40 Years Later, 'Suspiria' Is Still the Scariest Album Ever

40 Years Later, 'Suspiria' Is Still the Scariest Album Ever

A look back on the soundtrack that was as terrifying as the movie itself.
May 15, 2017, 2:00pm

It's the most beautiful film I've ever laid eyes on, and also one of the most terrifying. Dario Argento's 1977 masterpiece Suspiria is a film that puts a chokehold on the senses. It then stabs your senses in the heart, wraps a cable around their throat, and proceeds to hang your senses from the ceiling. Okay, so I may have just given away one of the freakiest moments in the film for anyone who hasn't seen it, but I've always felt that's the takeaway. Even 40 years after it debuted, more than any other film, Suspiria just fucks with me.

The plot is deceptively a simple one: a young American woman, Suzy Bannon (Jessica Harper), travels to Germany to study ballet at the Tanz Dance Academy. Slowly as her peers begin to die horrible deaths, she begins to realize that—SPOILER ALERT—the school is run by an evil coven of witches. No one should ever describe a murder as a thing of beauty, but the way in which Argento unfurls the aforementioned hanging and another brutal killing involving barbed wire is downright sublime.

Argento's vivid splashes of primary colors, lighting, and shadows are incredibly hypnotic and arresting. These methods immediately became groundbreaking and influential (see Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak for an unabashed homage), and are so breathtaking that I sometimes just stare at stills from the film for kicks. Try it.

For me though, Suspiria is as much an album as it is a film.

Composed by Italian prog rockers Goblin, the score to Argento's classic film is not only one of the greatest ever recorded, it's one of the greatest albums ever released. In fact, it might even be scarier than the film itself. It truly is a master class in writing music that can be as ghastly as any visual.

From the opening music box chimes of the title track, the album is an unnerving experience that makes some truly bizarre twists and turns. It's also a tale of two sides. The A-side is the stuff that nightmares are made of. The notorious title track is known for casting a chill-inducing spell, but "Witch" is basically a terrorist attack on the ears with its combination of persistent tribal pounding, blood-curdling screams, and periodic drone blasts. "Sighs," on the other hand, literally feels like you're losing your mind. Once the manic "Markos" ends, the B-side presents this weird dichotomy. "Black Forest" and "Blind Concert" fall into this jazz-funk-prog odyssey that just seems oblivious to their predecessors. And the waltzing flow of "Death Valtzer" (from the ballet practice scene) is just so airy; it's a pretty fucked up way to end an experience as distressing as this.

"It's so completely woven into the mannered, surreal aesthetic of the film," says superfan Jeremy Schmidt, who composes synthesizer music under the moniker of Sinoia Caves. "Visually, Suspiria has a kind of bombastic artifice about it, and Goblin's score really underlines that visceral impact. Lurid, loud and terrifying—it immediately just catapults you into that world."

Goblin had previously worked with the legendary filmmaker on his 1975 giallo film, Profondo Rosso (Deep Red). After he fired the original composer and Pink Floyd turned him down, he brought in the band to lay down some sweet hybrid of jazz, funk, rock, and prog. That score would end up becoming Goblin's first album (they had previously operated under the name Cherry Five), and marked the beginning of a relationship that would continue into the 2000s. But even though the two sides had worked together before, Goblin wasn't Argento's first choice to score Suspiria.

"It's funny how much influence it has because the band were asked to step in at the last minute," keyboardist Maurizio Guarini told the Guardian in 2009. "After Dario had a disagreement with the original composer."

Argento's plan was to integrate the music into the film and have them both support each other. "At the time there were no music videos and that kind of strong, excessive, and very powerful music was considered the father of the music video," the director says in the extras of Suspiria's 25th anniversary DVD edition.

But the funny thing about Suspiria is how a lot of the time Argento uses the music in an unorthodox manner. For example, the title track opens the credits and continues to play on as Suzy lands in Berlin and hails a cab. The intensity of the song definitely foreshadows the tragedy that is set to come, but it all seems so ridiculously unwarranted. For the grisly death of Pat, the song "Witch" begins almost a minute too soon. That isn't lost on the film's devoted followers.

"It's such a unique score even in horror because it's usually scored against picture," says Jeremy Gillespie, co-director of the recently acclaimed horror flick, The Void. "You have these women swimming in a quiet pool area, but then these crazy witch noises and drums start playing over it, which is super counterintuitive. But everything about that movie is counterintuitive in the best kind of way. It's a movie that takes totally insane risks right from the beginning and you can definitely feel that in the music. I would say the music is probably one of the biggest characters in the film."

Originally, Goblin recorded some demos based on the script alone, but everything changed once they saw a cut of the film. "We tried to do the music before, but after we saw the film we changed everything," says keyboardist Claudio Simonetti on the DVD's extras. "Sometimes Dario played our music on the set to inspire the actors. He asked us to use voices. I tell many things but there is no sense. They told us, 'You have to write the music that every time in the film the audience feels the witch. Like ghosts.'"

For the title track, you can hear Simonetti whispering the melody and calling out "witch!" in a sinister tone. They used whatever tricks they could to add layers of eeriness, including crushing plastic cups in front of the mic with an echo effect and pinging glasses of water with hammers. Other instruments like the tabla, for the pummeling rhythm of "Witch," and a bouzouki, which adds a discombobulating effect to "Sighs," featured prominently in the studio.

Says Goblin drummer Agostino Marangolo in the DVD extras, "Dario found himself with something new, unheard of at the time. It was the first time that a score was done without using an orchestra. I think the secret of the music's success is within doing music that almost doesn't have anything to do with the scene but to follow the scene endlessly, with a rhythm that was almost violent. And it's a continuous rhythm that is almost annoying."

As unique as the score was in 1977, it was introducing the synthesizer into their repertoire that proved to be the real game-changer.

