My 100 Favourite Films In Review – Number 87, Suspiria

87 – Suspiria:

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I described this film as a cult classic in my last review, and I suppose that’s sort of true. I mean, critics savaged it when it first came out – but it found its audience eventually. At the same time, I have to wonder if a film can count as a cult classic when it’s also its director’s most successful commercial project? I’ll leave that one up for debate. But anyway, Italian director Dario Argento developed this story from two distinct sources. The first was the screenwriter’s grandmother, who claimed she went to a ballet academy that was later found out to also practice witchcraft. The second was a book, where the film also gets its title from. The book suggested that, since there were the three graces (Hope, Faith and Charity), there had to be an evil counterpart to them. These would be the three sorrows, and Argento developed the Three Mothers to go with them; Mater Suspiriorum (the mother of sighs), Mater Tenebrarum (the mother of darkness) and Mater Lachrymarum (the mother of tears). Each of them plays the villain of a film in Argento’s ‘Three Mothers Trilogy’. This particular film is the first in said trilogy.

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Immediately as the film opens, we’re greeted with a now-iconic theme song much like those of Psycho, The Exorcist and Halloween. The music of the film is almost as recognisable as its visuals; composed by an Italian progressive rock band Goblins, with whom Argento collaborated a lot. We meet our heroine Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) – an American who has just arrived in Germany to study at a prestigious dance academy. Her trip hasn’t got off to the best start, as there’s a terrible storm at the airport. We’re only three minutes into the movie and Argento has already capitalised on the inherent fear of arriving alone in a strange country. Jessica Harper does the doe-eyed deer in headlights look to good effect too.

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Helped by being in actual headlights of course.

When Suzy arrives at the academy, there’s a girl leaving in some kind of distress. And when she asks on the intercom, no one will let her in. So she gets back in the taxi to presumably find a hotel room for the night. While in the car, she spots the other girl running through the woods. We now follow that girl – Pat – as she goes to stay with a friend (?) in quite possibly the gaudiest apartment complex ever.

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It’s probably best to note that this film is in English but it clearly wasn’t recorded like that. Most of the cast already knew they were going to be dubbed in post, so there were a few different languages being spoken on set. Sometimes the dubbing is fine, and others it isn’t. Particularly with Pat and her friend. The mouth movements sync up most of the time, but it doesn’t sound quite natural. It was actually common practice in Italian cinema to not record the sound on set, and just dub it in later. Anyway it turns out that Pat has been kicked out of school, because she’s discovered something “so absurd, so fantastic”. But before she can explain, she’s attacked in the bathroom. This horrific scene might be lost on viewers who grew up with so many slasher films around, or else modern torture porn like Saw or Hostel. But in 1977 slashers hadn’t really kicked off yet. And in a horror film, such a brutal scene would normally happen as the climax. So to put a murder of the scale usually reserved for the end of a film at the start? Well, audiences were shocked and terrified. Even I was shocked when I first saw the scene at age fourteen. It ends with Pat being hung in the lobby, and her friend impaled with a pane of glass.

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Suzy arrives at the academy the next morning, and it’s much less intimidating by day. But the intimidation factor is made up by the instructor Miss Tanner (Alida Valli). Not that she’s rude or anything; it’s just clear she’s bad news. She introduces Suzy to Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) but not to the company Directress – who’s abroad at the moment. The police are at the school to investigate the murder of Pat. Apparently her last name was Hingle…

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Yes, really.

But she had been expelled only yesterday. Suzy can confirm that she left the school at around eleven in the night. She’s next introduced to the rest of the students – most of whom are quite aloof and materialistic. She gets two friends in Olga – who she’ll be renting a room from – and Sara – the lone nice girl in the bunch. At this point it’s important to note that Dario Argento’s original treatment would have had preteen girls as the students. He was advised to age them up, since a violent movie involving children was sure to be banned. He decided not to change the script at all, which explains the childish dialogue in this particular scene. It’s not as if this kind of thing is unheard of…

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Pictured: all meant to be fifteen-year-olds.

As cringey as it is here, it actually doesn’t affect the movie too much. The only other remnant from this plot point is the fact that Suzy opts to rent a room from Olga instead of living at the school. The reasoning for this is that Suzy doesn’t want to board at school “like a kid” – despite this costing her $50. I doubt you’d find any twenty something who’d turn down a free room just because it would make them feel childish. But Olga’s apartment sure is pretty…

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And doubles as stoner repellent apparently.

