The movies I love: Suspiria (1977)

Dario Argento is the Stephen Spielberg to Italian horror films. This is probably a bad analogy, but I’m not sure that George A. Romero or John Carpenter are relevant typifiers of the horror genre anymore. However, this is not to say that Argento’s films are good, à la Spielberg, just that he is the go-to name of Italian horror. He also spawned the girl who starred in xXx, but the less said about Asia Argento’s contributions to cinema, the better. (Also, who names their daughter after a continent, really?)

His films have three common characteristics: horrendous acting, plots that don’t make sense once you look back on it, and AWESOME music. In the case of Suspiria, he had 1970s experimental rock band Goblin create the score, and it is awesome. In fact, below is the main theme of Suspiria. Listen to it while you read – it’ll be good background music.

Suspiria has all three traits of Argento films, plus one added one – amazing use of colour. The film is often described as “hallucinogenic” – this is due to the film showcasing some amazing and whacked out use of colour. It is one of the more successful Argento films, and certainly the most fondly remembered – it’s certainly a favourite of mine. But this is not to say it’s a necessarily good film. Read on.

First off, it’s an Italian production, with English dialogue. When you first start watching the film, it’s easy to assume they’ve dubbed it – they haven’t, the sound has just been recorded as ADR to the actual filming – which gives it a surreal, uncanny feel after a while.

The opening credits differ depending on what version of the film you see. The American DVD from Anchor Bay gives us a stylised font, whereas the international releases (which you’ll find on the Australian DVD, though I own the Anchor Bay release) has these weird hybrid of a lung and heart organs spelling out the title. I’ll also point out that after seeing the trailers, that it becomes mandatory to pronounce the title as “SAH-SPEAR-REE-UH” in your most whispery demonic voice.

Halfway through the credits, and completely at random, a voiceover tells us that “Susie Banyan 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 p.m. local time.” I love this. I love how oddly specific it is about mundane details, and how it just implies that Susie decided she’d go to this exclusive school, not that she had to audition or anything usual like that. Also – why is it always “the most famous” or “the best” of these schools? Why can’t our protagonists just go to a “good” school, hm? It’s also hilarious in hindsight, as this little blurb sets up nothing we wouldn’t have been able to figure out on our own.

The film stars Jessica Harper as Susie Banyan. Harper is not a great actress, but this is not to say she is terrible – she’s just rather plain. She wears the same expression for basically the entire film – a look of odd concern, or kind of like she’s trying to discreetly see the image in a Magic Eye. Her emotional range also seems to extend to one single monotone for the entire film.

We meet Susie as she arrives in Germany (thank God we know it’s 10:40p.m!) and is oddly troubled by the airport…or she’s thinking of bunnies. We’ll honestly never know. Anyway, she leaves via a sliding door, which the film seems oddly compelled to show the working mechanisms of, and out into a howling rainstorm.

She gets her awkward cab driver to take her to the academy. I think they’re trying to set up that there’s danger all around, and that the people here are unfriendly, but the scene just comes across like the driver is just bored. Like, actively, aggressively bored. As Susie steps out of the cab at the academy, we see Pat Hingle leaving the academy. She’s supposedly shouting something and being drowned out by the storm, but it’s painfully clear that she’s silently mouthing some words.

Pat flees (and it seems odd that neither girl acknowledges the other) and Susie tries to gain entrance into the academy, only to be told by the intercom that they don’t know who she is, and she has to leave. Susie gets back in the cab, and on the drive back (and the film never bothers to say where she went. I’ll assume she went to a bar and paratrooped) she sees Pat running through the trees. Despite the hokiness and illogic of this scene, it is spectacularly photographed. The shots of Pat running through the trees are incredible.

The film then switches to Pat (though they don’t make this abundantly clear – many viewers are confused on first viewings) trying to seek refuge with a friend. When I say the film uses colour incredibly, the below image is a set they’ve used for the friend’s apartment building, which after this scene is not seen again in the entire film.

The friend seems oddly blasé by Pat’s distress, almost amused by it. She tells her to go and clean up, then they can talk. Also, these two actresses very clearly were dubbed – nothing matches. So Pat towels off in the bathroom, but not naked – more on that later.

But Pat is not calm, possibly because she’s just heard the theme music start up, and this always means shit’s about to go down. She senses something outside, and tries to see it with the lamp in the bathroom. There’s nothing there, except an odd shape appears behind a sheet that’s hanging outside the window – supposedly laundry, but let’s face it, it’s here for effect – and then a pair of eyes open from the darkness.

And thus begins the first murder of the film, which is actually pretty brutal, despite it’s artistic concern, by which I mean it is more concerned with how it looks than being realistic. This scene is often listed on top-10 movie death lists. A hairy, mannish hand breaks through the window and slams Pat’s screaming face into the glass.

