Wicked Witches: Suspiria (1977)
by Steve Habrat
One of the most famous directors working within the horror genre is without question Italian filmmaker Dario Argento. Starting out as a film critic, Argento moved on to developing the story for Sergio Leone’s 1968 spaghetti western Once Upon a Time in the West before finally settling behind the camera in 1970 to create his own “giallo” thrillers and horror films. It’s safe to say that he had quite the career before 1977. After delivering a handful of well-received and expertly crafted horror outings (1970’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, 1971’s The Cat o’ Nine Tails, and 1975’s Deep Red), Argento released Suspiria, which has gone on to become the most popular film of his directorial career. Considered by many (including me) to be one of the scariest motion pictures of all time, Suspiria is best described as a glammed up horror film drenched in neon lighting and set to one of the most unforgettable scores in movie history. It’s extravagant beyond belief as it transports the viewer into a surreal funhouse of witches and demons waiting to cast their ghastly spells on anyone who stumbles upon their secrets. While spots of Suspiria are beginning to show their age, the film still stands as a terrifying work of genius, featuring a number of death scenes and demonic surprises that remain beautiful and brutal in all of their flamboyant fury.
Suspiria begins with American ballet dancer Suzy Bannion (played by Jessica Harper) touching down in Germany to study at a prestigious dance academy in Freiburg. After arriving very late at night, Suzy is turned away from the school doors by a mysterious woman on the intercom. Before hopping back in her taxi, a young blonde girl bursts through the door, shouts a message to someone standing just inside the door, and then bolts off into the night. Perplexed, Suzy makes her way into town to check into a hotel for the night. The next day, Suzy arrives back at the school to meet with vice directress Madame Blanc (played by Joan Bennet) and head instructor Miss Tanner (played by Alida Valli). Madame Blanc and Miss Tanner take Suzy around to meet some of the students and figure out living arrangements. After several attempts to get Suzy to live at the school, Madame Blanc and Miss Tanner agree to let Suzy live off campus with a student named Olga (played by Barbara Magnolfi). The next day, Suzy has a bizarre run-in with the school cook, who appears to cast a spell on Suzy that causes her to fall ill. After fainting the middle of her class, Madame Blanc and Miss Tanner move Suzy’s belongings into the school and insist that she stay in a dormitory under their care. After several more strange occurrences, Suzy and her new friend, Sara (played by Stefania Casini), begin to suspect that the school may be a front for a coven of witches.
Argento opens Suspiria on an extremely intense note, with a surreal double murder at the hands of a hairy demon that always remains just off screen (a smart move on Argento’s part). After the demon brutally stabs one girl to death to the point where the audience catches a glimpse of her still-beating heart, she is then dropped through a stained-glass skylight and left to hang in the middle of the grand lobby. Her horrified friend, who has been frantically banging on doors in an attempt to get her seemingly non-existent neighbors to help, happens to be underneath the skylight when the shards of glass plunge to the ground, leaving her a sliced up mess. We’ve stepped into a nightmare world complimented by demonic “la-la-la’s,” chiming lullaby bells, and hair-raising shrieks of “WITCH” by the progressive Italian rock group Goblin. The architecture and the lighting schemes are all embellished, with harsh splashes of red and blue illuminating the screen like Satan’s lava lamp. It’s a surprisingly pretty smear of color and horror that warns us that we have left the comforts of the real world far, far behind. Despite being in the middle of a massive apartment complex, there is no one around to save these girls from this rampaging force signified by Goblin’s chilling electronic score. You’d think that all this commotion would draw the attention of someone, but we’re on our own in this glowing witchcraft realm. This is only the beginning, as Argento plans to keep us feeling hopeless for the entire duration of the film.
Argento guides the dreamlike horror from the baroque apartment complex to the glittery walls the ballet dance school. With its exterior painted up in bright red and decorated with gold gargoyles, the school possesses a menacing look in broad daylight—it’s a satanic castle dripping with blood and crawling with demons. Inside, the walls are either glittery blues or glowing reds, with slanting windows, a gold staircase railing that seems to be melting on the heads of our characters, and some of the ugliest wall art you may ever see. It’s a world where maggots suddenly rain from the ceiling, disembodied raspy breathing can be heard behind a curtain, and random rooms packed with razor wire patiently wait to claim their next victim. You have to marvel at the amazing set design, even if it is an interior decorators worst nightmare. The surreal supernatural atmosphere also roars to life within these halls, the camera taking the POV of a creeping force that is brought to life through Goblin’s alien score. When an unseen tormentor with a straight razor terrorizes one character through the school halls, no student dares peak their head out of their dormitory to see if their help is needed. Is the whole school in on this? Is this attack a dream? Argento gives no clear explanation other than there are forces beyond our understanding at work here and sudden death lurks just around the glowing red corner. And somehow, that makes the events all the scarier.