The two of them talk about the murdered Pat, Olga saying she was always getting into trouble. Suzy now remembers hearing her shout something in the storm before she left. She can only remember two words: ‘secret’ and ‘iris’. The next day, Suzy has a bit of a run-in with Miss Tanner and Madame Blanc – where she insists she’ll stay at Olga’s instead of at the school. She also has a run-in with a nasty-looking woman who I assume is Madame Blanc’s sister (as she’s seen taking care of the latter’s nephew). Since the movie’s creepy theme plays, it seems something’s happened to Suzy. Sure enough, she feels very weak in class – and faints on the spot.

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Suzy regains consciousness in the free room at the school – with the revelation that Olga has brought all her things over. The doctor says she must have had a mild haemorrhage, and prescribes her some bland food for the week. He also insists on a glass of red wine with each meal. I sincerely hope that wasn’t in the script when the film was about twelve-year-olds. But there is a silver lining to it all: Suzy’s room is next door to Sara’s. Before the girls can enjoy this however, something unpleasant interrupts them. Maggots are falling from the ceiling.

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Madame Blanc explains that they ordered some food that must have arrived spoiled. Only the floor with the students’ rooms was affected – so beds are to be laid out in the dance hall for the night. The teachers will sleep there too, but Sara explains that they live in town normally. After another unnecessarily childish exchange between Sara and Olga, Sara hears a distinctive snoring coming from the sheet behind them. She remembers hearing such a noise one night when the company Directress stayed in the room next to hers. So that must be the Directress behind the sheet – even though she’s meant to be abroad. It’s a testament to the atmosphere Argento has created that something as simple as an old woman snoring could be creepy. The whole scene is lit with a red filter that just emphasises the tone.

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The next morning, Sara asks Miss Tanner if the Directress was in the school last night – which she replies in the negative. Fumigation has now finished in the school, but that doesn’t mean everything is peaceful. The pianist Daniel is blind and has a guide dog he keeps outside. For some reason, the dog bit Madame Blanc’s nephew. After a shouting match with Miss Tanner in the studio, they come to a non-peaceful mutual agreement that his job is non-existent now. That night, Sara and Suzy listen to the sounds of the teachers leaving to go into town. But Suzy has noticed that the footsteps aren’t heading in the direction of the front door; but somewhere inside the school. So that means they don’t live in town, as they had been claiming. Sara decides to count the footsteps. As she does this, we’re shown a sequence that really sells the surreal quality of this movie. I’m not particularly good at describing atmosphere, but this just adds to the dreamlike tone of the movie. What it lacks in the script department, it makes up for in tone and horror.

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And raising the bar for interior decorators.

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The fired Daniel is drowning his sorrows at some weird Octoberfest type event. But when he walks home, the creepy music lets us know that something is about to happen. Daniel becomes convinced that something is following and/or watching him. And then for no reason, his guide dog suddenly turns on him. By the time Suzy has heard about the events, she’s persuaded to go to Madame Blanc about what Pat said the night she died. Madame doesn’t know what ‘secret’ or ‘iris’ means but says she’ll let the police know. Later, when Suzy and Sara are using the swimming pool, the latter confesses that she was the one Suzy spoke to on the intercom when Pat was leaving. She had been Pat’s friend, and the girl had been suspicious about the school for weeks. The only other person Sara told about it is one of her psychiatrist friends Frank Mandel. Pat had taken several notes about what she’d found, which she gave to Sara. But when Sara goes to show Suzy the notes in her room, she finds that they’ve been stolen. The only thing Sara has left is the piece of paper where she took note of the teachers’ footsteps. Sara asks her friend if she knows anything about witches.

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All from after this film was made, so probably very little.

But Suzy is unusually groggy and passes out. Sara realises she is alone now – and can feel something coming. She flees upstairs and into the attic, where someone is now definitely trying to come after her. Although that was just two sentences, it’s considerably much more exciting than how I wrote it. This movie predates Halloween by one year, Friday the 13th by three years, and Nightmare On Elm Street by seven years. Slasher films were starting to appear all over the place, ever since the likes of Psycho and Peeping Tom. But they wouldn’t really explode in popularity until Halloween came along. You can tell that this film is both following the rules that had already been set, while also laying groundwork for others to follow. Slasher films were actually heavily influenced by Italian cinema too. As such, it’s all the more surprising how darn effective this sequence still is. Friday the 13th doesn’t look like much at all these days, due to being ripped off and imitated so often. But this scene still holds up, helped by Argento’s surreal direction. Also Sara is a pretty likeable character, so we actually care whether or not she dies. Unfortunately, just when you think she’s got to safety, she falls into a pit of razor wire.

