Wednesday, March 25, 2015


Dario Argento, 1977
Starring: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Joan Bennett, Udo Kier, Flavio Bucci, Miguel Bosè, Alida Valli

Suzy Bannion, an American ballet dancer, travels to Germany to enroll in a renowned school in Freiburg, but her arrival is marked by a menacing storm, an unfriendly reception, and the mysterious, anxious departure of another student who is later found dead. After taking an apartment out of the building, she falls ill and is moved into the school against her wishes, where someone seems to be drugging her food. She befriends another girl, Sarah, who believes that the school is secretly run by malevolent witches. After Sarah goes missing, Suzy takes it upon herself to unravel the mystery before she becomes the next victim.

Argento’s fairytale-like masterpiece was inspired by Thomas De Quincy’s collection Suspiria de Profundis, in particular the chapter “Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow,” which introduces "Mater Lacrymarum, Our Lady of Tears," "Mater Suspiriorum, Our Lady of Sighs," and "Mater Tenebrarum, Our Lady of Darkness" (the latter two characters would receive a mention in his follow up film, Inferno). This first supernatural work by Argento was co-written by then partner Dario Nicolodi, who claimed for years that it was based on her grandmother’s stories of real witches operating in Italy. Regardless of the source, this tremendous film is a blend of many previous filmic and literary influences: Grimm’s fairytales, German expressionism, the French fantastique, Snow White, film noir, Jean Cocteau and European Surrealism, and Gothic literature.

The plot follows a basic fairytale structure, where a young hero embarks on a journey of self-discovery and defeats evil. There is a core journey in Suzy’s travel to Germany, an eerie trip through a forest, and magical flowers that are central to her quest. Things often occur in threes: there are three girls trying to fight the witches in the form of Pat, Sarah, and Suzy, and three witches In the form of Tanner, Madame Blanc, and the head mistress. Like Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, which was being written during Suspiria’s production and was published in 1979, Argento has reimagined the character often known as the “Persecuted Heroine.” Suzy, a beautiful, young ballet dancer, is initially similar to fairytale heroines, but fortunately has a different end goal than romantic fulfillment with a handsome price (though I’d give her a break with Udo Kier in the picture).

The script is perfectly complimented by a vivid, almost violent sense of color – Suspiria was one of the last films processed in Technicolor – that transitions from dark blues and blacks to screaming red and pink. The film is full of characters passing through doorways – often toward spectacularly realized deaths – and Argento somehow adds elements of the surreal and disorienting to mundane acts like a cab ride, a swim in a pool, and eating dinner. The world Suzy has entered is undeniably hostile and strange and – like the Germany of many of Fassbinder’s films – this is a realm existing in and out of time, a place of the subconscious rather than the waking world. Though many try, there are not a lot of horror films or dark fantasies able to achieve this dreamlike quality and in that sense, Suspiria has something in common with Night of the Hunter (1955), Valerie and Her Weeks of Wonders (1970), Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural (1973), Messiah of Evil (1973), A Company of Wolves (1984), and even The Red Shoes (1948).

Suspiria is also a marked departure from classic supernatural horror like Cat People (1942) and Night of the Demon (1957), where the horror is implied gradually and unfolds subtlety. Suspiria – whose tagline proclaims “The only thing more terrifying than the last 12 minutes of this film are the first 92!” – kicks off with an elaborate, highly stylized double homicide where Pat, hiding out from the horrors at school, is tracked to an art deco apartment building by a strange beastly figure, resulting in an operatic sequence of shattering glass, sliced flesh, and a brutal hanging. There are Fulci-like scenes of squirming maggots pouring from the ceiling on hapless students, a corpse coming back to life with murderous intentions, and a girl stumbling into a room inexplicably full of barbed wire.

And, of course, there are the witches. The school headmistresses represent a far more bureaucratic source of terror for much of the film, dealing in control, manipulation, and disorientation, chiding Suzy about room fees, her medical health, run of the mill inconveniences, and rules. Tanner (Alida Valli of The Third Man and Eyes Without a Face, the latter of which must have been an influence on Argento) wears conservative suits and her heels clack on the floor abrasively while she shouts out instructions. Madame Blanc (former noir star Joan Bennett, playing a role not similar to her appearance as the ambiguous family matriarch in Dark Shadows) is full of grace, refinement, and manners, and it’s easy to see her as a politician’s wife or retired debutant. Tanner and Blanc pale in comparison to the swollen, growling, and draconic form of Helena Markos (aka Mother Suspiriorum, played by the uncredited Lela Svasta), who sets all manner of obstacles in Suzy’s path and is ultimately the monster she must defeat.

Much has already been said about Suspiria and it holds a deserved reputation as one of finest horror films ever made. Pick it up on region 2 Blu-ray, or 2-disc special edition DVD. Either way, this is a must-see film and it’s something you need in your collection. While giallo films are not for everyone – and they make up the bulk of Argento’s work – this is a near-perfect blend of mystery, horror, and fantasy. The score from Goblin is also one of their best and is the perfect music to listen to while driving through a thunderstorm.

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