“Once you’ve seen it you will never again feel safe in the dark”
We will not mess about here. When I first viewed Dario Argento’s, Suspiria, (1977), I was at the time somewhat underwhelmed by what I believed was a film full of inconsistencies, unintentional comedic clumsiness that the director never intended. I was fourteen going on fifteen and the year was 1981. I was viewing the film with a number of friends so I imagine the nights proceedings would be at times not of a total concentrated full viewing commitment. plus the influence of others being present often has a tendency to distort things at times. This was an evening of horror entertainment which included, Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm (1979) and Lucio Fulci’s, Zombie Flesh eaters, (1979). In retrospect and many decades later I am now thinking, “what a night?” The two Italian directed films often seemed incoherent, slightly silly at the time. Coscarelli’s Phantasm though strangely bizarre, seemed more outlandishly appealing on that particular evening I noted. To those present Phantasm just had a greater excitable kudos attached to its conceptual invention, it did seem to connect better with an audience consisting of teenage males has compared to both Fulci’s gory zombie nonsense and Argento’s daft film about a ballet school being a front for a witches coven. Phantasm seemed to defy the two Italian directors cinematic horror conventions. It was undoubtedly the biggest success of the night for my youthful guests and I alike. I wonder now looking back whether we associated more with the Mike – A. Michael Baldwin character in Phantasm simply because he was in essence an intense young guy suffering from teenage angst, living in a mad and crazy world of fighting unexplained deathly flying metal spheres (brain-suckers), compacted mini-monsters, an iconic horror film bogeymen (The Tall Man) all the integral ingredients that create the non-stop catalogue of twisted mayhem that is the fantasy tale stacked behind Phantasm in its large cult appeal. This cinematic concoction was all about the created opportunity provided in which to fight the evil of Coscarelli’s nightmare creations, including the additional bonus of guns, women and fast cars, a perfect adolescent formula that suited better. Don’t get me wrong, we all loved the madness of our other two features but it was the gore factor of both Argento’s work and more so Fulci’s mad zombie effort that appealed and little else at that time. It had been word of mouth that had led us to viewing ‘Flesh eaters’ in particular. This film at the time had a growing notoriety, it had undoubtedly already made an impact on the video viewing public for historical reasons now obvious to those around at that time. In essence this night had represented more the obtaining of a badge of viewable honour. To observe these films was more an initiation, for it was the dawning of the ‘nasty’ era and often that scenario mattered to an audience of immature lads seeking more than just the fear factor of the actual films themselves. It was all about a teen bravado, the anticipation that often ruled the head rather than the considered heart. It was not until roughly several months later that I finally realised both the error of my ways when reanalysing my foolhardy thoughts and opinions regarding my distorted judgement on the importance of both directors, Lucio Fulci but for me personally more so, Dario Argento as a director of unparalleled genre brilliance and I having to finally face the realisation of how important Suspiria was as a full throttle horror film experience.
The events that would soon lead to both my approval and revaluation I believe go something like this! During the early halcyon days of the 1980’s video boom of that period, there were regular bouts of visiting the local video rental shop, it became an increasing happy ceremony. On one such occasion my father was about to return a bunch of hired VHS tapes, one of the films was a little known film called Deep Red aka Profondo Rosso, (1975). Having watched this glorious and violent epic the previous evening, I had not initially connected this alleged Hitchcockian type thriller or giallo as I came to know this particular prefix of an associated sub-genre within horror. I began to vaguely recognise the directors name and his probable association with the film I had watched previously, a film titled Suspiria? Surely these two horror film opuses could not have been made by the same director? For my sins, I had immediately fell in love with Deep Red and subsequently as a result of this twisted discovery, perhaps I may have therefore been harsh in my own original lacklustre appraisal of Suspiria that time previous? As my Father scooped up the copy of Deep Red in order to return it to the video rental outlet I asked him if I could accompany him to said outlet and would it be also possible to pick something to watch. After returning from the video shop with a number of Argento titled boxed video cassettes, I spent the next several nights reaptedly watching Inferno (1980), The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970). We also returned home with the copy of Deep Red in order for me to rejoice in a second and third viewing of this glorious giallo masterpiece. During this viewing process I also began my re-investigation of a re-rented copy of Suspiria, “thank you dad”. During this cinematic awakening not only did I begin my journey into the world of Argento horror madness in my own company, without the influence of others but I believe during that time I became a fully fledged cinephile as a result of this time. What happened after that film viewing marathon was a lifelong love of all things Dario Argento created. Since that time and over many subsequent years Suspiria has become not just my favourite Argento film [just] but Suspiria is still my favoured horror/supernatural cinematic experience even today, 30 years plus after the event. Argento works his incredible horror magic in glorious Technicolor, which adds further to the sound and textured visual quality of this incredibly lavish and visceral cinematic extravaganza. I believe an added ingredient to the mix of Suspiria has to be Jessica Harper’s portrayal of Suzy Banyon, which is undoubtedly a wonderful strong and memorable performance. A nod must also go to Stefania Casini as the increasingly paranoid Sara whose character conveys a genuine foreboding fear throughout her time in Suspiria, which again enhances the films many character layered qualities. There is also the outstanding performance of Alida Valli to be considered as the matriarchal Miss Tanner which should not be ignored. In essence this review is unashamedly dedicated to what we here at TCMR think is Dario Argento’s finest moment which is an extraordinary thing for me to suggest when we consider his other wonderful earlier career defining wealth of work and the inclusion of his work directly after Suspiria which included Argento’s wonderful supernatural sequel to Suspiria, Inferno, (1980).