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After struggling for a few minutes, an unseen person slashes her throat with a razor. Suzy finds Sara’s room empty the next morning, Miss Tanner claiming she packed up and left without telling anyone. Suzy naturally isn’t convinced and decides to ring Sara’s friend Frank Mandel. He doesn’t know where she is but he agrees to meet Suzy. Frank is played by a just-starting-out Udo Kier – who would eventually become a huge cult actor in B-movies. As there are no vampires in this movie, he’s just playing a human. Apparently Sara was his patient years ago and they remained friends. She had told him her wild ideas about the school – after hearing that the academy was founded by a woman called Helena Markos. Known in some circles as the ‘Black Queen’, she had been exiled from several countries for witchcraft. The academy was founded as a school of both dancing and the occult – but after Markos died in a fire, the occult part was abandoned.

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Frank is sceptical about Sara’s theories – but he introduces a colleague of his, Professor Milius. He knows all about witches and has studied the phenomenon for years. According to him, witches seek to become rich through injury to others. He knows all about Helena Markos too – as she was quite famous for her evil deeds. Suzy gets her third useful bit of exposition – being told that most witches answer to their coven head. Defeat them and the coven loses its power. The effectiveness of this scene is slightly diminished by the dubbing. It’s the most noticeable here.

That night at the school, Suzy finds all the students gone. They’ve all apparently gone to the ballet for the evening. Suzy is understandably suspicious, and guesses that the strict diet she’s been on is the reason she’s been getting so groggy all the time. When she tries to telephone Frank, a storm hits and the line goes dead. Suzy pours all her food down the drain, and is suddenly terrorised by a bat getting inside. After she kills it, she reads the one note Sara left her – where she counts the teachers’ footsteps. So she decides to follow them. For those who are wondering how she would do this, it’s the number of footsteps from their rooms. Suzy knows they’re going to the right, which is somewhere further into the school. This brings her to Madame Blanc’s empty office. She now remembers what Pat had said:

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“I saw the secret behind the door. Three irises. Turn the blue one.”

And indeed this opens a secret door. But to be honest it would be a crime to keep such décor a complete secret.

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This is probably why the entire coven is gathered in here. It seems that most of the teachers are in the coven – with Madame Blanc apparently as the head. Suzy overhears Madame saying they must “get rid of that bitch of an American girl” – all the while praying to Helena Markos for power. The mood isn’t helped by Suzy discovering the body of Sara. She’s able to keep quiet though, and sneaks into another room. Unfortunately, she recognises the distinctive snoring.

It turns out that the Directress she’s never met is actually Helena Markos – still alive. Supplementary materials tell us that she did not die in the fire that everyone thought killed her; she just faked her death and kept practicing witchcraft in secret. Markos is also the Mother of Sighs, the oldest and wisest of the three. She’s gifted with the power of invisibility, making it rather hard for Suzy to kill her. Markos also apparently can resurrect the dead – and Sara’s reanimated corpse comes after Suzy with a knife. But Suzy notices that the lightning flashes illuminate the witch’s silhouette – and stabs her. The Sara zombie is just an illusion, and Helena Markos’s invisibility is destroyed.

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For years, no one knew the identity of the woman that played her – but it’s now been revealed as Lela Svasta. Jessica Harper claims that she was a 90-year-old former prostitute that Argento found on the streets of Rome. With her power now diminished, Suzy is able to kill her. The entire academy starts falling apart, and the rest of the coven are seen strangling to death. Suzy escapes and is left laughing mad as the academy burns down behind her.

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Before we wrap things up, there are a few frequently asked questions about certain story elements. Since I’ve seen this movie loads of times, I’ll try to answer most of them.

Why do they make Suzy sick for no reason?

The witches make Suzy sick because she wouldn’t stay at the school. It’s possible the witches want all the students to live at the school so they could keep them under control. They’re implied to control Suzy through her food, and thus it’s hard to control her if she’s not living there. Olga appears to be the exception – but since Suzy has to rent a room from her, it implies she owns the place. On a more superficial level, Madame Blanc could have been offended by Suzy being so presumptuous – and thus made her sick to teach her a lesson.

What was the point of the maggots?

The maggots falling from the ceiling was to get all the girls out so they could search the rooms. One of the teachers says that it’s only the floor with the students’ rooms affected by the maggots. It gives the teachers a chance to search through the rooms without looking suspicious. Notice that Sara’s notes from Pat are gone? The teachers found them and got rid of them that night. Pat had discovered their secret so they were looking for any evidence she may have left behind.

Who is the unseen murderer of Pat and Sara?

