The Horror of 'Suspiria' Is In Its Visual Language

'Suspiria' (1977) Credit: International Classics
All I see is red, and I think that’s the point.  

What is it that you want when sitting down to watch a horror film? Are you there for the unsettling story of someone being haunted or hunted that reflects the true horrors of our society, or do you just want a good scare? I think most people watch horror for the latter, and there is a perfectly good reason why. 

Dario Argento’s cult classic, Suspiria, is a sensory nightmare. It is the true definition of a show-don’t-tell mood piece that relies on the strength of its overwhelming score and a fairytale-esque visual language that is both fantastical and disturbing. 

While its 2018 remake by Luca Guadanigno dives deeper into the storytelling and characters in its twisted way, the original Suspiria only has one purpose: to scare you. Like any good arthouse horror, Suspiria relies on its visual language to deliver a terrifying experience for its audience, and Ryan Hollinger breaks down how visual storytelling is the best way to tell a horror story. 

Unique Storytelling of Arthouse Horror

In today’s neverending stream of content that doesn’t emotionally engage with the audience, it seems that people are less inclined to seek different styles of storytelling outside of popular mainstream media. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but there is a lack of exploring outside of your visual media comfort zone, which allows films like Suspiria to slip far under your radar. 

We have forgotten the journey of watching films that are focused on the intensity of provocative imagery and sound rather than a story. Instead of thinking about the stresses and anxieties of the real world, we are escaping to a bizarre fantasy. 

Suspiria is a perfect reminder of why this type of escapism can be peaceful. Suspiria creates an energy that is palpable and emotionally gratifying through its visuals that it transports us to a time when films filled us with endorphins. 

Films like Hausu, Midsommar, and Suspiria want you to focus on the pleasure of watching a film rather than ask you to focus on a story that serves little to no purpose. It is filmmaking in its purest, most nostalgic, and freeing form even if it is terrifying to watch.  

'Suspiria' (1977)Credit: International Classics

Lack of Tension

The first 10 minutes of Suspiria tell you everything you need to know about the film without telling you to think about it. The heavy rain, brooding score, and Suzy’s (Jessica Harper) white dress in a crowd of red tell the audience something is off about this world. 

The audience is met with an impending and chilling threat that is already with us. Suspiria opts out of traditional tension-building sequences to kick you in the gut with its immediate threat. Rather than being subtle, the film tells the audience exactly how Suzy feels. 

Like the dance academy Suzy is attending, the audience is asked to surrender their ego at the door and embrace the unnatural. The more we give in to it, the less we question it, allowing emotions to control the mind as it plunges deeper into madness. 

Rather than guide you through the narrative, Suspiria gives you room to breathe and turn back if the road in front of you is not the path you want to follow, yet your fears and anxieties begin to take over as you think your space and freedom are too good to be true. You’re paranoid as your perception is warped into this intense isolation that makes you too scared to move when, in reality, you could stop these horrors at any time. 

While this tactic of eliciting emotion out of the audience is surface level, the effects are everlasting, staying with the viewer as they sit in silence, trying to process what they are watching. Like Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse, the dread created by skipping the tension-building stage is a direct path into the absurd horrors of the isolated mind. 

'Suspiria' (1977)Credit: International Classics

The Heavy Influence from German Expressionist 

The film’s visual style as a method of storytelling can be highlighted by five films that influenced Dario Argento’s fascination with fairy tales and German Expressionism, but the most important influence was Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. 

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a silent film that has been noted as a quintessential piece of German Expressionist cinema. At the heart of the silent film was a psychological horror that had a plot twist where the hero of the story is a mental patient who fabricated the entire story. 

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is famous for its stylization, but the simplicity of its legacy overshadows how important style was as a method of subtext and storytelling. The style was a living element for the psyche of the characters that sucked audiences into a troubled, morbid view of the world through the eyes of someone different from the norm.

The set design should be created to govern the character’s mentality, which allows the actors to find the set as a valuable aid in creating their character.

'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari'Credit: Decla-Bioscop

If there is a way to measure how deep or meaningful a story is, then I believe it is what the audience, as individuals, decides to put into it. How we chose to feel and interact with a film will skew our feelings about the meaning of the film. Each of us feels based on what we see, and we are all going to react differently to a highly stylized film, especially in an era where realism is valued over a highly stylized work.

Suspiria lets us watch a world rather than enter it and witness untold horrors that none of us would ever wish to experience. Instead of focusing on traditionally telling a story, the film wants to terrify and excite its audience for the sake of an adrenaline rush that comes with watching horror. 

What are your thoughts on the visual language of Dario Argento’s Suspiria? Let us know in the comments below!      

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