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This article is a review of Dario Argento’s horror classic Suspiria.
This was the second entry on the proposed series Argento on the Silver Screen, of which only this and Deep Red‘s reviews got made.
Suspiria is Argento’s first true horror film, as in, a pure horror film. Some might think that the Giallos are horror films, but I go by the notion they are in fact thrillers or mystery stories with a greater emphasis on gruesome violence.
But let us go to the review proper, shall we?
So, below is the review for the film…
By the prickling of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.
In this article I continue my review of my favourite films by Dario Argento. And now it’s the witching hour.
Director: Dario Argento
Script: Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi
Editor: Franco Fraticelli
Cinematography: Luciano Tovoli
Cast: Jessica Harper, Alida Valli, Joan Bennett, Stefania Cassini, Barbara Magnolfi, Franca Scagnetti, Flavio Bucci, Udo Kier, Rudolf Schündler, Dario Argento as The Hands Of Murder.
The witching synopsis:
Suzy Bannion, a young American ballet student, arrives from New York at the airport of Munich to enlist in a prestigious dance academy in Freiburg. But even before she leaves the airport, a sense of foreboding passes through Suzy’s mind, as if she is entering a world of dreams.
It’s night and pouring rain outside. With some difficulty, she manages to call a taxi, but not before getting soaked wet. She tells the driver her destination in pretty good German, but the driver doesn’t seem to understand, until she shows a slip of paper with the destination address. The driver finally understands and repeats the same address in a thick local accent.
Arriving at the academy, Suzy sees a frightened girl open the door and shouting something, thanks to the thunderstorm, inaudible to somebody out of sight and leaves the place running. Suzy rings the door and announces herself as the new arrival but the person inside refuses entrance. Suzy has no option but to ask the taxi driver to take her to Freiburg to spend the night there. As she is driving back to town, she sees the distressed girl running through the woods oblivious to all else.
This girl is Pat Hingle, a former academy student who was expelled. She finds shelter at a friend’s apartment, where she confides that something strange and scary is going on at the academy and she’s leaving town for good. The friend is skeptical, thinking Pat is having an emotional episode due to being expelled, but Pat denies her reaction to being caused by that but by a secret she uncovered which would be unbelievable if told. The friend let her stay the night in one of her rooms. Pat locks herself in the room, but as the night goes, somebody sees her from outside and approaches. Pat notices something outside and her curiosity gaining the better of her, she investigates and is attacked from the outside by a hand that breaks through the window glass and smashes her face into the glass until it breaks and carries her to the building’s roof. The friend tries to enter the room and when unable to do so, knocks on every apartment door shouting for help but nobody answers. On the roof, Pat is repeatedly stabbed by an unseen figure, is tied up on a nose by a television cable and thrown through the skylight, getting hanged by the nose as she falls. A shard of the skylight slashed deep into Pat’s friend head and kills her too.
In the morning Suzy arrives at the academy where she is met by Miss Tanner, the head teacher, and is introduced to Madame Blanc, who is the headmistress during the absence of the travelling director. The latter seems to be acquainted with Suzy’s relatives in New York, known for being patrons of the arts. But Madame Blanc’s attention is occupied with the local constabulary, who are asking her questions about her former student, the deceased Pat. Suzy tells the Stadtpolizei that she saw Pat leaving the academy screaming at late night, but she can’t recall what she said due to the thunderstorm outside. Her testimony is thus dismissed as unimportant to the investigation.
Miss Benner introduces Suzy first to Pavlo, the giant mute and dimwitted manservant, and to her dance classmates. Two of them are quickly introduced: Olga, who’s quite the vamp, is Suzy’s landlady since she has her own off-campus spacious apartment of which she rented a room to Suzy. The other girl is Sarah, who takes an instant liking to Suzy. Olga and Sarah, however, don’t seem to have any great love for each other and engage in a petty childish fight with Suzy in the middle. But it turns out that Olga is actually a nice girl, as Suzy finds out later when she is at the latter’s apartment. Olga had previously mocked the student’s snitch to the teachers, and alone with Suzy she shows to be just an affable friendly spoiled sweetheart. For all her lighthearted banter, she feels in fact very saddened by the brutal death of her former colleague, and this prompts Suzy to have a sudden recall of Pat saying the words “secret” and “iris” but nothing else, so those words are all meaningless out of context.
