The Film: Suspiria (1977)
Composer: Goblin (Progressive Rock)
Summary: An American ballet student arrives in Germany to train at a prestigious school but learns that the ballet academy is in fact a coven of witches connected to a series of ghastly murders.
The Moment: Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) is a young and naive dancing ingenue who has come to this elite school to become one of the best but right away begins to suspect something isn’t right. Director Argento builds great suspense with color and setting but it’s his characters that really make it work. In this moment, as Suzy heads to a ballet class, she encounters the academy’s cook (Franca Scagnetti) who is sitting on a chair in the arch of an adjoining room. She is polishing a pointed totem, gently manipulating it so the bright light reflects directly into Suzy’s eyes. It causes her distress and will later make her faint in class.
Score Cut: Performed by Italian progressive rock band Goblin, this track, entitled Suspiria (Latin for Sighs) is the film’s theme and the defining music of the movie, and was a collaborative effort with director Dario Argento.
Why the Music Matters
Dan Says: The Goblins deliver one of the scariest scores ever. The strange chanting sounds like salivating demons, breathing down the back of your neck. It sends chills down your spine. Witchy drums pound, creating a steady rhythm, like impending doom. It sounds like the first album from Iggy Pop’s The Stooges. Then the theme shifts, as bells chime, surrounding you. The audience is engulfed by horrific atmosphere. We are slowly swallowed whole, descending through the pits of Hell. The score as a whole is amazing, fueling incredible tension. The most interesting fact is that this legendary score was completed before the movie filmed. Dario Argento photographed sequences to the score instead of the other way around. The Goblins are a unique band perfectly appropriate for a horror movie. It is easy to imagine Argento getting inspired and creating his shotlist around this eclectic music. Argento purposely frames each shot. The large empty space creates anticipation and anxiety. The specific colour palette creates stark contrasts and a vibrancy. Red, in particular, is used to specific effect. Although sound influences this movie, so does the imagery. Suspiria is probably the best photographed and best scored horror movie ever. Yeah. I just said that.
This clip is a great example of sound design, and the trademark style of Argento:
John Carpenter was influenced by the Suspiria score when he created his iconic theme for Halloween. The other-wordly musical stings The Goblins employ (like in the clip when the peacock statue falls over and twangs on the floor) inspired the same strange piercing trill when Michael Myers leaps over the car outside of the mental hospital. This extremely influential Italian Cult Classic inspired more than Carpenter. Many of its shots and scenes would appear in movies like A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) with the slashes/cracks forming along a wall, chasing the hero. Poltergeist (1982) borrowed from a sequence with an invisible force moving and shattering objects. American Horror Story: Coven also borrowed a lot of camera angles and set design from Argento.
Here is the score cut again with a slightly different arrangement from the film’s opening:
The memorable main theme recurs several times throughout Suspiria. The incredible sound design begins with a Hans Zimmer-like crash, then the theme fades in and out, as our hero walks through an airport. When the point of view switches to her’s we hear The Goblins theme. Then it cuts out when the camera shifts. Argento uses this technique to symbolize that our hero feels something strange. The theme brews, like the thunderstorm outside. A blast of wind tosses her hair as our hero exits the airport. A hiss from the automatic doors punctuates the effect. It is only a minute or two into the movie, but the combined style of camerawork, editing, and scoring, create atmosphere so thick it nearly chokes you.
It begs the question: How scary is Suspiria if you watch it on mute? More than other horrors, the score of this legendary Argento film really creates an extremely frightening mood all on its own.
David Says: As Dan said, this music can be traced to Carpenter’s classic Halloween score but is also reminiscent of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, used in the genre-defining horror film The Exorcist (1973). Goblin’s Suspiria is an inspired piece of music that is hypnotic and disturbing, with its wobbling rhythm sounds and raspy breathing effects layeredd under the high-pitched bells and strings. It has this oppressive quality that feels burrows into your head and works like the lights and sounds of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), purposefully meant to make the experience uncomfortable, but in a very satisfying way. This is the power of music in movies and Argento uses this score to great effect, letting it punctuate the visuals as Suzy makes her way down this eerie hall. Notice how each strum of the strings is precisely timed with every cut to the seated woman, whom we draw closer to with every beat. The strings then strike on Suzy as the light reflects off the totem in the woman’s hands, signaling a shift, further accentuated by a harsh breathy howl.The strings then break up and become mis-timed and more robust as Suzy’s dizziness overcomes her. That’s when the thunderous warbled thumps are introduced and they intensify as she stumbles along past blood red wall and doors with handles at eye level, as if she were a child lost in a world too big for someone like her. Talk of a remake has been circulating for years and at one point David Gordon Green was attached to direct but dropped out in 2015 and has since been replaced. If and whenever it does happen, let’s hope that whomever is behind it retains the now classic music and keeps this incredible score intact.