Pat’s murderer is Helena Markos herself. As seen in the ending, she has the power to become invisible. So it is she who attacks Pat out of nowhere in the other girl’s apartment. We can assume that it’s her who kills Sara, though it could easily be any of the other coven members. There is an implication that Pablos, the caretaker, killed her (he’s seen staring at her lighter when he brings Suzy’s food, and he has the lighter in the climax).

Why kill X?

Anyone the witches kill has either crossed them in some way or come close to discovering their secret. Pat clearly got as far as the secret passage in Madame Blanc’s study and made a break for it afterwards. They had tried to get rid of her by expelling her. But when she discovered their secrets, she had to be killed. Sara likewise was Pat’s friend and they found the notes in her room – so she had to die too. Daniel appears to have been killed because his dog bit Madame Blanc’s nephew, so it might have just been simple revenge. Presumably the dog would be put down after being found attacking Daniel, so there’s a twofer. There is also a line from Daniel when he’s fired where he says he’s not deaf – implying he may know something about the witches’ secrets too. And they wanted to get rid of Suzy because of what she knew as well. They knew she had been going around with Sara, who definitely knew something.

Why didn’t Suzy die?

From what the movie implies, the witches are able to be somewhat omnipresent – but they’re not invincible. They can’t cause someone to have a heart attack or just stop living. Their magic seems to be limited to influencing other events to trigger death. They pretty much have to kill Pat and Sara the old-fashioned way, while with Daniel they are able to influence the dog somehow. With Suzy, all they were able to do was make her faint and then keep her groggy with something in her food. She was able to kill their coven head before they had a chance to try something more permanent.

Why did everyone else die when Helena Markos did?

Professor Milius explains that the coven gets all its power from the head. If she is eliminated, then they have no power. Presumably they had made an oath or something to join. And when Helena Markos was killed, they died as a result. As for the school burning down, there is something in the book that inspired the Three Mothers; the novel Our Lady of Darkness details that evil hides in buildings or architecture. So I’m guessing that’s where the idea comes from; that if evil dwells in the building, said building will be destroyed when the evil is.

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Anyway Suspiria is one of those films that fails on a couple of levels but succeeds enormously in others. Despite the bad dubbing and the childish dialogue in the script, the movie never falls apart. Dario Argento creates a great surreal atmosphere that sucks the viewer in. I’ve heard many people describe it as the perfect visual representation of a nightmare. That probably sums this movie up exactly. It’s a film that relies solely on atmosphere for its horror. There’s gore yes and lots of it. But it’s used wisely and in a way that’s actually horrifying rather than gratuitous. It’s also helped by having characters who are at least likeable, that we don’t want to see die. Is it a five-star movie? Probably not. But it had enough of an effect on pop culture to spawn two sequels. The next two films – Inferno and Mother of Tears – detail the story of the Three Mothers more than this one. The mythology is only vaguely hinted at here – but it does improve the viewing once you know about it. With such a rich and interesting mythology behind the trilogy, it’s a real shame that neither of the next two movies are any good. Inferno was at least tolerable until the end, but lacked the charm of this one. Mother of Tears was so bad I had to watch it in instalments. There’s both a remake and TV series in the works to explore the mythology a bit more. I’m actually all for it, since it was such a missed opportunity though. My final stance on Suspiria is that it’s flawed but hey, I still love it.

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Movie scores aren’t caused by broken mirrors, but by broken grades.

*Story? It’s simple and it works. The way it’s written down might make it seem like a cheap haunted house ride but it works. The fact that it’s a horror film about witches rather than a masked serial killer helps as well. B

*Characters? You know, I like Suzy. It’s quite shocking to see a heroine like her in a horror film from the 70s. She’s not stupidly investigating strange noises or naively poking about for no reason. She only investigates when she knows that something is after her for example. Sara was a good character too. The witches aren’t developed as villains, but that only serves to make them more sinister. B

*Performances? Well I think the dubbing makes the acting appear worse than it actually is. Since all of the movie was dubbed, some actors were at least able to make things sound as if they weren’t. Jessica Harper is fine as Suzy, as is Stefania Cassini as Sara. Joan Bennett was alright as Madame Blanc. Alida Valli absolutely steals the show however; I almost wish Miss Tanner had been the main villain. C

*Visuals? Gaudy, striking and expressive; what more could I say that I haven’t already. If I could give multiple pluses, I would. A+

*Special Effects? I suppose the bad dubbing would count as an audio effect. And that bat prop left a lot to be desired. Besides that, the rest of the horror effects were pulled off decently enough. B-

*Anything Else? A nicely overpowering and creepy soundtrack goes hand in hand with creating a good atmosphere. Sadly, it’s let down by the childish dialogue in some parts of the script. B-

Our next trip is to the world of YA sci-fi dystopia with Divergent.

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