Sometimes a film comes along that turns our cinematic world upside down, plucking us from reality and taking us on a wild journey before dropping us back into our seat as the credits roll. My first viewing of “Suspiria” completely shattered my notions of what horror films were and could be. Director Dario Argento sucked me into a world of haunting synths and psychedelic colors unlike anything I had seen in American horror films before. Now, 40 years since the film terrified audiences around the world, “Suspiria” returns to theaters once again in a gorgeous 4K restoration that truly does Argento’s nightmarish vision justice.
“Suspiria” follows Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), a young ballerina who travels to Germany to study at the world-famous Tanz Dance Academy in Freiburg. Strange things begin to happen the night she arrives, including students being mysteriously murdered and maggots falling from the ceiling. Suzy starts to suspect that something dark lurks beyond the academy’s walls, prompting her to investigate the school’s horrifying secret.
The plot is fairly straightforward, but if you’ve seen Italian horror films before, you know that plot is largely ancillary to the visuals on display. Italian horror films, in contrast to their American and British cousins, tend to thrive on surreal and beautiful visuals, which often contrast with the graphic violence or sinister undertones on screen. “Suspiria” is the epitome of this style, crafting death scenes and scares that are at once disturbingly lurid and darkly beautiful.
The sumptuous visuals are aided by Argento’s masterful use of color and lighting. The halls and rooms of the school are bathed in an array of red, blue and green lights that don’t make sense in context of the film yet immediately draw us into the film’s world. It’s horror as a psychedelic trip gone horribly wrong, as the vibrant colors clash with the near-oppressive synth score to deliver a shock to the senses — the saturated color palette pushes the film past hyperrealism and into a sort of dream territory. Not since Mario Bava’s “Blood and Black Lace” has death seemed so alluring.
Synapse Films used the original negative of the film to restore “Suspiria,” significantly improving the lighting contrast from previous versions of the film. “Suspiria” was one of the last films shot in Technicolor, and this latest version really shows what the format was capable of. Rock band Goblin’s iconic score is front and center, removed from any audio grain that may have obscured it in VHS or heavily compressed DVD versions of the film. I speak without any sense of hyperbole when I say that this may be the most pristine print of a film that I’ve ever seen.
Harper is phenomenal as the star of the film, especially since much of her acting involves her alone in each scene. From “Phantom of the Paradise” to “Stardust Memories,” much of Harper’s appeal comes from an “everywoman” charisma. Her childlike features are the perfect fit for the film, playing into the film’s demonic “Alice in Wonderland”-esque narrative.
As the opening notes to Goblin’s theme struck my ears, I was immediately transported back to the first time I watched “Suspiria,” sitting on my bed in the dark, completely mystified by every frame of terror on the screen. If you’re looking for the perfect entry point into the world of Italian horror or genre cinema, there is really no finer place to start. “Suspiria”’s emphasis on style and atmosphere over cheap scares is exactly what you need if you’re looking for something new this upcoming Halloween season.
Correction (9/16/17): A previous version of this article stated that Synapse Films used “a recently re-discovered 35mm print of the film” to restore ‘Suspiria’. Synapse Films in fact acquired the original negative for use in their project. The article has been changed to reflect this.