Suspiria is a self imposed departure from the fundamentals of his earlier trailblazing success in the giallo or crime fiction themes of the genre. (See our biographical review, DARIO ARGENTO: THE MASTER OF DARKNESS. Suspiria is as pure a horror film I believe is cinematically possible, visually it is aesthetically the most stunningly beautiful and exquisite of cinematic experiences one could imagine. It has a quality that is simply ‘Gothic Grandiose’ on a scale unparalleled in genre film history, again for this reason it is also worthy of even being considered one of the greatest films ever to grace the world of cinema on any visual or audio level. The story is purported to be, or is indeed factually based on Daria Nicolodi’s (who Co-wrote Suspiria) grandmother’s actual fantastical tale of her own personal experience while studying at an acting academy as a young girl, where it is alleged the teachers had a penchant for delving into the dark arts – black magic? There is also an alleged, though strong written suggestion that Nicolodi herself is indeed a real life, ‘white witch’?
Argento’s Suspiria offers up a lesson into how to depict true fictional tales of horror by bringing them to life and then displaying the concept of witchcraft, alchemy, covens and the dark arts at its filmic epic best. What is more, if you have in the entirety of your lifetime of viewing film in general terms ever seen another montage of dramatic opening ceremony so extraordinarily compelling and in keeping so perfectly in alliance with the accompanying cacophony of sound placed within a genre film as fascinatingly paced and quite as astonishing and as breathtakingly spectacular as Suspiria; then clearly you need to let us know – but seriously think before you offer forward any serious contenders, though all offers are openly welcomed and we would honestly like to know your personal thoughts on these matters! The superlatives don’t just end there however so hold on guys we’re not quite finished dribbling down our chins just yet, or in my case the greying goatee because we haven’t even mentioned what we consider to be one of the true great film scores, if not at the very least one of the greatest horror film soundtracks ever? The film score credited by Goblin provide us with a majestic, ominous, onomatopoeic feeling of what becomes an ever present and disturbing element within the fabric of this massive film experience, its inclusion performs perfectly in providing a shocking and terrifying unseen dark spectre that lingers throughout this nightmarish visual spectacle, I kid you not! (… WITCH!) Its very soundscape presence is divine and just increases Suspiria’s winning formula to what is audio connective perfection. Add to this Argento’s beautifully choreographed direction which is simply sublime to the point of absurdity, making the resulting experience offered here as the viewer of this delectable piece of cinema an undoubted masterpiece that is at times so indefatigable, mesmerising and glorious that you frequently have to pinch yourself at how Argento keeps this supernatural pace up for the duration of the films 90 minutes without at any time under-nourishing events, instead choosing to be unrelenting throughout. Its powerful use of colourful visual vibrant supremeness along with Argento’s gloriously helmed camera work, which is unsurpassed and most certainly makes this film the nearest thing to cinematic perfection. Argento is to all intense and purpose an artist who uses film making as his canvas in which to paint his visionary splendour. The simple truth is surely no one imagined that you could make films like this, films that are able to dazzle the mind in so many different conspiring ways at any one time and in the knowledge that once the films spectacular epilogue concludes as the magnificent opening sequence began, you are indeed left in a state of awe and total wonderment at what you have just actually witnessed, faults and all. For those uninitiated to this cinematic spectacle or those looking for their first genuine adventure in horror cinema, then may I suggest you look no further than Argento’s horror epic Suspiria as the first port of call, though there are other Argento classic products available… ‘Oh, the joy!’
Opening commentary: “Suzy Banyon decided to perfect her ballet studies in the most famous school of dance in Europe. She chose the celebrated academy of Freiburg. One day, at nine in the morning, she left Kennedy airport, New York, and arrived in Germany at 10:40 PM local time” The narrator announces? This Grand Guignol extravaganza begins with the appearance of the films main focal character Suzy Banyon, a splendid, iconic performance by the wonderful Jessica Harper. (Argento spotted Jessica Harper after viewing her acting talent in Brian De Palma’s 1974 classic, Phantom of the Paradise, which TCMR highly recommend by the way! Too this day her performance in Suspiria I feel is still one of the greatest unwitting horror heroine portrayals ever to grace the genre. Her performance is by far and away the best thing in the film and it is needed as what happens around her can be at times disjointed and very unconventional and we are most certainly not just talking about the fantasy celluloid world in which her character becomes entangled within its supernatural pretext but more so it becomes a fantastical world which contains some of the more unusual, unconventional and often bizarre cast characterisations you will ever witness in front of the camera; characters often strange, stereotypical and amazingly freakish at times but also often very one dimensional on closer inspection and most definitely neurotic in their offering. ‘Well then (Mr Reviewer) if you think this, then how can this possibly be the best pure horror film ever made’ I hear you ask. ‘The answer is very simple’ is my reply. Dario Argento never does ensemble quite like any other director on the planet, he often at pains to create a mixture of character creations from principally basic to on occasion decent firmed up peripheral characters based purely on the basis that later in the process of story they will succumb, become visual fodder for – shall we say it – the more gruesome moments of horror carnage that have a tendency to unfold in his work. Argento’s total concentration often becomes focused largely on the use of minimal characterisation or the individual dominance of a much stronger but smaller group of characters or individuals, the latter often being the case. In this film we have four massively dominant female creations. Beside Harper’s, Suzy Banyon we also have the matriarch figure of Miss Tanner – Alida Valli. Valli would also feature in Argento’s sequel to Suspiria. The stunning Inferno (1980) in the second part of what would become ‘the Three Mothers’ trilogy. Joan Bennett, (she of: The House of Dark Shadows (1970) and the subsequent final 1971 season of the original Dark Shadows TV series). In Suspiria Bennett plays Madame Blanc, Co – Vice Directress of the Freiburg dance academy. Finally we have what will be the long suffering character Sara – Stefania Casini, (Bloodstained Shadow 1978), would be friend and confidant of Suzy Banyon and font of bestowed but unwanted knowledge? All four women are very strong character representations and stand out dramatically in a largely female orientated surrounding; this allows Argento to create a buffer for these four very powerful incarnations while others around them simply become mere window dressing for the most part which does help the bigger picture, a scenario often fine with most Argento fans. I must add that there are indeed other important characters that have a functionality and presence during proceedings but despite being potentially fascinating they never ever shine like those just mentioned but nor do we forget some of them in a hurry either. Throughout this review many will be mentioned simply because they create many sub plots within Suspiria’s phantasmagorical framework.