Suzy takes her first dancing lessons right the next day, but before Madama Blanc offers her a room in the dormitory on a very accessible price, but Suzy declines, preferring to stay off-campus with Olga. The decline is accepted begrudgingly by both Blanc and Tanner. As Suzy walks toward the dancing room, she passes the academy’s cook, who looks ominously and spooky to her and a reflection shines from her knife to Suzy. Suzy starts to feel feverish and dizzy and ask Tanner to be dispensed from the lesson, but Tanner commands her to do the lesson anyway, as dance demands sacrifice and sweat and effort to achieve perfection. Suzy complies but it’s obvious that even mere warming exercises even taking a toll on her and she faints and collapses on the floor.
Suzy is taken to her initially destined room in the dormitory, being treated by the academy’s own doctor, who medicates her with a strange diet of fruit and a glass of wine every meal. Sarah happens to be her next room neighbour, their rooms having an adjacent door. Suzy shows surprise for being given the room against her wishes, and that Olga even returned her full month rental back. But Sarah is happy that Suzy is residing next to her, as she is the only other student who is friendly to her.
Preparing for the night’s sleep, the girls notice that there’s larvae falling all over them coming from the ceiling. Miss Tanner discovers that the larvae came from a crate of rotten apples stored in the attic. Madame Blanc arranges an improvised dormitory in the dance practice hall. Very late in the night, a figure arrives and lays to sleep. The snoring awakes Sarah, and she alarms Suzy and tells her that the new figure on the scene is no other then the absent academy director herself, who was said not to return for weeks. She knows for sure, because once she had heard her unique loud snore, which can now be heard right across the room. Sarah suspects that the director never travelled but had been staying in the academy all along. The masquerade makes her believe that something is afoot.
In the morning, Sarah confronts Madame Blanc about the arrival of the director, which the latter denies. During a dance practice, Tanner berates and fires Daniel, the blind piano player, as his guide dog had attacked Albert, the child grandson of the cook. We had seen before that the cook and Albert had approached the dog with the clear intention to provoke it. Daniel gets furious at the accusations, as he claims his guide dog is harmless and must have been provoked. He leaves the academy but not before shouting that he is blind but not deaf, his words carrying a veiled threat. Which was taken seriously, as later that evening, after Daniel leaves from a beer garden and crosses a platz, he senses an evil presence, and he’s proved right, much to his trouble.
At the academy, Sarah continues to confide her suspicion, but Suzy can’t help fight her drowsiness and falls asleep, leaving Sarah feeling alone and increasingly paranoid. The next day Sarah takes Suzy to the swimming pool and tells Suzy stories of strange happenings at the academy, thinking being safe from prying ears, but unbeknownst to them they are being spied from afar.
Later that evening, Suzy falls into deep sleep again and Sarah guesses that it’s an attempt to get at her. She notices that somebody has gone to her room and in a panic she hides her notes in Suzy’s room and leaves, running through the academy corridors looking for a way out, to no avail, as all but the cellar door locked. She is pursued by unrelenting parties, one of them armed with a razor blade, and try as she might she just can’t escape her pursuers.
Next morning Suzy is informed by Miss Tanner that Sarah left the academy late at night, being suddenly called by her parents, with Mark, a student boy that Suzy had taken a shine on, as witness of the occurrence. All this developments makes Suzy confused and suspicious that Sarah could have been unto something after all and phones to get a meeting with an acquaintance of Sarah, Dr. Frank Mandel. Meeting him at a psychiatry conference, Suzy learns that Dr Mandel had been Sarah’s psychiatrist when she had suffered a nervous breakdown some years ago.
Sarah was paranoid and obsessed with the academy, believing that the original founder was still around, Helena Marcus. Dr Mandel had done some research about the academy and learned that it is a building which was built in the late 18th century by an alchemist for a secret society but soon after it was abandoned for many years, only to be taken over by the said Helena Marcus, a Greek emigrant, in the very early 20th century. Dr Mandel used this information to dissuade Sarah that her idea could not be real, as this would had made Helena Marcus be now over 100 years old, an impossibility.