With the set design and vivid lighting schemes stealing most of the thunder, you almost have to see Suspiria twice to pay attention to the near perfect performances. Jessica Harper is delicate and subtle as our curious heroine who notices that something is amiss about her new school. She wanders cautiously through the halls and dodges the wandering teachers keeping an eye out for anyone who dares snoop around. Bennet puts on a caring face as Madame Blanc, the vice headmistress who seems to overflow with motherly concern for her students. Alida Valli wears a frozen forced grin as the stern instructor Miss Tanner, a woman who undoubtedly has a nasty side just waiting to emerge at the right time. Stefania Casini is full of theories and suspicion about the rumored directress that is supposedly away from the school. Flavio Bucci turns in a sympathetic performance as Daniel, the blind pianist who is booted from the school after his seeing-eye dog is accused of attacking Madame Blanc’s young nephew. Well-known genre star Udo Kier also turns up in a small role as Dr. Frank Mandel, who provides Suzy with a bit of unnerving background knowledge about her new school.
With such a stunning opening that packs blood-curdling gore and scares, you’d think that Argento wouldn’t be able to top his magnificent commencement, but he does every single step of the way. Halfway through the film, you will gasp in horror as one character is attacked in a wide-open square, and the climax of the film will have you watching through your fingers as Suzy pushes deep into the bowels of the school to confront a coven of witches. With the suspense turned up as high as it will go, Argento then springs not one, but two monsters on us that will certainly have your knees knocking together. As far as flaws go, the most glaring would have to be the dubbing that was added in post-production. There is one moment near the end where the dialogue shoots high for evil, but it doesn’t have the impact that it should. Overall, other than the spotty dubbing in a few places, Suspiria is a shining example of demonic horror done by a man who knows how to simultaneously make you cringe in pain and shriek in horror. The Goblin score sticks in your brain like a splinter and you won’t be able to peel your eyes off the flowing string of shimmering images that are presented to you. Suspiria casts a wicked spell that will haunt you for weeks.
Suspiria is available on DVD.
Halloween Guest Feature: Five Films That Scare… Goregirl
Here is a little information on Goregirl:
Canadian broad who has had a lifelong obsession with horror films. Perpetually working on a screenplay, avid collector of soundtracks, belt buckles and wigs. You can find me on WordPress: http://goregirl.wordpress.com/, YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/user/goregirlsdungeon or follow me on Twitter: @ggsdungeon.
Goregirl’s Top Five Scariest Italian Horror Films
Nothing can whip me into an excited frenzy like finding an Italian horror and/or thriller I haven’t seen. I have hungrily devoured Italian horror titles like a rabid Ms. Pac-Man. It is getting more difficult these days to find films I haven’t seen. I am particularly fond of the Giallo of the 1970s. The word Giallo is Italian for “yellow”, which refers to the common coloring of cheap pulp fiction novels. The term “Giallo” is used to describe Italian literature and film that contains elements of crime, mystery, horror, thrillers or eroticism. I never miss an opportunity to talk about Italian horror! Italian horror generally speaking tends to be plot heavy with copious twists and red herrings and while the mood can be positively electric I don’t think I would classify most of these as “scary”. Coming up with five was more difficult than I anticipated. I wanted to insure five Italian directors were represented so I allowed myself just one title per director. After much inner debate I chose the following five horror films hailing from Italy that provide not just thrills but also chills…
THE BEYOND (1981)
Directed By Lucio Fulci
I could easily have filled this entire top five with Lucio Fulci films! His brilliant entries Don’t Torture A Duckling, Zombi 2, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin and The Psychic all deserve high praise. I chose Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond. In my opinion The Beyond is Fulci’s scariest, creepiest and goriest effort. The premise of The Beyond sees one of the seven gateways to hell being breached. This gateway lies beneath a hotel the main character inherits. Crazy shit happens, some of it’s illogical but every last bit is a fascinating, visual treat. People are nailed to walls, eaten by tarantulas, melted by acid, and of course there is classic Fulci eye trauma! And there are zombies! Beautiful, rotted wonderfully vial zombies! Don’t worry about a perfect logical narrative; just let the nightmare wash over you! The Beyond is classic Fulci at his gory best, but I can not recommend more highly checking out any of the aforementioned Fulci flicks!