What the Suzy Banyon character provides the audience with is a woman who is immediately taken out of her comfort zone. From the moment she touches down from her trans-Atlantic journey, from New York, landing in a dark and wet Munich, Germany. The audience are greeted by a tired and somewhat dazed Suzy Banyon who on initial visual inspection gives us a brief misnomer that she is a fragile person but as we will later discover can become quite the opposite to initial perception when pressed, ‘feisty’ is the word we are looking for. In one interesting scene later in the film we even see the Miss Tanner character applaud the Banyon character for her steadfastness during a point of principle and quote; “I had no idea you were so strong willed. I see that when you make up your mind about something, nothing will change it for you… My compliments”.
Our heroine heads for the airport terminal doors, they swish open and that action seems to eerily sanction an unseen spirit which suddenly awakens from slumber to meet and greet Banyon into foreign climes, what becomes more apparent is the fact that we immediately and unknowingly become expectant of something potentially phantasmagorical, lurking unseen but present as it seemingly circling our new guest to these shores, though we know not what form this spiritual anathema takes? What we do know is that this character in merely passing through those doors and has undoubtedly stepped across a dark threshold which is most definitely a monumental and uneasy moment for Harper’s character Suzy Banyon who will soon be in the grasp of what will be a life affirming odyssey that will irreparably change everything for our stories would be heroine. A gust of wind blows through the automatic doors and it seems she is unknowingly being watched by an all seeing, uninvited omnipresent entity that may be preordaining her very presence? Outside Suzy is met by a rain storm of biblical proportions which only adds to her sense of already growing frustration and ambiguity. Argento immediately ratchets up the palpable foreboding with a onslaught of sheer sound and vision on a scale you would find difficult to believe within the context of the opening ceremony of a film. With an anthemic soundtrack bubbling away in the background we are introduced to a world like no other, a tale like no other! The unhelpful taxi driver that Suzy flags down is unwilling to help her load up her suitcases and belongings as the rain pours down and the wind blows heavily, lightening intermittently fills the sky and thunder rumbles overhead like a freight train travelling at full speed. On finally getting into the back of the taxi we are offered the first sign of what will become the familiar Banyon face of notable displeasure. Here we are also introduced to a reoccurring character in Argento’s world. The mysterious taxi driver – Fulvio Mingozzi who turns up in the sequel Inferno as, you’ve guessed it? – the mystery taxi driver. He would also appear in Argento’s, Tenebre (1982). And once again he would play a taxi driver in Phenomena (1985). His presence quickly makes his fare feel very uncomfortable in his often abrupt manner and Argento is quick to play on this strange and mysterious character like a mischievous child placing a rubber spider near an unsuspecting sufferer of arachnophobia, waits for a reaction with a sense of tantalising torment. Banyon’s face becomes coated with moving coloured shades of neon blues and reds as the taxi moves off. The odd lightening flash lights up the taxi interior and offers a pure white almost angelic glow to Harper’s beautiful cheek-boned structure. She informs the driver of her destination. During this journey Argento invites us to glance past the falling raindrop coated car windows and view the architecture of the city beyond, despite the dreadful weather conditions. In the next instance the director sends the taxi occupants up a road split on both sides by a thick, mature forest line that leads up to a stunning plum red and gold gilded building, ‘Zum Walfisch’. This place is the ‘Tanz Akademie’ as clearly described over the beautifully constructed archway.
One of the spectacular double black and white lined doors opens. Here we are introduced to the character Pat Hingle – Eva Axén who seems totally oblivious to the presence of our wet and frustrated heroine. This tall, long haired and very flustered person seems to be in the midst of a heated conversation with someone directly inside the building. The noise of the storm makes her conversation indecipherable as she mutters to an unseen figure. At this point the panic stricken girl unwittingly closes the door and she scurries off leaving Suzy still facing the elements. Disgruntled, Suzy presses the intercom in hope of expecting assistance and entry into the building, instead she’s met by a voice of derision, discord and confusion. Her entry is refused and seemingly Suzy must unfortunately take an unscheduled taxi journey to what will be a night at a local hotel one imagines? Before we temporarily wave goodbye to Suzy Banyon as she is driven away, she briefly glimpses a dishevelled figure clumsily dashing through the forest beyond and then she is gone! We note the disenchantment of this figures presence as the forest becomes lit up by the lightening, it illuminates the night sky and the trees intermittently stand tall as from darkness comes sudden spasms of neon flashes of blue electric light. We see the vastness of what surrounds Pat Hingle as she is metaphorically swallowed up by the natural presence of nature as she shuffles unceremoniously through the forests undergrowth. There is a heavy unrelenting metal beat introduced into this cinematic event which adds to the upheaval of the storm as the Hingle character seems to be in the throes of escaping some unknown impending doom while she struggles through the darkness. Somehow Argento takes this moment to joyfully throw us a curve ball as we think this will be the moment when this girl will become the victim of the potential as yet unknown lurking monster of the tale. We become falsely expectant at the prospect that we are about to witness the first impending death of one of the cast members but somehow this confused and scared character like we the audience is finally able to reach a safe haven, her destination and salvation, a friends apartment. The audience are shakily though temporarily reprieved from the terrors and false expectations of what might have been lurking in the woods, waiting to pounce.