But some of this information makes the gears of Suzy mind work and pressing for more information about Marcus and the academy, Dr Mandel, who claims to be a materialist and a psychiatrist only interested in the real world, decides to invite one colleague of his, Professor Milius, who’s an expert on folklore. Milius tells Suzy that the stories about Helena Marcus, who was considered an evil person and a witch, which Milius attributes merely to the local residents’ superstition and paranoia toward a foreigner. He does inform her of the mystical folklore about witch covens, in that he compares them to a snake, in which while the body is predatory, with the head cut off it immediately dies.
Later that night, Suzy rebels against her medication and refuses to drink the wine and eat the food that is brought to her every evening by Pavlo, flushes it all down the toilet and pours the wine on the sink. She looks out for her colleagues but is informed by the cook that everybody is gone to a ballet recital. Suzy is all alone in the academy. Later in the night, she sees eerie lights from outside, and opening window to investigate she is attacked by a vicious bat, who she manages to overpower and kill. Taking a smoke to calm her nerves, she finds Sarah’s hidden notes, and perked by the adrenaline rush from killing the bat and now taking the words of Sarah seriously, she decides to investigate what are the secrets of the academy and the personnel that runs it. Her investigation leads her to notice that there the building’s architecture dimensions don’t add up, that there are hidden rooms somewhere who hides secrets, dangers and horrors.
Suspiria might have been the first Dario Argento film I ever watched, on TV back in my late teens. If so, I started with one of his most interesting and strangest works, for Suspiria is most definitely that. Often considered to be Argento’s masterpiece, it’s not hard to see why it’s considered so, probably due to how unique it looks and how hard it is to categorize next to other films, even those in the horror genre. Probably the closest companion one can find to Suspiria would be another Argento film, Inferno, which is the sequel and another film with a unique look and style.
The first thing that strikes the viewer is the visual style of the film. Using mostly primary colours, the film creates a strong immediate visual impact that informs the viewer right from the start that this is a story not set in the ordinary world, but a strange realm where the rules are different. The viewer is right away confronted with the notion that this is a magical world created by the film, quite literally. By avoiding the slow build-up from the normal to the magical, the movie keeps the viewer on his toes. The sense of uneasiness starts right away, and we suspect that strange things are afoot and that the protagonist is going to face danger as soon as she enters the story. The eeriness starts even before the protagonist leaves the airport! From then, it’s all build up until the end.
Few other films have been as bold before, during and since Suspiria was made, in the unrelenting bold use of cinematography made almost exclusively of primary colours. It’s just impossible to be indifferent to the film’s look, and I can’t help but feel a profound admiration for it. This style could easily be misused, especially in a story where such a visual style would be nothing but a show-off gimmick. But in Suspiria it’s justified. This is a story about unnatural witchcraft and magic, so the visual matches the unnatural nature of the story and the events it depicts. It’s one of those rare occasions where the pretty images enhances instead of distract from the horror; there the beauty of the images makes the film scarier.
Another striking aspect of the film is the score by Goblin. After their very successful collaboration in the previous film Deep Red, Argento wisely hired again Goblin to compose the soundtrack for Suspiria, and this proved to be a winning decision. Just as the film’s cinematography works overtime to provide the film with its eerie strange mood, so does the music of Goblin. Even today the score sounds avant-garde and bold, how much more so it might have been at the time. No other movie before sounded like this, and few others have since, unless they are deliberately invoking this film as homage. Few other film scores have been able to present evil witchcraft as music as Goblin has for this film.
Frank Zappa once said that writing about music is the same as dancing about architecture, and he made a very good point there. So, maybe I should let the music of this film speak for itself. Listen:
The casting of this film is very effective. I suspect that Argento chose the actors more for their looks and how they would look in front of the camera, as pieces of his image compositions. That is not to say that they act badly, quite the contrary, all actors are game in the film’s strange style and play accordingly, it’s as if everybody understood what kind of film hey were making. But each actor’s face is so striking and perfect for the role that one can’t help but think that knowing that he could get any talented actor he wished, Argento focused more on the looks of the actors. The game paid off, as it’s impossible to imagine any other actors in their roles.
A few words should be said about Alida Valli. Early in her career, when she was a young woman, she was often considered one of the top most beautiful women in European cinema. You can witness that by watching at one of her most famous films of her earlier career, The Third Man, where she plays the female lead. By 1977 age had taken a toll on her looks, her once ethereal beauty now turned into a prototypical matron looks, and in a curious quirk of fate, her still remaining beautiful smile and piercing eyes creating a creepy look to her role of Miss Tanner, a dissonance that only helps to emphasize a certain uneasiness about the character right from the start. All in the service of the film’s tense mood.