The image above is a bit funny, until you realise later that they’re just getting her more scared – y’know, for the evulz. Pat’s head gets smashed through the window, while the friend, locked outside the bathroom, is banging on the door trying to get in. Pat gets stabbed seven times, while the friend races around outside, trying to get help. Then there is a shot of Pat being stabbed directly in the…indeterminate internal organ. It appears to be beating, so lets assume it’s a heart.

She’s then taken to the top of the building, trussed up in a wire, and set on top of an incredibly coloured skylight. The friend, still trying to get help, runs into the lobby, only to see Pat’s head crushing through the skylight. Then her body goes through too, eventually being hanged on the wire.

The skylight itself also crumbles, with huge fragments of metal and glass falling down, which also manage to get the friend…directly through the face.

This scene should be campy and hokey, but it’s actually really savage, especially given the later murders. It’s also beautiful. Don’t get me wrong, murder doesn’t float my boat, but it’s just so colourful and vivid and surreal. After this scene, it’s easy to see why so many people call the film hallucinogenic.

Back on Ranch Susie, we see her arriving at the school the next day, in the bright sun. She enters the entrance hall of the school, where people bustle around in tights and tutus, but act as though they’re in a hotel. Here we’re introduced to Miss Tanner, played by the legendary Alida Valli, a brilliant actress who seems to have given this role the Terence Stamp treatment – which means it’s a large ham role. That they’ve also managed to turn her into a mannish looking woman which serves this.

She greets Susie, and shows her around the…lobby…until she gets to meet Madame Blanc, the deputy directress of the academy. La Madame looks a lot like what drag queens seem to aspire to, and talks in that transatlantic accent that all actresses used between the 1920s and 60s – this film was made in 77, so it does seem odd.

The police are at the school investigating Pat’s murder and the scene seems like it’ll be important later, but it won’t be. This scene introduces us to the hideous butler, whose name is Stavros, but let’s just call him Gonk.” You can tell he’s evil because he’s ugly.

They tell Susie that her room is not ready, but she will be staying with Olga, a girl of the academy who lives in town. Olga’s a bit of a bitch, and again, a badly dubbed one. When Susie sits next to Sarah, who will later become the token best friend, she knocks over her handbag, which contains a cigarette lighter with a clock in it. Olga sits down and comments that she heard that names beginning with the letter “S” are the names of snakes, then proceeds to hiss at them, while Sarah pokes her tongue out at her.

That most terrifying of creatures: bitches.

So then we cut to Susie at Olga’s place. They have a very light conversation in which we see that Susie doesn’t care about being called a snake, and that the one token male of the campus has brought Susie’s bags over. Olga gets a phone call, and while she’s talking, she watches the scene unfold between Susie and the man student – it plays like it’s setting up a romantic subplot, but don’t worry, he gets seen only a handful of times throughout the rest of the film, and only one scene is briefly flirtatious. Romance doesn’t enter the film – more on that later.

He leaves, and Susie and Olga briefly talk about Pat, in which Susie realises she heard Pat say two words – Secret and Iris. Given that this is the only scene set in Olga’s apartment before Susie gets moved into the school, we have to wonder why they bothered with it. It’s a needless plot diversion that loops back to the main story pretty quickly, and I have to assume that it’s to show off the set, which looks like this:

The movie has a lot of scenes like this. Stunning cinematography and mise en scene, but no real relevance to the story. I think they must have been so determined to build a bunch of visually stunning sets that they forgot that they weren’t necessary.

Back in the movie, Susie is in her first class, and Madame Blanc arrives and tells her that her room is available. Susie politely declines the offer, saying she is happy staying at Olga’s. Blanc bristles at this, and semi-insists that Susie stay in the room, but Susie’s mind is made up. This seems insignificant at first BUT IT MIGHT NOT BE! – more on that later. Miss Tanner tells a few students to follow her into the Yellow room, one of which is Susie.

On the way there, Susie comes across an uuuugly woman polishing silver in the hall with a creepy child standing behind her – we know from an earlier scene that the child is Blanc’s nephew, and she’s fond of him but he never fulfils the role of the creepy child. The theme music starts up again, and we know something’s up. The woman is polishing silver, ostensibly, but in her hands is an odd crystal.

She ain’t got no alibi

She flashes a light onto Susie’s face, reflecting it off the crystal, and we know this must be some form of the witchcraft, as it times perfectly with the random hissings of “WITCH!” from the theme song. Susie clutches her throat, or maybe her heart, and is suddenly feeling ill. This carries on to the next scene, where she collapses in the dance class, with a highly realistic nosebleed.