After being spared from the possible forest demon, ‘red herring’ Argento afforded us, or did he? Pat Hingle enters the hallway of a beautifully decorated Art Deco designed building. At this point we are offered Axén’s strange penguin waddle across the foyer to the lift/elevator. The next moment we witness Pat in more sedate surroundings, drying her hair in the brief sanity and sanctuary (wry laughter) of her friend Sonia – Susanna Javicoli apartment. They exchange words in what we can only best describe as a very melodramatic back and forth. In these exchanges Hingle tries to explain and many revelations, which includes her expulsion from the Tanz Akademie which goes some way to explaining why she is in a frightful and confused state. She attempts to expand on her noted fractious behaviour by stating to her confused and worried friend; “It’s useless to try and explain it to you. You wouldn’t understand. It all seems so absurd, so fantastic?” These words are cunningly added to invite the viewer to consider what is about to happen, it also allows the director to clearly signpost that he is about to finally unleash hell and will do so without any remorse or consequence to the cinematic assault the Hingle character is about to endure. Argento is clearly telling us Pat Hingle has served her purpose and now comes the punchline? Dialogue withstanding the next several moments of chaos and carnage show several planned set pieces that become one spectacular onslaught as Pat Hingle becomes the focus of those dreaded floating – unseen anathema spirits of which she will succumb to by a physical murderous presence that firstly smashes an hairy arm through the left sided window pane, grabbing the terrified girl. Argento then demonstrates how to make these spectacular scenes amaze in ways you would not normally imagine. It begins when Axén’s face is violently pressed against the second pane of glass before it finally gives way to applied pressure and the victims head smashes through the window, Argento then immediately follows this up with an extremely brutal knife attack that is both savage and unrelenting. So visceral is this scene that Argento’s furious depiction of this attack is finalised by the graphic knife blade penetrating through the heart. It is open heart surgery in a scene of butchery that is forever remembered and today even some 35 years later is still indelibly imprinted on many a horror fans memory bank and for good reason I may add. So with Hingle so dramatically dispatched we think that may be the end of the bloody carnage but as this is Argento’s world the murder and mayhem is not quite over just yet, nor is Pat Hingle left alone in the sanctity of death for she can now serve another purpose as we soon shall witness. Remember Sonia, well in her desperation in seeking the help or hope of neighbourly aid, she unceremoniously ends up in the lobby of the apartment building. As she reaches the foot of the double stairs she is immediately stopped in her tracks by the sudden showering debris of falling glass. She looks up, hands on face and watches as the varicoloured skylight above becomes a fragile sacrificial but beautiful opening gallows door in which we first glimpse the blooded, opened mouthed visage of the late Pat Hingle. Her lifeless and pale bloodied face breaks through one of the individual orange panes. Her weight soon becomes to much to bear for the spider-webbed frame holding together this rainbow splendour and our murder victim suddenly breaks through completely. The agent of death not content with his butchery now creates the ultimate marionette. He has chosen to tie some of the buildings flex cable around the body of his dead victim. Her body falls toward the ground and then her velocity is immediately halted as the wire becomes torque around her neck and her lifeless and bloodied body hangs down from the ceiling. Blood drips onto the beautifully decorated black and white art deco lobby floor. Alas the violent death of Pat Hingle as I said earlier serves a vital importance in upping the Argento carnage. The falling debris of the skylines framework along with the shards of glass have become the brutal impaler of our apartment owner. The camera moves toward a second body. We see that Sonia as also now met her death. A large shard of broken glass has cut through and lodged in her face shark fin like, it is firmly embedded but that alone is not enough to sicken. Argento backs his camera upwards from were the debris as fallen. Here he then reveals a central piece of the skylines framework as found a new place to rest. Human shish-kabab is the best and humorous way to describe the conclusion and extinction of Sonia. The Goblin(s) soundtrack reaches its first massive crescendo and we are left to ponder the madness that as just dramatically ensued.
It is the day after the night before. It is a beautiful sun shiny day and the birds are singing in the trees and you get a feel that the storm of night as cleansed everything. Suzy Banyon walks toward the Tanz Akademie. We also catch first glimpse of Daniel – Flavio Bucci, the schools very own blind pianist who we see tethering his guide dog. Daniel enters the beautiful circular entrance lobby of the academy which is a hive of activity. “Good morning”, A bow of the head toward people walking by and also those stood in deep conversation? “Good morning”, is repeated a second time, so as not to miss anybody out from her cursory manner. As Daniel heads off across the thick oak wood flooring, tapping his white stick as he passes-by, again in response we hear, “good morning Daniel”, in reply Daniel introduces us to an immediate and amazing spellbinding presence. “Good morning Miss Tanner” he is heard replying as he walks away. Alida Valli majestically, soldier like walks forward immediately spotting a stranger as just entered the lobby. Miss Tanner is the lead dance instructor of the academy and is most definitely one of Suspiria’s more prominent characters. For a perfect example of the word ‘matriarchal’ look no further than Valli’s glorious Miss Tanner, absolutely superb! After Suzy introduces herself to the inquisitive Miss Tanner and explains her delay in enrolment Tanner offers the courtesy of introducing Suzy to Madame Blanc – Joan Bennett, again a performance worthy of great mention. A character who is often obliging and forthright and often indicates a dislike for impetuousness and interruption, this is quickly noted in her fake congeniality that borders on hidden snobbery. Unlike Valli’s Tanner characterisation and ‘camp commandant’ behavioural pattern, Bennett’s Madame Blanc is disturbing in a more alarming and hidden way. The very fact that we know she is hiding something away in her demeanour often becomes more perturbing throughout the film. Only on occasion are we offered a brief and uncomfortable glance into her character through what she does not convey as to the perceived impression she initially gives. We know she is hiding a secret but what it is often drives the audience mad because you know and quickly want to discover what hides behind the growing false façade. Madame Blanc is a very calm and calculated person and even the often abrasive manner of Miss Tanner soon becomes temperate when in the presence of this woman. She commands respect and it seems that all in her charge obey without objection. After a brief discussion between the new student and the Directress, Madame Blanc mentions a ‘Banyon from New York’. Suzy informs her that she is indeed the niece of the aforementioned Carole Banyon. Pleasantries exchanged, Madame Blanc leaves Suzy in the hands of Miss Tanner not before informing the new student that the gentlemen to whom she his speaking to are actually policemen investigating a heinous crime. They are there regarding the death of a student that was expelled from the academy the previous day, one Pat Hingle who we are informed as been murdered. (Yes, we already know that Madame Blanc and it was carnage lady… bloody carnage!)
