Film Lighting Explained: Sara’s Murder, Suspiria

Watch how cinematographer Luciano Tovoli fulfills Dario Argento’s color fantasy in the brilliant art-horror film, Suspiria:

The entirety of Suspiria is beautiful to watch, mostly for the colors and textures chosen by director Dario Argento. It’s an amazing art-horror film in the true expressionistic style.

Sara’s murder scene is an incredible scene that happens well into the story. All colors – red, green and blue make their presence felt. I’ll leave the symbolism of Suspiria’s colors for another time, but for the purposes of this article let’s assume green is a marker, for those destined for death. Red is a kind of false hope, a passage between this world and the next; and blue is imminent death.

Sara and Suzy both have their doubts about the goings on at the ballet academy, and are now marked for death. Sara has important information that could help us all understand the murders that have taken place earlier, but Suzy is too drugged to comprehend her warning.

In this scene how Sara is marked for green. It might be a little too much, not as subtle as the touch of green on Pat, whose horrific murder scene sets the tone for Suspiria.

Basically you have top light as key, and light with red gel on the dinner set. The green light on her back doesn’t seem to match the reverse, but later on there is a shot where it does. But as soon as it does the long shot immediately after has no green at all!

As the camera pulls back the dinner tray is red, as before. Note Suspiria was filmed using Kodak Eastmancolor stock, so red never really was red. Then we pull back to behind the light bulb, which was dimmed so it didn’t blow out or flare the camera. They used Technovision anamorphic lenses, which were rehoused Cooke or Zeiss glass.

You can see the two red lights reflected in the light bulb, which is kind of cool. She turns out the light and it turns green!

To me it symbolises quite clearly both girls are marked for death, these are green spot lights flagged so they hit three spots in the frame. The jib swoops down to a close up – a cool shot that took a lot of guts to plan.

The blue light appears on one door, and Sara decides she must leave by the other. Notice the face on the glass. Lots of faces in Suspiria!

As she opens the door the red light enters the room. She’s on her way. Back in the room the green light dissipates somewhat on Suzy, so the focus is on Sara.

Sara runs through the halls, all bathed in brilliant saturated red – this should be seen in a movie hall on film, these blown out reds are due to the transfer and due to the limited color space we are seeing this in.

Sara goes to the attic and it is in blue.

Then the music stops abruptly, and she is alone. The lights are gelled with blue. He uses hot spots of light and shadow. At first this is subtle, but it actually leads up to something, as we shall soon see.

You can see Argento is not afraid to use shadows. Here she is lit side-on to deliberately cause shadows. As she opens the door there’s sort of a pulsating light, like a heart throb, from inside.

As she breaks the glass you can see the red light appear quickly, like a breath of fresh air, but only for a brief instant. It throws her back into the room she was trying to avoid.

As the killer tries the door, Sara sits down in a pool of light, flagged. Then she looks up and notices the window. The long shot reveals a shape that is unexpected. Notice the shape. It’s like a maze. And the boxes block her path on the left, and there’s no path on the right.

She has to move the boxes from left to right, clearing the path on the left, while making a path on the right. At this point you don’t question this kind of lighting because he has been setting you up all along from the beginning.

This shape was probably created using a cutout in front of a hard source projected at the wall. You can notice the edges where light diffracts and the colors change, just like a gobo does. As Sara climbs up we have a hint of red light, as if offering false hope.

It’s just at the top of the room; at the bottom it’s pure blue. The door to freedom, and no colors, mind you, just plain light, is right there, but she can’t go any further. Here it ends, and I’ll leave you to find out what happens next.

I hope you are curious to learn more about the expressionistic style of Dario Argento, which culminated in Suspiria.

He isn’t afraid to use bright saturated colors, and uses them tastefully, in my opinion. It might seem like much, but if you study Suspiria you will notice how the colors are used with restraint, there is a method there – which is why Suspiria is probably the greatest art horror film.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments below.

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