You can’t hold a week spotlighting witches without tackling a famous film like Dario Argento’s Suspiria. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that the entire course of the movie is dictated by a witch; the kaleidoscopic effect of the colors and the supernatural method of the murders limits the witch’s involvement, much like The Blair Witch Project discussed yesterday. But the final third of the film finds protagonist Suzy (Jessica Harper) uncovering the secret behind the dance academy that she attends, and venturing into the lair of the terrifying witch known as one of Argento’s Three Mothers, Mater Suspiriorum.
Much of Suspiria is built around Suzy’s exploits in and around the ballet school; in fact, her suspicions about the academy don’t pique until nearly the end of the film, after she realizes that her friend Sara was onto something about the teachers not leaving the school at night. Dario Argento chooses not to linger on the idea of a witch, instead opting for an unseen paranormal terror throughout most of the film. And when he’s not following his characters as they run from magical forces, he’s incorporating slasher and giallo elements of gloved killers.
The reason for holding off on explicitly introducing the witch is simple: Argento wants the viewer to find out the real reason for the off-kilter events at the ballet academy the same time that Suzy does. Suspiria is a slow burn, and although it doesn’t always stick to Suzy strictly, it is for the most part designed around her.
She is different from the rest of the girls. She’s American, she is not as materialistic as the girls around her, and she is, for some reason, a girl who Mater Suspiriorum has eyes on. Because of Suzy’s eccentricities, she is the target of quite a few unfortunate events including drugging, a strange flashing of light in her eyes that leaves her disoriented, and strange visits in the night. It’s never clear why she’s the chosen one, but the way that she’s abused at school translates directly to the viewer as well.
It is Argento’s goal to take both Suzy and the viewer off-guard, and by the time the paranormal elements of the plot roll around, he’s certainly done his job. The initial sequence in Suspiria, where the viewer follows a woman home through the rain, hints at the supernatural with cat eyes in the night and an unusually artistic death. It is Argento’s introduction to the witch, but without any previous hints there’s no reason to suspect this is anything more than a terrible, ominous murder. Then the tensions and eerie scenes continue to build on each other, until a pivotal moment in Suspiria occurs, one that doesn’t even happen to Suzy.
It is the blind man walking his dog that signals the change from supernatural to something more sinister. It is one of the only times that Suspiria shifts from enclosed space – the ballet academy’s interior – to outdoors, and Argento plays with the gothic feel of the street and the anxiety of being in such a large place with no one to help. Still shots of the character and his dog are paired with wide views from the ends of the street and high viewpoints at the tops of buildings. These intentional angles are the equivalent of a slasher film’s killer POV; in fact, they are POV shots of a kind, in that they indicate an unseen presence far above the square, dictating the dog attack.
From there, Suspiria begins its exploration of the Three Mothers in much more detail, going so far as to throw in some explicit exposition about Mater Suspiriorum. While it might be unnecessary for Argento to force this explanation, it helps to define the extrasensory moments that have come before.
Forgoing the introduction of the witch until the very end makes that colorful meeting between Mater Suspiriorum and Suzy that much more eerie. As the witch rises behind a sheet, her shadowy figure assuming full form, the music swells; the witch has been uncovered for all to see. And she flaunts her power at every turn: bringing Sara back from the dead is her ultimate strength.
In the end, though, Suzy’s lack of sight does not stop her from vanquishing the witch. She has been blind throughout the film, unable to acknowledge the witchcraft behind the ballet school. Is it so surprising, then, that even amid the invisible presence of the witch, she is able to kill her without sight? Those who knew too much before were unable to handle the power, but Suzy, blind as she is, recognizes the weakness anyway.
Suspiria‘s witch might be hidden away behind the paranormal at first, but her presence is felt throughout the film. Like the magic unseen by the characters, the uneasy feeling Argento spins for the viewer is bewitching without having to introduce the witch until the final scene.