Over the next several moments courtesy of Miss Tanner’s induction, Suzy Banyon is introduced to The tall and stone jawed Romanian handyman Pavlo – Giuseppe Transocchi, like many of the service staff/servants he is generally taciturnly inclined. Miss Tanner spends no time in mocking him, even revelling when informing Suzy of his problem with gingivitis. We are finally led to the top of the staircase and enter the locker room. Here we are introduced to Caroline (The Tell-tale) – Renata Zamengo and then a whole array of strange and standoffish characters often crass and quite childish in behaviour as soon illustrated in more detail by the child like and immature taunting and squabbling interaction, in particular the malevolence of Sara – Stefania Casini and Olga – Barbara Magnolfi.
During the settling in period of one Miss Banyon we are transferred to the apartment of Olga who unceremoniously it seems has become Suzy’s landlord. Here we are introduced to what is often apparent in the script and throughout proceedings a stereotypical catcall disposition and commentary in Olga’s trait, who similar and not unlike Miss Tanner likes to gossip and stir things up a little in her brief. When Mark – Miguel Bosé arrives at the apartment with Suzy’s luggage, Olga takes no time in letting us know about how ‘Tanner’ uses Mark’s class standing and background, his circumstance and lack of financial assistance to procure a form of slavery from him. This moment also fleshes out not just Olga who it seems has a mischievous and often spiteful behavioural manner to her character, (Speaking ill of the recently deceased Pat Hingle) but also offers us a rough guide to other aspects of what to expect further down the line.
Right enough of introductions and more importantly on to the next scene. This moment of direction I have to say is one of my favourite in cinematic history. The transference from the ‘red’ room to the ‘yellow’ room though initially seems what would be considered a basic premise, a none event suddenly becomes a moment of sheer Argento genius and delight. As Suzy transfers from one part of the building to another, we see her become separated from the rest of the group as she walks down the plush, luscious red, beautifully extravagant architectural corridor of the Tanz, the Goblin(s) soundtrack hauntingly breaks the exchanged silence and introduces a music box tone to a scene in which we are unknowingly witnessing the casting of a witches spell. The subtlety of this event his quite stunning and initially you are not quite sure what as just happened in fact? Suzy firstly becomes scarily mesmerized and then temporarily becomes what we perceive in her sudden actions as uncontrollably disorientated. In her confusion she is confronted by a female servant/maid – Franca Scagnetti, an ogre like figure who is sat in the corridor starring back at her. The servant is polishing silverware. Stood by her side is a blonde haired, ashen looking child, (Madame Blanc’s Nephew) Albert – Jacopo Mariani, he is wearing traditional pale blue crushed velvet Lederhosen. The female servant is now holding an ornamental glass shard which suddenly catches a white light which appears from nowhere it seems? This sudden unexpected light dazzles Suzy into a trance like state, a background noise suddenly whispers the word …’WITCH?’ The arc of light cuts across the corridor like an opaque curtain suddenly dividing Suzy from the seated ogre and child, he now manically smiling like a naughty boy up to no good. A fine dust falls like snow in the white lights ray. (La, la, la, la, la, la?) begins to torment the senses as the Goblin(s) soundtrack whispers its incantation toward Suzy. She attempts with great sickly difficulty to guide herself away from the corridor almost fainting in the process of this hallucinogenic surge. The camerawork is nothing short of incredible and the scene is all encompassing and quite literally astonishing. This a lesson in how you film the casting of a spell, decades before Harry Potter was but a distant dream of J.K. Rowling’s imaginings. Honestly as a unique set piece it takes ones breath away even now. No sooner as Suzy broken through the barrier of the corridor light and finally reaches her destination and enters the ‘yellow’ room. The exhausted Suzy still stunned and discombobulated seems unaware she has just passed over the threshold of a supernatural occurrence. At this point Miss Tanner unaware or simply unconcerned with Suzy’s obvious discord wants to see her new student put through her paces. At this point our heroine is pressed into a physical workout which ends in her succumbing to a sudden illness in which she finally passes out. Suzy awakens with Miss Tanner attempting to pour a jug of water into her mouth, a bizarre moment indeed. Madame Blanc informs Suzy that Olga as returned Suzy’s luggage to the academy and she now finds herself boarding in one of the school dorm rooms, this is the moment we are introduced to Professor Verdegast – Renato Scarpa the schools physician who explains Suzy’s condition and explains why she may have suffered a slight haemorrhaging. He immediately puts Suzy on a restricted diet of wine and fish. The Verdegast character seems extrovert and as a slight air of creepiness about him.
There is a feeling of bitter disappointment for Suzy in respect that she now has to board at the school and makes the point clear when discussing matters with her new dormitory neighbour Sara. This all too brief friendship with Sara will soon open up a world of mystery, creating an important thread in the storyline, it also allows an unseen presence to keep a watchful eye on the two girls who will possibly become problematic in future perhaps? We will also soon find many revelations regarding the Sara character. This friendship will have to negotiate some very strange moments to come. Before all that however Argento being the director that he is will throw into his film some strange set pieces just to keep you on edge and help the tale gather a twisted momentum.
