Why Suspiria still has the perfect horror opening sequence

An in-depth study of what makes it great

Watch the opening sequence of Suspiria here: part 1 & part 2

A masterpiece of the genre, and certainly the most famous Italian example, Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) remains a uniquely haunting and transcendent horror experience.

Its puzzling story of a young woman joining a famous ballet school (and possible coven of witches) is made immensely hypnotic through vivid colours, disjointed editing, strange sound design, and outbursts of extreme violence. Introducing all these elements in its first moments, the sequence that launches the film sets a startling tone that is, all these years later, unmatched.

Right out of the gate, seeing the bold typeface of the credits reminds us just how many aspects of Suspiria have become iconic. Goblin’s jarring prog-rock infused score, itself a kind of classic, accompanies these stark white titles. Shrill, high-pitched fretting and ominous, low bass notes suggest a slightly archaic and energetic air of the fantastical.

This cacophony of forceful, provocative music instantly establishes the heightened and surreal nature of the story. But Argento immediately subverts this with an unassuming first image: a full shot of an airport arrivals board, which then cranes down to show our protagonist, Suzy (Jessica Harper). This opaque view of the modern world is infected by a strange red glow from the room she exits.

One of the last features produced through the highly saturated Technicolor process, famous for more joyous fare (The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ in the Rain), the visuals here are unnaturally lush, bleeding across the screen in a way that suggests an interruption of the supernatural long before the plot does.

Nothing here can be described as subtle, especially as the music suddenly switches on and off as Suzy strolls through the building. Yet the fluid camerawork is artful and quietly evocative, making the presence of these lurid tones more uneasy than horrifying.

Luciano Tovoli shoots here, and this relatively calm scene is reminiscent of his work with acclaimed directors such as Michelangelo Antonioni. The incredibly wide frame, long shooting distance, and rigid vertical lines converge, reinforcing a sense of isolation and melancholy.

Despite how expressive these moments are, there are still some shots that are harder to explain. Argento cuts twice to a close-up of the mechanism of a door opening and closing. An odd choice? Perhaps. But there’s a purpose here.

Other than contributing to the odd perspective of the movie, there is a Hitchcockian quality. Through its blunt simplicity, we are made hyper-aware of things like doors, locks, and windows, all of which become vehicles for suspense later on. This close, unexpected view also asks us to reconsider mundanity. Anything, after all, could be the domain of witchcraft and illusion. It is not just the dance school that is haunted, but reality itself.

When she finally hails a cab, we see one of the film’s most enduring images. A medium close-up of Suzy in the back seat, careful and patient attention is given to Jessica Harper’s wide-eyed, innocent appearance, conjuring an understated charm.

The intimate space and framing, as well as the reticent behaviour of the driver, make us feel completely trapped. Outside, pulsing purple and red lights breach through the rain on the window, creating a gorgeous yet eerie array of colours that surround and cover her.

Of course, Argento knows how to deliver a gory set-piece better than almost anyone, and his sharp shift into more brutal territory is masterful. Arriving at the dance school (a brilliantly symmetrical red and pink hellscape, filled with sharp staircases and labyrinthine corridors), our perspective once again shifts — this time to two students. Mildly creepy details such as the artificiality of the sets and the intense wind outside quickly give way to an incredibly ornate murder. The killer is never seen, but viewers would be forgiven for finding this more akin to a slasher than a fantastical story about witches and spirits.

But blending these moods does something quite wonderful.

Disrupting the illusory patterns of the opening shots, these visceral images of gore become perversely enchanting and compelling. They too share a palette of bright blues and reds, yet show real death and agony. Separating itself from a wealth of other fright-inducing flicks, Suspiria is made haunting through the way it encodes horror as vibrant and stunning.

The effect of this contrast is vast. We become ensnared in a slowly escalating wave of terror that remains elusive and confusing, always threatening us with a new, unknowable form of dark magic. What the early scenes do best is introduce the audience to these incantatory rhythms, punctuated by realistic deaths that imbue us with an inescapable fear.

There is so much to love about this iconic film, but above all else, nightmares have seldom felt so beautiful.

This article was written by Joseph Bullock as part of our partnership with the film critics at One Room With A View. As a vital part of the creative feedback loop and artistic interpretation in the film industry, we’re proud to support their community of writers.




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