Inspired by the work of 70s synth god Keith Emerson (Emerson Lake & Palmer), Simonetti brought in a Moog Modular System 55 synthesizer, though he needed fellow composer Felice Fugazza to help work it. The synths slowly began to dominate the score, which was almost unheard of at the time. Although they were prevalent in the music of Kraftwerk, Roxy Music, Giorgio Moroder, and virtually every prog rock band, this was a new concept for film scores. The Moog provides the undulating pulse of "Markos," and of course, carries the title track through a nightmarish mid-section.

"You would never use a synth to do soundtracks [then]," Simonetti told Fact in 2014. "Normally it would be made with an orchestra, or with a band. No one was using a synthesizer for that. I think we were maybe one of the first using [the synthesizer], then in the 80s the synthesizer and drum machine became more famous and it became more usual."

Goblin's use of the synthesizer marked a new era for film scores. Following Suspiria, synths became a go-to instrument for scoring, most notably in the horror genre. The self-proclaimed "Horror Master" himself, John Carpenter, has admitted that one of the main influences for the iconic music from his 1978 classic Halloween was Suspiria. In 2015, he told Billboard, "I am a huge Goblin fan and any time I can sound remotely like Goblin, I'm happy."

Their work on Suspiria can be heard in the arpeggiating synth tones of everyone from pioneers like Carpenter and Alan Howarth, Tangerine Dream, and Fabio Frizzi to the rising crop of composers like Disasterpiece (It Follows), Steve Moore (The Guest) and Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein (Stranger Things).

Sinoia Caves' Jeremy Schmidt, who is also a member of Vancouver psych-rock band Black Mountain, scored the 2010 psychological horror flick called Beyond The Black Rainbow that went on to earn a legit cult status. At first, his music didn't see a release, but four years later the horror enthusiasts at Death Waltz Recording Company picked it up for their label. Schmidt says Suspiria is just ingrained in scores these days.

"I've always considered it part of the canon of iconic horror/sci-fi scores, along with John Carpenter's synth scores," Schmidt says. "They were all more or less inventing the playbook as they went, introducing electronic elements, and ultimately shaping what became the template for said genre films. I'm sure its influence is widespread by now among film composers."

For Schmidt, Suspiria, more than anything, showed him how to turn his score into an album that could exist outside of the film.

"I did in some way think of Suspiria specifically when it came around to making the Beyond The Black Rainbow album," he says. "I wanted to have those extended passages that go a little beyond what you hear in the cut of the film. I also wanted it to play like a Sinoia Caves album-proper with its own narrative arc as opposed to a piecemeal soundtrack. I suppose ideologically they could be seen as a kind of surreptitious ode to Goblin kicking out the jams in the context of a film score."

Jeremy Gillespie feels that the music for all of his films, including the projects he's done as a member of the Astron-6 collective, has been shaped by Goblin's seminal album. He even goes so far as to say basically everything he does is affected by that music.

"It influences our music 1,000 percent," he admits. " Suspiria was always at the forefront of our minds with the score to The Void. That's always what plays in my head when I'm doing anything during the day. Just these witches cackling."

At some point this year or next we will get a remake of Suspiria from director Luca Guadagnino, whose credits include the recent Sundance hit Call Me By Your Name and 2015's well-received thriller, A Bigger Splash. The idea had been floating around for a few years now, and really, it's hard to get excited about remaking such a perfect film. The good news? Guadagnino is Italian, appears to be salvaging Argento's vision at least in its location, and has cast his frequent muse Tilda Swinton as the stone-faced headmistress Madame Blanc. The bad news? Potentially everything else (i.e. casting Dakota Johnson of the 50 Shades franchise as the lead, Suzy). Suspiria is simply a film that cannot be remade in good conscience.

"Suspiria is such a hyper-stylized film, bound up in its own unique aesthetic ultimately being very much connected to the time in which it was made," says Schmidt. "I always kind of hold my breath and prepare to be underwhelmed when something I admire for its eccentric style gets the reboot treatment. But who knows, at least they're making it in Italy! I imagine a full-on Italo prog-funk score might be a little unfashionable for 2017 though."

Guadagnino has already stated how his film will be quite different from the original. Earlier this year he told Variety, "It's a film about guilt and motherhood. It has no primary colors in its color palette, unlike the original. It will be cold, evil, and really dark." That alone seems enough of a radical departure to have me exhaling a sigh of relief. But just as I began writing this piece it was announced that Mr. Radiohead singer himself, Thom Yorke is writing the score for the Suspiria remake. This news was even more unexpected than news of the remake itself. As a relatively big Radiohead fan, I feel that Yorke seems like the kind of artist who wouldn't attach his name to something he isn't 100 percent sure isn't a steaming turd.

"Thom's art transcends the contemporary," a drooling Guadagnino said in a statement. "To have the privilege of his music and sound for Suspiria is a dream come true. The depth of his creation and artistic vision is so unique that our Suspiria will sound groundbreaking and will deeply resonate with viewers. Our goal is to make a movie that will be a disturbing and transforming experience: for this ambition, we could not find a better partner than Thom."

I am pretty confident in assuming that Yorke is as much a fan of Goblin's score for Suspiria as I am, and will do his best to pay his respects to the original. I am also pretty confident that he will leave the songs from the original alone (though feel free to tell me how wrong I am six months from now should he trying covering any of them). He clearly knows something about Guadagnino's Suspiria that we do not. Maybe it's amazing and maybe it is something we should be excited about? I don't know. But what we all know is that nothing can beat the original.

"It would be a bad idea to try and remake that music," Gillespie says. "If I were them I would go in a very different direction because you're not going to win if you're trying to compete with Goblin!"

Cam Lindsay is on Twitter.