The first of those strange events comes in the form of the famous maggot infestation. Several unusual moments in which sound and vision come to the fore. From screaming students to Miss Tanner investigating the source of this infestation. The crunching of maggots under foot is fantastic. Though the explanation for this event is a nonsense, a moment simply applied to proceedings just to create a building anticipation, so we except Madame Blanc’s lame scripted explanation because let us be honest, it is all we are offered. To be fair the situation does allow Argento to gather up the students and offer them a night in sharing the practice hall which is turned into a communal dorm. As the lights go out and the girls settle in for the night, Argento again provides the screen with a colourful palette of searing reds and blues which illuminate through the white sheeted hall, allowing the shadowing of objects and people to be silhouetted beyond. Suzy and Sara settle down into their make shift sleeping quarters. Sara in conversation begins to add a touch of paranoia into proceedings by investing Suzy into a creepy world of intrigue and suspicion. Her tale is ignited firstly by The Goblin(s) music playing mischief, this is quickly followed by a strange grumbling, snoring noise that seems to be emanating from beyond the silhouetted sheets. Sara goes on to tell Suzy of the ‘Directress’, founder of the Tanz Akademie. She performs this task by whispering the tale. It plants a seed that in a few moments will lead to more extended revelations as Sara slowly but surely draws Suzy unknowingly into the absurd world of the occult. This build up between Sara and Suzy simmers and for good reason. Argento wants to use the ‘confidant’ relationship in a subtle way and tries not to rush things. ‘Patience is of a virtue’ and beside, before Suzy becomes fully engaged into said paranoia our director as something else install. I call this little detour “The wrath of the coven”. Remember Daniel the blind pianist and his faithful guide dog? Do you also remember the lederhosen wearing creepy nephew Albert and the ogre looking maid? Well take one dog bite, one screaming child, Miss Tanner storm trooping through the academy corridors into the yellow room were she then expels, by verbally and physically casting Daniel out because his hound as bitten Madame Blanc’s nephew. This moment of confrontation is truly wonderful. Tanner shows her more ferocious side and the shouting match of blame and recriminations begin. The consequences of this confrontation will have an adverse effect later on but for the time being Argento leaves us with a second strand of storyline hanging in the balance.
We reach late evening and Suzy as partaken of her Verdegast dietary meal. Sara sits with Suzy and conversation regarding the teachers and the mystery surrounding whether or not they stay in the school in the late evening or leave the premises is broached? Unbeknown to Sara her friend Suzy as become drowsy, has she been drugged? Before Suzy falls into catatonia both girls devise a way of noting the whereabouts and movements of the Akademie staff by counting footsteps and trying to identify distance and direction and come to an interesting but as yet inconclusive summation, further does Sara’s increasing paranoia and intrigue have any real validity. Again you may think this matter is irrelevant but what the director does here is allow this segway in order to take us down the Tanz corridors in darkness. The spectral element that seems to listen to every conversation, know everything that is going on with its students and staff alike is ever present throughout the film. Sara’s latest discussion with Suzy seems to awaken and takes us on a brief journey around the labyrinthine building. We are being visually informed that our wandering spirit is most certainly onto the two girls but for now this entity, or those controlling it has other plans? Sara and Suzy can surely wait?
With Tanner’s threats still ringing in his ears, Daniel is seen leaving the local bierkeller. There is a full moon penetrating the darkness. Daniel and his guide dog are now walking home. They pass by two police officers on their journey home. Guided by his faithful dog Daniel now walks across the beautiful plaza square. The Goblin(s) music fires up once again. Daniel and his dog stop central to the square. Argento offers us the moonlit beauty of this obvious historical setting. He also optimise’s the surroundings and uses the monumental buildings as a perch, a vantage point for what becomes a building foreboding. The camera work in this scene is magnificent and Argento now uses his unique direction and somehow he invites us to become a ominous bird of prey as we sweep across the square and begin to torment the blind-man and his guide dog. They are being teased and tormented as this unseen, flying spirit seemingly performs a flyby. With Daniel and the canine now well and truly spooked Daniel begins to shout out in fear. The dog becomes erratic and begins to bark at this unseen spectre. In the next instance the dog suddenly becomes silent as the metal beat of an electric percussion thumps out and Argento uses light upon one of the monolithic buildings to again suggest via a moving shadow across the vast granite pillows that there is a presence haunting Daniel, stalking him, teasing him. As the music temporarily fades in decibel levels Daniels trusty companion suddenly and without warning turns leaps up at his master and grabs him by his throat. Daniel is felled and the dog begins to tear away at the throat of the blind man. The music raises its levels once again as the director makes us watch Daniel suffer the indignity of having the dog eat his throaty meat. Blood pours as the dog rips away at the flesh and our victim gurgles and then coughs up his liquid lifeline. This set piece is vast and yet again spectacular. Its scale and use is quite astounding and for me shows Dario Argento at the peak of form. It is impossible in words to describe how he manages to control the vastness and scale of this terrifying scene but he brings to close this horrific moment with a long shot that shows the two police officers running toward the slain Daniel. The dog barks and then runs away in the opposite direction as one officer kneels while the other is seen pursuing the dog. The musical crescendo throttles out its final blood curdling cry and we are left with eyes wide and a chilled cold sweat upon our flesh. ‘Extraordinary!’
After a brief discussion with Madame Blanc regarding the subject of the death of Pat Hingle. Suzy brings to light new information regarding the night she arrived at the academy. (Iris and secret?) I will leave it there for now and move on. Let us just say that Suzy’s broaching of the subject to those in charge hastens Sara to deliver a full confession of the facts to Suzy for she fears informing the Co – Vice Directress of her new information may now force Sara’s hand. It transpires Pat Hingle had told Sara of her concerns regarding what was secretly happening behind the closed doors of the Tanz. This explanation reveals little other than Suzy finally finding out who it was that had refused her entry that night she tried entering the Tanz Academy. Sara also mentions that she as informed someone outside of the academy, a Doctor Frank Mandel about her theories that in all probability the Tanz may be a cover for what Pat Hingle had discovered was is witches coven. What little uncorroborated knowledge or evidence is divulged it seems Sara may be suggesting to Suzy that Pat Hingle’s death may have directly had something to do with what lies within the academy and why Sara lives in fear of retribution?