BLACK SUNDAY (1960)
Directed By Mario Bava
Mario Bava is another favourite director whom I struggled to choose just one film for. Certainly his fantastic anthology Black Sabbath, the brilliant Kill Baby Kill!, the masterful The Girl Who Knew Too Much or his magnificent Blood and Black Lace would have all been great choices. I went with what is perhaps Bava’s best known film; Black Sunday. The stunning Barbara Steele takes on dual roles as Princess Asa Vajda and Katia Vajda. It is a wonderful richly gothic tale of a witch put to death by her own brother who returns 200 years later to seek revenge on her descendants. “The Mask of Satan” (which also happens to be one of its alternate titles) once pulled from the face of our witch makes for some grotesque visuals! Black Sunday was one of my dad’s favourite films and it absolutely terrified me as a child. While Black Sunday doesn’t quite have the same effect on me after 20ish viewings I think it is still one of Bava’s creepiest and most beautiful films.
Directed By Sergio Martino
No list of Italian films is complete without an entry from Sergio Martino. Anyone with even a casual interest in Italian horror probably knows the names Lucio Fulci, Mario Bava and Dario Argento but the lesser known Sergio Martino made several epic entries through the seventies. My favourite film by Martino is definitely The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh starring the gorgeous and sexy Edwige Fenech; Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I have the Key and The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail wouldn’t be far behind. I love these films but I would be hard pressed to say any of these are “scary”. Martino’s most frightening entry is Torso. College students are being murdered and the only clue to the killer’s identity is a scarf. A group of lovely ladies take refuge in the Italian countryside only to find themselves the killer’s target. The good old balaclava; headwear of thieves and serial killers alike! Torso has a balaclaved baddie, amazing scenery, plenty of skin and some impressive brutality! The final chase scene between the surviving female and the murderer is intense and exciting. Torso is gritty, sexy, suspenseful, violent and it has a great soundtrack to boot.
Directed By Dario Argento
What can I say about the great Dario Argento? The man knew how to construct a violent and visually stunning film. Argento’s Deep Red, Tenebre and Suspiria have long been personal favourites. Deep Red will always be my number one but for the “scary” category I would have to go with Suspiria. Suspiria takes place in a prestigious dance school where shenanigans of a supernatural nature are afoot. There is a feeling of unease established from the moment new student Suzy Bannion arrives at the school that doesn’t let up until the final credits. Its beauty is quite remarkable but is only one of its impressive qualities. Suspiria is claustrophobic, intense, suspenseful, thrilling and features some very impressive murder sequences! Suspiria is like an adult fairy tale and its impressive setting and props add a whimsical and yet terrifying sense of dread. Its brilliant soundtrack courtesy of Goblin is one of the best horror film soundtracks ever created! Performances are excellent across the board from Jessica Harper who plays Suzy, Stefania Casini who plays her friend Sara and great turns from classic actresses Alida Valli as Miss Tanner and Joan Bennett as Madame Blanc. Suspiria is part of Argento’s “three mothers trilogy” and I can not recommend enough also checking out Inferno, his second of the trilogy. Suspiria is a beautiful nightmare.
Directed By Lamberto Bava
Lamberto Bava is the son of the great Mario Bava. While I enjoyed Lamberto Bava’s Macabro, A Knife in the Dark, and Delirium, in my opinion Demons is definitely Bava’s masterpiece. There have not been many effects-intensive creature creations from Italy so for that reason alone this film is special. There are however a lot of other reasons Demons is special. The premise is a simple one; a group of people are given passes to a screening of a horror film and become trapped inside the theatre with a bunch of demons. Demons is very high-energy, it doesn’t let up for a second. The gore is plentiful; the effects are outrageous and occasionally gag-worthy. Most importantly, Demons has some really freaking cool looking demons! The transformations are fantastic; polished nails being pushed out in favor of nifty new gnarly claws, teeth pushed out to upgrade to some nice big pointy ones. It is a beautiful thing! Demons definitely has its campy qualities but it only adds to its charms. Demons insane finale involving a dirt bike, a sword and a helicopter falling through the roof is not to be missed! If you enjoy Demons, there is also a sequel you can sink your teeth into. Demons 2 isn’t as good as the original, but it certainly has its moments! Demons is an orgasmic, goretastic joy!