unfortunately, the cult classic is due for a remake next year. Judging by the trailer, there will be heavy nods to Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan and no attempt to recreate the sumptuous visuals that set the original apart. It’s probably for the best: if you can’t match it, why bother?