From news of the death of Daniel to a swim of enlightenment and yet another evening of Suzy not being very receptive to Sara’s panic laden concerns the film begins to conspire and the focus turns to Sara. Another evening in Suzy’s company, again suggests she’s under the influence of some kind of anaesthetic. (That damn Verdegast diet again?) Sara’s concern grows as she attempts to break through the haggled, largely unresponsive, communicative state of Suzy, Sara attempts to summon Suzy’s help and support but again is unsuccessful. She tries her utmost to inform Suzy that she believes she herself to be in great danger, her plea’s are met with no reciprocation. We reach the one hour mark of this superb horror epic – queue the stalking? The next nine, yes nine nerve jangling moments of suspense and fear are both beautiful, exhilarating, extremely creepy and very scary in equal measures. Sara for her extra curricular activity and her investigative prying soon gains the wrath of the alleged coven will soon be chased around the dark but colourful technicolor corridors like a mouse lost in a maze. Stefania Casini’s long suffering character attack, I found myself associating with most because of her continued torment and terror not to dissimilar to what is possibly ones worse possible reoccurring nightmare, which with many whom dream will have a continual familiarity with many who suffer such dreaded sleeping thoughts, a point that most certainly provokes the greatest response. Often being chased within dreams by an unknown assailant, while you haplessly try to flee from inevitable capture would most certainly be up there with the most distinctive recognition of this feared state of sleep I would suggest. Thanks to Argento’s visionary output this film comes too close for comfort in providing then delivering that real emotion of nightmarishly uncontrolled terror, a genuine walk through an inescapable nightmare. Would I be exaggerating in suggesting that this prolonged set piece is not only disturbingly disorientating at times but it also provides a roller coaster ride that is longer than any other torment you have visually experienced on screen perhaps? Argento takes every conceivable nuance of helplessness and incorporates them into this astonishing layered and madcap assault of the senses, attacking with wave after wave of everything you may possibly wish for within this very macabre chase scene. The director offers us all manner of emotions during the duration of this visual onslaught. Not content with simply sticking to his indulgence in the supernatural narrative of Suspiria he also finds time to reminds us of his own not to distant grass roots as a director of Giallo and delves seamlessly into what established him as a director. In glorious thriller like fashion, from nowhere he gives us a physical character presence whom in traditional Argento ceremony offers up like he did so in the opening death scenes of Pat Hingle and Sonia the apartment owner a visual killer, only this time Argento gifts us the historical trademark gloved effigy familiar to true fans. The black gloves are put on and the idol of the glowing glimpsed blade is removed from its case and we witness the representation of all Argento’s previous madmen/women become present as one in this new incarnation which now stalks in the celluloid interior of Suspiria, this assassin wants to track down its victim and commit to some feverish bloodletting; ‘Go on, you can gulp for breath, if you dare too?’ The cat and mouse of this chase is unforgiving and Sara is toyed with without mercy. Even the odd Crumb of hope provided on occasion are once again ceremoniously dragged away from the grasp of Sara, as she attempts to escape, kicking and screaming from the clutches of her would-be killer. Every time Sara seems to have the upper hand, her sudden deflation once more intoxicates her own fears as the razor blade wielding stalker teases her with his shadowy presence thus nullifying any brief hope she may have of salvation. The mental torture of this character is at times unbearable as every avenue becomes closed off to her possible escape route, (as in nightmares). Silence as we often say is golden and for a passing moment Sara is able to find brief sanctuary. She finds herself in an almost empty room and is able shut out the killer, though she knows he’s lurking just beyond the door. Locked from the inside Sara whom is now understandably going into shock begins a fearful retreat from the door that has partitioned her from the madman that is in pursuit. As the music score temporarily halts, Sara is seen cowering as she hears the clunking sound of metal on metal. The killer in an unswathing attempt to catch his quarry is attempting to flip the lock open with the razor blade. With nothing more than a few empty cases nearby Sara notices the only possible route out of the room is via a window just beyond her physical reach. In her hope of escape she attempts to build a tower of sorts with a combination of a wood crate and a couple of the hefty, empty cases. ‘Click, Click’ the razor blade once more tries to lift and unlock the catch, meanwhile Sara finally reaches the breach of the windowsill. Beyond the window lies another room and beyond that darkened room is an open exit into a hallway beyond. Sara after struggling precariously is finally able to clamber through the tight diameters of the window. She steadies herself before taking a leap of faith into a room cast in shadow. Sara leaps into the unknown. Does she make it? has this leap to freedom allowed her to escape her pursuer? With these nail biting, terror filled nine minutes of tension almost up and with Sara tasting the possibility of freedom, what the master of the macabre does next is inconceivable genius. Argento falsifies his characters probable escape by gifting we the audience and his character Sara the most frightful of deadly obstacles. Sara in a combination of blind faith [literally] and panic jumps into a room full of unravelled razor-wire. Her screams become harrowing as her flesh is being cut with each struggling movement to survive this dreaded entanglement of torture. Regardless, she is somehow spurred on to get to the doorway beyond, no matter what agonies and injuries the cutting wire causes. Despite the wire slowly ripping her to shreds with each movement she bravely, finally reaches out within a touching distance of the doorway. As Sara makes one final stand, a sudden horrifying shake of the head indicates that all her efforts to flee her killer have been in vain. A gloved hand reaches in to the room, grabs her, she screams in terror. The killer raises the razor blade and slides it across her white throat, leaving her bloody flesh violently unzipped.
