I first encountered Suspiria (1977) as a freshman at IU, when one of my floormates invited everyone to watch it with him in the lounge. I had mostly avoided scary movies when I was younger but I decided to try this one. Everything about it blew me away, but I was especially drawn to the film’s vivid visual style. The cinematography and production design made great use of bright colors, which stood in contrast to the shadowy slasher films I had long avoided. The unique imagery of Suspiria had even led it to be known as “the candy-colored horror film,” as my floormate told me. But I was surprised to learn about an unusual influence on this film which still retains its power to scare: Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937).
The comparison is somewhat obvious from a technical standpoint. Both films do make great use of dazzling primary colors, which is the main reason that director and co-writer Dario Argento recommended it to his cinematographer, Luciano Tovoli. But Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and the narrative tropes and beliefs of its genre, would have a much deeper influence on Suspiria. If you take a close look at it, you’ll see that Argento’s masterpiece is as much an exemplary fairy tale as it is an exciting horror movie.
Like all good fairy tales, Suspiria begins with narration. An uncredited William Kiehl informs us that protagonist Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) has “decided to perfect her ballet studies in the most famous school of dance in Europe,” which is in the German city of Freiberg. The tone of Kiehl’s voice is patient and calm, like the one you’d use to read a bedtime story to a child. Even the writing feels like a fairy tale, with the phrase “one day” standing in for “once upon a time.” By the time we see the innocent Bannion in the German airport (which is complete with the film’s famous red backgrounds), we are primed to view her as the protagonist of a fairy tale before she has encountered one of the most famous types of creatures from that genre of stories: witches.
Many protagonists and characters of fairy tales were children, so it seems fitting that Argento originally wrote Bannion and her classmates at the academy as being no more than 12 years old. But the studio and his producer/father Salvatore wouldn’t let him make that version of the script, so he changed the range of their ages to their twenties. The younger Argento did not, however, rewrite the dialogue, which leads to characters like Olga (Barbara Magnolfi, who was a ballet dancer when she was a child), saying silly insults like “I once read that names which begin with the letter ‘S’ are the names of SNAKES!” before hissing at Suzy. This extra layer of linguistic innocence — in addition to raising the doorknobs in the academy to be above the heads of Harper and the other young women so they would have to raise their arms to open the doors as if they were children — makes the characters seem more helpless. You fear for them more, much like you would for the child protagonists of old fairy tales that you would hear when you were a kid.
Another narrative similarity that Suspiria shares with fairy tales is its view of authority. Director Guillermo Del Toro once said that there were two types of fairy tales, one of which is “completely anarchic and anti-establishment.” The main conflict that Bannion faces is with her older teachers at the dance academy, who are played by such venerable actors as Alida Valli and Joan Bennett (in her last film appearance). The dance academy itself, with its bright red rooms and imposing exterior, feels like a castle from a fairy tale or an imposing fortress where a coven of witches would hide from the world. Those types of “anti-establishment” fairy tales which Del Toro cited were often about a young person coming into their own power, which Bannion does over the course of the film as she learns how to fight back against the witches. I won’t spoil what happens to the dance academy, but its fate is in keeping with the film’s anti-authoritarian spirit.
Suspiria, with its combination of fairy tale aesthetics and the sheer pleasure of being scared, has become a cult classic. Many publications call it one of the greatest horror movies of all time, and acclaimed director Luca Guadagnino is such a fan of this film that he made a remake of it. It seems fitting that many today regard it in the way that they regard the great fairy tales: as something which is as enchanting as it is terrifying.
Jesse Pasternack is a graduate of Indiana University. During his time at IU, Jesse was the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He also wrote about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse has been a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and is a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. An aspiring professional writer-director, his own film work has appeared at Campus Movie Fest and the Anthology Film Archives in New York City.