But the real masterstroke was the hiring of Jessica Harper as lead.
With her petite delicate pretty features and her big brown eyes, Harper looks like she was deliberately made to be immediately sympathetic at first sight. She makes for a protagonist one immediately takes a liking too just from her first seconds on screen. Looking at the same time naive and yet naturally smart and inquisitive, Harper makes her character Suzy one that never once you take her for an idiot or as vapid as the other characters of the same age in the film. She’s smart enough to not believe right away to Sarah’s crazy ideas about the academy, but she’s nice enough to befriend her anyway and let her new friend indulge in her convictions. Later, when things become strange and crazy, she still makes the believable jump by first looking for outside information. While she is smart enough to be sceptical at first, she is also smart enough to know, when evidence piles up, that something is afoot at the academy and that the most logical conclusion, however crazy and improbably it might be, has to be the right one.
Her combination of smarts and determination, while her delicate looks makes everybody else underestimate her, is an ideal combination for an ideal female protagonist in a tale like this. If today the archetype of the female protagonist is one that can “kick-ass”, at the time Suspiria was made another archetype of film heroine protagonist existed, which was the guile heroine. One who solves the mysteries and the dangers she finds herself in through smarts, intelligent, and immense resolve even if the whole world seems to be conspiring against her. Harper plays the part to perfection.
The naive newcomer who finds a big secret and is instrumental in discovering it and fights against might look like a cliché this days, but if it is, it’s most certainly due to the appeal and influence this movie had on the horror genre, and of that much kudos should be given to the actress Jessica Harper who consolidated the trope, and also to Dario Argento for his wisdom in hiring her. The right casting can help make a movie great, and I can’t imagine anybody else in the role of the protagonist Suzy Bannion than Jessica Harper. I can’t think of a higher praise.
Story goes that the inspiration of the story of this film was a story that the grandmother of co-writer Daria Nicolodi told her when she was a child and she went to a drama school where she discovered that the teachers were also into black magic and she run away on the 3rd day of her stay there. This matches the number of days that Suzy stays at the academy in the movie. But later Dario Argento has disclaimed the veracity of this story, telling that it was all made up to help selling the movie.
Let us not forget that Suspiria was released in 1977, so a bit of historical context is important to understand this movie’s place in the cinema made at that time. In the years roughly between Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Omen and up to Argento’s own Inferno and the 3rd film of the Omen series The Final Conflict, the dominant horror theme was witches, magic and satanism. This trend later slowly phased out and was replaced by the slasher horror films in the wake of Halloween and Friday the 13th series. But Suspiria still fits well into the supernatural horror fever of the era. Sociological studies at the time revealed that the belief in the existence of witches, satanism and parapsychological forces was well accepted and engrained into the mainstream culture of the time, vestiges of the counter-cultural and spiritual movements from the late 60s and early 70s as a reaction to the perceived materialism of the 20th century, namely the economical booms of the 50s and 60s. As such, Suspiria exists in this context. Yes, Suspiria existed to exploit the public’s willingness to believe in and love for supernatural horror stories, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t original and unique in how it tackled the subject. And while many other movies made at that time about the subject have faded from collective memory, Suspiria is even more influential now than ever before. Just as often a Shakespeare play was not the first or original telling of a tale, it did it with such a inventiveness and impact that it became the version to which all look upon and take inspiration from.
But in truth, the real origin of the film is from a 19th century collection of short essays of psychological fantasy by the English essayist Thomas De Quincey called “Suspiria de Profundis” (“Sighs from the Depths”). In particular the essay called “Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow” where De Quincey imagine 3 companions to Levana the ancient Roman goddess of childbirth, those being Mater Lachrymarum, Our Lady of Tears, Mater Suspiriorum, Our Lady of Sighs, and Mater Tenebrarum, Our Lady of Darkness. Mater Suspiriorum was the inspiration for Suspiria and the reason for its title, and Argento would expand further upon the other two Maters in subsequent films.
