Dario Argento’s 1977 horror masterpiece Suspiria is remembered for a few key things: its gratuitous gory violence, its hauntingly pulsating score provided by prog-rock band Goblin, and perhaps most of all, its array of bright, whimsical colors. In fact, the colors almost become characters themselves, as they are as important to the film as anything else. More than just using a characteristic often found in giallos, the Italian horror subgenre he often worked in, Argento uses color to represent the hellish nightmare landscape in which his protagonist finds herself in.
The film begins with young American Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) as she arrives in Germany to begin school at a prestigious dance academy. Her cab drives her to her destination where she not only finds another student, Pat (Eva Axén), fleeing for her life, but is denied entry into the school. Suzy is forced to stay at a motel while Pat seeks solace at a friend’s house, swearing aimlessly that something evil is going on at the academy, and is soon murdered by an unseen presence. Suzy is finally let in the next morning when she meets her fellow students and mysterious school heads (Alida Valli and Joan Bennett) who have heard news of their former student’s murder but have no idea why she had left the previous night. A series of strange events continue to happen as Suzy befriends fellow dancer Sara (Stefania Casini), who is also suspicious of something unnatural going on. The further her investigations go, the more Suzy realizes that these strange occurrences may be prompted by the school being run by a coven of witches.
As part of the giallo tradition, Argento chooses to focus more on the viewer’s overall cinematic experience rather than dwell on plot developments. Analyze this story too deeply and one will find that not much of it makes sense and is even a bit ridiculous. Yet, this is an intentional choice on Argento’s part. He is completely aware of the macabre nature of the film and takes full advantage of it. By his thinking, if the plot itself makes no attempt at being realistic, then why should it look realistic? He responds by making use of his exquisite Technicolor film to craft a movie whose palette only helps to add to the unnatural nature of the film. It takes the viewer on a surreal journey that insists on the suspension of belief.
From the moment Suzy gets into her cab after landing in Germany, a bright, menacing red light is cast over her face. It foreshadows the dance academy she’ll soon be approaching, itself painted the same color causing it to stick out violently against the dark night sky. These bright hues reach far beyond the school as Pat’s friend’s house is drenched in pinks, blues, and that ever-present red. Once inside the academy, the viewer finds the colors wash the interior of the building as well. It almost seems that they spawn from the sinister space – perhaps from the witches themselves – and follow anyone who escapes.
What truly captures the viewer’s eye is not simply the presence of these colors, but rather the effect they have on the senses. When a scene is tinted blue, it not only consumes the walls that find themselves in the background but characters as well. The colors are represented as if they are cast from a bulb of the respective shade, yet there are never logical explanations as to where the source comes from. This merely adds to Argento’s vision of a dreamscape, where the colors assaulting the audience are in part there for aesthetic reasons, but also to disorient the viewer from what they are familiar with.
Though the primary colors are pleasant to the eyes, the audience never gets a chance to forget what makes their presence so unnatural. Yes, the bright shade of red that the Technicolor picks up may brighten up the blood spewing out of the characters, but it is still blood on the screen; it is still a grizzly act of violence committed by someone – or something – evil. The colors are beautiful, but the act that they are consuming is not. The colors almost add to the violence, the vibrancy assaulting the picture even more than the gore does.
The world Argento crafts on the camera is not akin to reality, but to a gruesome nightmare where it is only appropriate that the visual style should match the content. It appeals to the senses and adds to the horror unfolding on screen at the same time, reminding the viewer that what’s happening is unnatural and not letting them forget it. Using color to accentuate terror is a handy filmmaking trick that more directors should aspire to. But Argento was truly the master of it and will most likely never be matched.