She wakes up in a bed, surrounded by her doctors and Miss Tanner forcing water down her throat. Madame Blanc arrives to offer some transatlantic accented speech. The doctor gives her a sedative and prescribes a diet of basic food. It also turns out that having heard of Susie’s illness, Olga has moved Susie’s stuff the fuck out of her apartment and back into the school. This seems kind of pointless, but it’s actually a nice scene of having Susie feel trapped in the school. Turns out her room is right next to Sarah’s, and the two of them have a chat, with Susie remarking she feels completely recovered. Gonk brings Susie her prescribed dinner, and admires Sarah’s cigarette lighter. Then leaves. Sarah leaves to go for dinner, and Susie sits to brush her hair. She notices, after a while, that some maggots have fallen into her hair – upon looking up, we learn that the entire ceiling is covered in them, and they’re all over the entire floor – all the girls are in a maggot shower.

This is what they get for buying their timber from Gunns.

Tanner arrives on the scene, and orders everyone downstairs. Even though the scene was 15 minutes before dinner, everyone’s in his or her pyjamas. Makes sense, I guess. Madame Blanc apologises to them in her office, which is yet another stunningly designed set the filmmakers got to have a bit of a scenery-wank over.

All the girls and boys of the academy bunk together in the practice hall, and we learn that supposedly the teacher’s sleep in quarters in town – not at the academy, but tonight is an exception. Sarah can’t sleep though, cos she’s hearing some familiar snoring. Once, Sarah heard the directress of the academy (remember, Madame Blanc is only the vice) snoring like that. Sarah says it was so weird she could never forget it – even though it sounds like anyone who has a case of sleep apnea. Anyway, Sarah deduces that the directress is RIGHT. BEHIND. THAT. CURTAIN. This should be creepy, we guess…but we only know this because the Goblin’s music is underscoring the scene.

But this is promptly forgotten, as we move onto the next scene. Daniel, the blind pianist of the school, who we’ve scene a few times but hasn’t been important, gets fired. His seeing eye dog attacks the creepy nephew while he’s walking towards the school with the ugly witch. Tanner comes up and throws Daniel out of the school, even being so cruel as to throw his cane and jacket on the ground, forcing him to blindly feel his way for them.

Later, Sarah, who after the previous night’s events has become convinced there are witches in the school, and thinks the teachers are dodgy, tries to rally Susie to her Nancy Drewing. Susie has just eaten, and is suddenly so tired she can’t keep her eyes open – DO WE THINK THE PRESCRIBED FOOD MIGHT BE DRUGGED? Before she passes out, she does point out to Sarah that it doesn’t sound like the teachers are leaving the school – the footsteps seem to be going deeper inside the building.

Daniel, having been fired, goes out and gets drunk, and as he’s leaving, walks into a massive town square, which is deserted, just as the theme music starts up again. He stands in the centre of the square as his dog starts barking at something unseen, until strange shadows pass across the buildings – almost like witches flying on broomsticks…

Daniel shouts out at the unseen presences, and tries to ascertain what’s going on. In what is actually a pretty surprising move, the dog turns around and rips Daniel’s neck apart! It’s very obviously a fake dogs head being held in place on Daniel’s neck, but it’s a surprising kill – you expect the witches to suddenly jump out, or do something nasty, but no, it’s the trusty dog. One thing’s for sure – Daniel has shit luck.

The next day at the school, Susie goes to Madame Blanc, and confesses that she heard Pat say “secret” and “iris.” Blanc’s reaction is hilariously patronising, and the scene comes off as pointless but we do get to see more of Blanc’s wicked office – check out the stairs on the wallpaper.

Sarah makes Susie go swimming (the school has a pool which is pretty cool…you fool) so she can offer some theories – namely Sarah thinks the school is being run by witches. She tells Sarah that Pat thought the same thing, and before leaving, gave Sarah all her notes on the teachers. So that night, Sarah tries to get Susie to help her, but Susie is drugged from the food again. Susie passes out, leaving Sarah alone. And then the theme music starts up…

So time for Sarah to die it seems. She runs away when the light above Susie’s door starts to glow, and she decides to run through to the attic. Sure enough, something is following her. It tries to attack her a few times, and this leads to Sarah smashing through some plate glass. She then runs into a room which latches with one of those latches that slides down into a holder. Whoever it is outside slides in what is meant to be a knife but looks like an icing spreader to try and lift the latch. It’s a truly ridiculous moment in the film – this door would be so easy to unlatch. It would take 4 seconds, but they spend 3 whole minutes having Sarah recoil from the door. She shrinks away into a corner. It’s not scary at all. In fact, it’s so dull that the theme music gives up halfway through the scene.

