2018 Film Essays

Lights, Dance, Death: Body Movements and Color in Dario Argento’s ‘Suspiria’

Dario Argento’s Suspiria, a cult classic horror film, is a kaleidoscope of color and nightmares. While the set design and color is eye-catching, the director’s use sets the audience on edge. The abjection we so often experience in our innate understanding of horror is made even more complicated with the female body’s relationship to the colors of Argento’s film.

Suspiria wickedly entrances viewers with its nightmare-inducing narrative, where the drug is horror. But this fear intertwines with the connections between the body in movement and the colorscape’s response. It’s a working relationship that terrifies, calms and — in the diegetic space of Suspiria — is completely unpredictable. The colors, like the dancers’ bodies, writhe, twist and turn; an improvised dance where the movement of the female form works with the flashing strikes of color.

Argento’s mise-en-scène is unrelenting. While the additional abject horror comes with the unfamiliarity of the diegetic space, there is never a qualifying validation that the characters also see these colors in relationship to their bodies. Throughout the film, prominent colors include neon tones of green, blue, red and yellow — these shades add a jarring element to a story that is already dabbling in the supernatural nature of the occult. 

Viewers first meet Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) in a bland airport, with muted tones around her and on her body. But as soon as she reclines into a taxi cab, dabbing her face dry from the downpour, flashes of red and blue follow Suzy as if a shapeless figure cradles her body. But it’s the violent, murderous sequence featuring Eva Axén’s Pat — at a friend’s apartment — that begins to solidify the working relationship between the body and color. The blue hues Pat finds outside of the school’s window are not the comforting cool colors of evening. Arms jut through the window, quite literally out of the blue. As Pat endures stab wounds, her body writhes in agony as blue and red drape over her contorted figure, with blue acting as a speechless moniker for pain, and red as the sinister being stalking the dancer. By the time Pat and her friend lose their lives, the colors also leave the arena of violence. With the camera panning over the two corpses, the only strong colors linked to the women’s bodies are that of the brightly hued blood with a paint-like viscosity.

As Suzy arrives at the Tanz Dance Academy, the world outside the school doors becomes dull. Inside, a needle seems to thread through the building a varying color, with the yellow and red rooms accentuating the film’s palette. Inside these spaces, bodies move wearing only black and white leotards and accessories. There is little color on the dancers’ bodies, and the collaboration of color and form becomes more apparent. These bodies, primarily those of the young women, become canvases for Argento’s lurid colors.

This relationship gives way to a culminating sequence featuring Sara (Stefania Casini). As the young woman begins her investigation of the school while Suzy falls into a hypnotic, comatose-like slumber, the lights go out, and Sara’s body becomes absorbed by the color green. She folds into herself, and her facial expressions denote a certain fear of the unknown. And even as Sara leaves Suzy’s room, the ballerina, too, becomes draped in green, with her body asleep but all the more vulnerable.

As Sara further investigates the horrors that lay within the school, she is followed by a bold red that contorts the body into fear. A menacing presence surrounds the body, making movements tepid and fractured. Sara traverses from room to room, but it’s when she enters the attic that the sullen blue engulfs her body. After being attacked, a flash of red collides with blue as Sara’s flung, noting the sinister presence and the physical pain she experiences. Upon finally seeing safety at the end of a corridor, Sara falls into a pit of wires, writhing in pain in the midnight blue until she’s ultimately killed by an unseen figure. 

In the relationship to the female body, Argento’s colors are a living, breathing entity with a heartbeat. They stalk young women and suffocate their bodies as a foreboding and relentless presence. Highlighting the bodies in various states of vulnerability, pain and danger, the colors clash when the body finds itself in chaos. The male bodies are treated differently, evidenced during a sequence featuring Daniel (the blind piano player) as he’s surrounded by a dull palette of black and white. His clothes, the space and even his dog have sullen appearances. It’s only when Lela Svasta’s Helena Markos literally swoops down upon Daniel that a burst of color appears in the form of blood. It’s a surprising additive to the otherwise colorful lens that Argento provides to the young women in the film, particularly when they are in the school; a jarring juxtaposition between two worlds sharing the same space.

Suspiria’s collective colors result in a chaotic conclusion. While Markos’ body is never seen, the color surrounding her nearly manifest her presence as a specter through the school and the lives of the students. Upon her murder, the colors act in chaos, as Suzy is no longer cradled in the warmth and safety of a dull yellow light; visual tremors of blues, reds and greens chase her out of the school and into the pouring rain. The unseen body contorts the colors — a vessel through which they can flow and manifest to the subsequent contortions of Pat, Sara and Suzy.

Dario Argento’s Suspiria contorts the abjection of horror through a kaleidoscope of popping color. The heightened nerves of audiences and the uncertainty of what can be seen from the characters’ perspectives unravels in the form of mutilated female bodies acting as posits for these primary colors. Veiled in blues as they twist in pain, the women are stalked by a sinister red; they’re vulnerable in shades of green and cradled to safety by yellow. Suspiria’s colors work in tandem with the female body in subtle ways.

Julia Teti (@jltet14) is a Film and TV Writer with work published by The Playlist, Film School Rejects, Polygon and more.