It’s interesting to note that this is the only film in which Daria Nicolodi collaborated with Argento as a co-writer in which she actually got a screenwriting credit. I do not know the reasons why this happened so. It’s an open secret that Nicolodi co-wrote or heavily contributed to all of Argento’s movies from Deep Red to Opera, but only in this one she was openly credited. I can only speculate, but I suspect that is because at least in the story department, this movie is mostly if not all Nicolodi’s thing. And one of the clues leading to this notion is that, of all the Argento movies he made, this one is exclusively and only focused on the feminine. While there are male characters in the film, and some provide information in the heroine’s quest, the whole perspective of the film, from start to finish, is a female one. There isn’t a single masculine point of view in this film, and even Dario Argento goes along with that, never deviating from the wholesome feminine nature and angle of the story.
Before going further into considerations of subtext in Suspiria, one another aesthetic and subliminal element worth mentioning about the nature of the film as a story of the feminine is the constant presence of water imagery. Water has often been attributed with feminine connotations. In many Romance languages, like my own native Portuguese and the Italian language of the filmmakers of this film, water is a word of female gender. And in Suspiria, water is associated with witchcraft. Suzy’s introduction in the story takes place during a thunderstorm, and by the end of the film another thunderstorm occurs, book-ending a story about witches. All other places, water or water imagery or images made to resemble water, the fluidity of water or rain is seen whenever magic is at work. Water, magic and feminine are the 3 constants in this film from start to finish.
To accuse the film of misogyny is to completely miss the point that the entire film is seen from a female perspective, with the few male characters being merely peripheral, existing either in the background or being very limited to the story and never being actual agents or movers of the plot, only existing as deliverers of information at their most active. If most of the victims of violence and murder in the film are female, it’s because they are the ones who truly are important to the plot and caused an impact in the story. The sole male victim is attacked more out to quiet a nuisance then as him having had any impact to the story whatsoever.
For in this movie, magic is fully a female attribute. Only women are magical. Only women are witches. Only women have the arcane powers and knowledge. The arcana scientia is known only to female characters. The males are seen in the film as either ignorant of its existence or dismissive of such notions; or else as blind obedient servants or victims of the female witches. Of note, the characters of Dr Mandel and Professor Milius are materialists who dismiss witchcraft as mere folklore. Characters like Pavlo, Daniel, Mark and Albert are servants to the witches’s will, and in the case of Daniel and his smallest of defiance, easy defenceless victims.
Otherwise, it’s always a female character who is either in power and in league with the malefic witching powers, or the ones who suspect and discover the truth behind the secret of the academy and it’s staff. Always it’s solely the female characters that wield magic or who are able to fight it. In the universe of this film, magic and witchcraft can only be understood, wielded and used by women or opposed by women.
Had this movie merely been made my men, one could see in it a chauvinistic reaction to the increasing feminism in western society of the time. But the fact that it was a woman who not only created but was probably the most important writer of the script, puts this notion in the realm of knee-jerk misconception and shines a whole new light on this film’s subtext, one we should see more in the context of feminism or even post-feminism.
Taking this into consideration, and seeing that the story is about younger girls discovering a conspiracy to hide a coven of witches in the plain sight of the respectability of a dance academy, the idea that emerges is something different entirely: of the new generation of women rebelling against the older order of female society. The new girls discover an old witch order which influences events from behind the curtains, wielding power by secrecy and deviousness all under the cover of the veneer of polite society. And they oppose it and try to destroy it. If there is a subtext to be taken from Suspiria is that the new generation of women want things to be upfront and and equal, and to reject an hidden culture of femininity disguised as old ladyship but which in truth is as hypocrite and corrupt as the male chauvinism that denied women their most basic rights, both elements of a corrupt past to be eradicated by fire. Interestingly, in the film it’s not the men who are the enemies of the new freedom sought by the younger women, but the conservatism of the older women, who inflict constant punishment for those who do not fit in the line in their order.
I enjoy Suspiria a lot, and it’s a movie I often revisit. Be it for enjoying seeing the clever hidden subtexts or merely to enjoy a really good scary horror film made with immense style and verve and a unique style that few other movies share or can even be compared to, Suspiria is a one of a kind movie. There’s a double meaning to that, because the other movie that can be seen as the closest to Suspiria is the even more unique and crazier Inferno, fittingly this film’s immediate sequel. But that is a story for another day.
As always, thank you for reading.
This is Asimovlives, signing off. Have a better one.