Don't ask me to explain the plot of an Italian horror film. I can't. Trying to make sense of one is like trying make sense of a dream; it operates on its own logic, finding ways to unsettle you because it doesn't make sense, like being trapped in a nightmare.
That's the best approach Dario Argent's magnum opus, Suspiria (1977). There is something of a story involving an American ballerina (Jessica Harper) enrolling at a prestige European academy only to discover it is controlled by a coven of witches, but the plot is just there for Argento to go all out with his visual style.
What really distinguishes Suspiria is its elaborate color and lighting scheme. It goes without saying many of the best horror films in history are black and white, and many modern movies have a grungy, gritty look about them, but Suspiria is colorful and beautiful to look at. Bright ruby reds, cool blues, garish yellows and greens, it's like watching a painting. In an interview, Argento once said he was influenced by the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, and I think he must have been drawn to "Masque of the Red Death," with its descriptions of Prince Prospero's colored rooms. Even the violence, as brutal and graphic as it is, is perversely wonderful to look at. Even as you wince, you're drawn in.
Just as vital as the visuals is the soundtrack, composed by Argento and Italian rock band the Goblins. The music is a throbbing pulse that's just as unnerving as the imagery, and at times, it takes on a fairy tales-esque tone, with chimes, synthesizers, and keyboards adding to the surreal nature of the whole film.
Fairy tale is a good description for the entire movie. Suspiria marked Argento's departure from the Giallo thrillers that had defined his career up to that point and his arrival into the supernatural. The characters aren't deep, the plotting is arbitrary, and several characters are forgotten about, but it feels like a nightmare. Argento differentiates the students, young and naive, from the adults, sinister and older, to create a sense of unease. When Jessica Harper's character arrive, everything feels off-kilter: a thunderstorm, being denied entrance to the building, a rude cab driver, isolated in a foreign land, and other weirdness illustrates this is not a world meant to be taken as real. While The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Blair Witch Project work effectively for their gritty realism, Suspiria is fantasy, and to treat it as realism is a fatal mistake for any viewer. Suspiria taps into a child-like sense of terror, being alone in the dark at the mercy of forces you can't comprehend or resist. It's other worldly.
Argento doesn't abandon his slasher roots either, and he pulls off the deaths exceptionally well. The first kill is rightly regarded as one of the most shocking deaths in cinematic history. The victim is not only yanked through glass and stabbed with a knife repeatedly, she is hung with an electrical cable and thrown through a stained glass ceiling, the fragments of which impale someone standing underneath. It's nasty.
Admittedly, some aspects don't hold up under scrutiny. Why do the witches resort to stalking and stabbing victims when casting a spell would probably be easier and less likely to draw attention? The dubbing is suspect. This is a problem with many Italian movies of the time, and while it's something you learn to accept, it's particularly distracting when Udo Kier (who usually plays the creepy foreigner in American movies), who has a distinctive voice, speaks with an American voice dubbed over his.
Regardless, Suspiria is a daring, unconventional piece of horror cinema. Although Argento completely jettisons plot and character, he amps up nightmarish atmosphere and style. It's a brutal yet beautiful film.