A fresh day dawns and Suzy enters her neighbours dormitory room. Sara’s room has been abandoned, her wardrobe now lies empty and the first impression you get is that Sara left in a hurry? Miss Tanner with the corroboration of a somewhat unconvincing Mark suggest that Sara was heard leaving in the early hours? With Tanner’s efforts to give a false impression of student discord and Marks obvious ill scripted ‘what to say’ ringing in her ears Suzy becomes worried for her friends well being, her creeping doubts given little credence with the explanation afforded her. With Suzy vaguely remembering Sara mentioning her friend and acquaintance, a Dr Frank Mandel in passing, our heroine decides to waste no time in contacting him. Suzy is asked to meet the doctor at the convention centre in which the sixth meeting on new studies in psychiatry and psychology is gathering. It is here we finally get to meet Frank Mandel – Udo Kier (A genre favourite here at TCMR) He explains his relationship with Sara and also informs Suzy that he once helped her in his professional capacity. Mandel goes on to explain the hows and the whys, he also mentions Sara’s sudden fascination with the ‘Tanz Akademie’ founder, Helena Markos aka The Black Queen. A Greek immigrant who was widely believed to be a witch who we are led to believe was constantly hounded by the local townsfolk for her alleged association with the occult. Mandel informs us that in 1905 Helena Markos died in a fire? These revelations are summarily backed up by one of Dr Mandel’s associates, one Professor Milius – Rudolf Schündler who then uses this juxtaposition to open up the flood gates on possible paranoid behaviour aligned with his synopsis of were witchcraft stands in the grand scale of the understanding of known psychology and that of the more unfamiliar realm of parapsychology. Argento uses these two brief but professional character interactions wisely. Not only do they explain in great detail the association of their fields of expertise but it cleverly goes on to explain in clear Layman’s terms the acknowledgement of what is behind the perceived view of occult science and the study of witchcraft. Not only does the director treat us to a concept of what might be lying behind the madness but he also treats his audience with great respect and quite literally tries to educate certain underlying factors and misconceptions we may have has to whether we could believe in parapsychology or at least the concept of it as even a possible psychological illness. You do not often get this offered in many horror films and Argento shows here that not only can he enthral with his maniacal visions but also delight in explanations that make the ride even more persuasive than before. Only William Freidkin’s The Exorcist, 1973 (a film that featured Rudolf Schündler?) as ever taken the elaborate time to combine the possibility of science evolving in a world that believe profusely in religion or the occult as a cohabitant social alternative. In offering this logic and understanding we contemplate the mass appeal of what many would otherwise consider hokum? This clever interaction is truly fascinating, something of a treat in which to hear a social commentary placed in what is after all just another horror film. Paranoia or magic? As quoted in the title of character, Professor Milius book.
Suzy on returning to the academy mysteriously finds herself alone. The explanation for the sudden absence of the students is offered by the Ogre maid who informs Suzy that Miss Tanner received tickets to the theatre and took all the students. Is Suzy herself now in the realms of a self induced paranoia or has Sara’s concerns brought to light an inference that must now be questioned. In the next twenty minutes Argento starts to unravel the complexities of the Tanz. After disposing of her evenings Verdegast diet she begins to worriedly contemplate the implications of what might hide behind the Akademie facade. During this time Suzy becomes opened to the supernatural elements that surround her. It seems the absence of all the students affords a plague of events that then unrelentingly begin to attack Suzy. ‘The bat in her room panic’ starts a chain of events that leads her on a journey of discovery and answers. All is cinematically revealed in an onslaught of stunning visual events which start to unfold. During this climatic epilogue we are offered a conclusion to the ‘iris’s, secret’ mystery and Suzy (Sherlock Holmes like) finds a hidden, secret part of the Tanz which is now revealed. The opening of this secret door leads to witchcraft induced reanimation of a dead friend, (simply terrifying?) The gathering of the coven members and all its conspirators are revealed in full glory, again the spooky and spectacular inference of how this unfolds is very creepy and very unnerving indeed. The revelation regarding Helena Markos comes to the fore, revealing an apparition, a ghostly spirit of the founding witch. The confrontation scene between Suzy and the ‘Black Queen’ is technicolor and sound wonder. Here we are also offered another quick self homage to Argento’s own work with a salute, again literally to his 1970 classic, L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo – The Bird with the Crystal Plumage? This finale is glorious and needs to be seen to be lovingly appreciated.
All I can say about this film has been conveyed in my usual long winded and imitable way but I hope nonetheless I can do Suspiria a reviewable justice. Suspiria is a delight of the horror genre on every level that is possible to place in one monumental celluloid epic. For the reasons I have noted throughout this review that is why I believe even pushing its 40 years, it is still Argento’s finest moment. A horror epic of extraordinary proportions that to this day as been unsurpassed by any other director and sadly and possibly with a hint of irony nor by Dario Argento? Many Argento fans will argue that Suspiria is not his best work and truthfully there are many contenders, I agree and would not argue against other choices, again as I have already gone on record as signifying previously in my earlier part of my biographical review of the man, I said how truly wonderful some of his other work was but my personal choice has to be Suspiria, which is all the more confounding when I consider what I originally thought of this film when I first viewed it those many decades past? Is it not strange how things truly change. We had to wait 27 long years from Inferno, (1980) for the final instalment of what had been previous two glorious, unsurpassed masterpieces of Argento magic of what would hopefully be an immense and impressive trilogy when finally completed. In 2007, Mother of Tears, became a reality but alas ‘anti-climatic’ is a word I will extend on this occasion and that is me being very diplomatic and polite about the final film? So let us leave Mater Lachrymarum to weep … “and yes there is a very poor pun in there somewhere?” Sadly La terza madre though a brave attempt in a world which today no longer offers the financial clout the talents of the great Dario Argento once had means that his production values have in recent decades been lowered. Due to the financial restraint it is hard to see this amazing director ever getting to make that one final epic all Argento fans have longed for since his creative pinnacle more or less ended in the mid 1980’s. The Three Mothers, though part of the triumvirate trilogy sadly cannot be mentioned in the same breath as either Suspiria nor Inferno, so perhaps we should appreciate and not be greedy that at least two out of the three, weren’t bad! E.D. Leach.