Delirious dread in score to influential film ‘Suspiria’

Jessica Harper in “Suspiria.”
International Classics Inc./Photofest
Jessica Harper in “Suspiria.”

On Tuesday, the Coolidge Corner Theatre presents a double feature of horror by Italian director Dario Argento, including his 1977 masterpiece “Suspiria.” The story of an American ballet student encountering unholy terrors within an illustrious German dance school, the film has a saturated extravagance that both swayed the horror genre and, somehow, set itself apart. For all its (considerable) shock and gore, “Suspiria” is most distinguished by its vigorously, stylishly sustained mood of hallucinatory dread. And much of that is due to its unusual — and unusually influential — score.

It was created by the Italian progressive-rock group Goblin, led by composer and keyboardist Claudio Simonetti. The group had musically rescued Argento’s previous film, “Profondo Rosso” (“Deep Red”) after composer Giorgio Gaslini and Argento had a falling out; the director asked the group (which had been working with Gaslini) to come up with a score itself, literally overnight. The “Profondo Rosso” soundtrack was an unexpected hit, reaching No. 1 on the Italian pop charts. (It found itself in friendly chart competition with the theme to an Italian TV miniseries, “Gamma” — composed by Simonetti’s father, Enrico.)

Simonetti and Goblin had more room to work on “Suspiria.” Argento had the band create the score prior to production, so he could play the music on set, a silent-movie technique occasionally revived in the sound era (most notably with Ennio Morricone’s scores to Sergio Leone’s series of 1960s westerns). The group turned the studio into a laboratory, experimenting with unexpected instruments (bouzouki and tabla are prominent presences) and recording techniques.


While, according to Simonetti, the score was re-recorded after shooting was finished, the key features remained: the menacing, tinkling lullaby that forms the film’s theme; distorted, ghostly whispers; a skeletal but driving rock beat; and, most strikingly, the rich electronic grain of a huge Moog System 55 synthesizer, made famous by prog-rock luminary Keith Emerson, brought in by Simonetti to lend some similar alienating grandeur. All those elements have echoed in many a horror-movie score since; the mélange of unorthodox groove, avant-garde experimentation, and otherworldly electronics created a template.

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Argento got Keith Emerson himself to score the follow-up to “Suspiria,” 1980’s “Inferno” (also screening on Tuesday), but, despite some highlights (a pugnacious, 5/4-meter mutation of Verdi’s “Va, pensiero,” for instance), music and film don’t mesh the way they do in “Suspiria.” Simonetti — and Goblin, through numerous break-ups and re-formations — would gainfully collaborate with Argento on further films, but “Suspiria” remains a benchmark, defining and incarnating a delirious wavelength.

Matthew Guerrieri

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at