By now, it’s safe to say that those who really dig horror films recognize the brilliance that is Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977). Critics frequently include it in “best-of” lists in the horror genre, and the Italian production has also been cited as one of the greatest films of all time, period. There are many reasons Suspiria is revered, but one sequence in particular has been singled out for its noteworthiness: it’s the most brutal murder scene in the history of cinema.
Argento integrated a diverse set of influences into the making of Suspiria, including German Expressionism, the Technicolor vibrancy of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) (he saw the protagonist of Suspiria, Jessica Harper, as his Snow White), as well as psychoanalysis. He also played the music of the Italian group Goblin on set to create the necessary mood. The band had scored his previous picture, Profondo Rosso (a/k/a Deep Red), and they would also create, in collaboration with Argento, the unforgettable music for Suspiria. The director’s ultimate goal was to create a dream-like, unreality for the film.
Set in a prominent dance academy in Germany, Suspiria stars Harper as an American student who transfers to the school and soon begins to suspect something within those hallowed walls is not quite right. She has only just arrived at the academy when another student is murdered. This is the killing Entertainment Weekly has called “the most vicious murder scene ever filmed.” Though cinemaphiles could debate this distinction endlessly, it is difficult to think of one more graphic. The imagery is so intense it had to be significantly edited before it could be released in US theaters. And it’s not just the on-screen violence that renders the sequence notable; like the rest of the film, it’s beautifully shot and fantastic, yet completely engaging, and with Goblin’s beyond unnerving score in place, totally terrifying.
In European Nightmares: Horror Cinema in Europe Since 1945, author Anna Powell analyzes the director’s work and why Suspiria affects us the way it does (with references to the aforementioned scene):
Solid scarlet coats the outer walls of this house of blood [the dance academy], spreading inside via wallpaper and drapes in an expressive series: décor, wine, nail varnish, lipstick as well as its most potent source, human blood. Arterial red is complimented by venous blue with which it alternates by means of velvet curtains and wallpaper as well as lighting. Blue shades range from indigo to purple, at times shifting to sickly green. This Technicolor palette vibrates in us intensively, oppressing but at the same time arousing us.
Sound techniques with an exaggerated, hyper-real echo are deployed as affective devices. The electronic chords and discords of the rock band Goblin create a rich sound texture in Suspiria. Whirring, sawing and hollow booming without any diegetic source [sound whose source is visible on the screen] grate on the spectator’s hearing mechanisms and stimulate anxiety, as in the jarring electronic chords before the first murder we witness that sound like the twittering of bats.
In Argento’s films, elaborate pursuit, torture and murder produce tactisigns [virtual sensations; i.e., we feel what the characters feel] to excruciating degrees. Inflicted by mostly invisible torturers, their affective potency is increased by the lack of any distancing subject/object split. This is further intensified by extreme close-up. Knife blades dominate the screen as they gash into flesh, and internal organs are torn loose and exposed.
Okay, are you ready? If you’re a wine drinker, I suggest pouring yourself a glass of your favorite Italian red to have on hand to calm your nerves—trust me, you’re gonna need it.