Sarah decides to escape through a window high in the wall, which she does by stacking some suitcases. She crawls though and onto a ledge, before jumping down. Turns out she should have looked down, cos she’s just jumped into a massive tangle of razor wire. This bit gets a bit icky, certainly enough for the music to start again, and this is in fact the scene that inspired the pit-of-needles scene in Saw II. Sarah tangles herself around for a while before finally the killer comes through and slices her neck.

The next day Susie is shocked to see Sarah has “left the school” as the teachers are putting it – and we see that Susie’s quasi-love interest is in league with the witches, backing up their lies. Susie calls a friend that Sarah mentions, and they agree to meet up. Then we see Miss Tanner and Madame Blanc discussing Sarah’s disappearance.

Sarah meets with a paranormal psychologist (now there’s a niche market) and he tells Sarah of a fabled Greek witch named Helena Markos who supposedly settled where the school is. Why a Greek witch would settle in Germany is never discussed. Let’s just use that political miasma we like to call “post war Europe” to answer that question. It’s a pointless scene, but hey, it’s more time for Susie to look concerned. The essential details we get are that a coven of witches derives its power from the head witch. COULD THIS BE HELENA MARKOS!?

Back at the academy, Susie discovers that everyone has gone out – to the theatre supposedly. She decides to ditch the prescribed meal, apparently having put two and two together and realising its drugged. Then she sees two glowing red eyes outside her window, and she opens it, because she’s never seen a horror film in her life.

Yes! Let’s investigate the glowing eyes of doom in the window!

In comes a terrible special effect a bat, and tussles Susie’s hair about for awhile, before, and I’m not kidding here, flying into a wall and falling to the ground. Susie covers it with a towel and then crushes it under a table. Again, this is a scene that was clearly designed to be scary, but just comes across as boring. It does however give us the ONE singular moment in the film when Susie actually screams. It’s more of a shriek, and immediately after, she goes back to looking concerned.

She decides to follow Sarah’s notes of counting footsteps, and follow the teachers to their hideaway within the school. As she follows them, she gets lead to Madame Blanc’s office. There’s nothing there, but then she has a flashback to Pat’s overdubbed words on the night of the storm – “It’s the secret, I saw behind the door – three irises! Turn the blue one!” – and the dialogue is about as convincing as it reads typed there.

Susie turns the blue iris and discovers a secret hallway through a door – she pulls apart a blue curtain and the theme music starts up. As she makes her way through a hallway (and of course, it’s stunningly designed) she overhears the witches talking. OH MY GOD IT’S THE TEACHERS!! This twist was not at all obvious about 5 minutes into the film! Susie hides behind a curtain as she hears them plotting her doom, and it’s revealed that, yes, Helena is the leader of this coven, even though she remains unseen. Susie backs away from the curtain, and comes across Sarah’s dead body, lying in a coffin.

Gonk comes looking for Susie, using Sarah’s lighter so a) he can see and b) we can tell that he’s evil. Susie runs away into another room, which features among other delights, a technicolor Peacock table lamp – itself a reference to Dario Argento’s debut film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.



She hears that same horrible snoring from a few nights before, and realises she’s in the same room as Helena Markos. Trapped in the room, what with Gonk outside, Susie awakens Helena Markos who proceeds to taunt her and sound almost identical to Hoggish Greedily from Captain Planet. Susie grabs one of the peacock lamp’s feathers (which are awfully dagger-like) and throws open the bed curtains to discover Helena isn’t there. Instead, Helena keeps on taunting Susie, and tells her that “Death is behind that door! You’re about to meet the dead! The LIVING DEAD!” – the line is atrocious, which is a shame, because in the Italian dub the line is pretty terrifying, but here it just comes off as narm. The door opens and Sarah’s reanimated corpse appears, ready to stab Sarah with a knife, laughing demonically while blood spills from her mouth

Susie decides she’s had quite enough of this, and looks back on the empty bed where Helena Markos used to be, only to see light reflecting off her invisible form, in a way that doesn’t at all look a bad 1977 special effect of cartooning on live action film. Susie plunges her make-shift dagger into the outline’s neck, killing Helena Markos and making her appear in the real world.

With Helena Markos dead, the school starts to self-destruct, and as she runs out, Susie sees the coven of witches all dying as well. She makes her way out of the school, despite shit going crazy (this footage makes up the bulk of the trailer) and gets out, just in time for the credits to roll. Literally, Susie walks out the front door of the academy, and the credits start to roll – it’s kind of like the movie just gave up. She’s even smiling! Never mind the horrors she’s witnessed, the persecution by a sinister coven of witches, the fact that she has to now live in a world where she knows the supernatural is real…fuck it, she got out, she can live happily ever after. She walks off, into the rain grinning, while the school burns.

The thing about Argento films is that they don’t usually make sense at the end of the film – and this one is no different. Why were the witches attacking Susie? They had no need to, unless it was just to be inherently evil, but Blanc’s vicious attitude towards her at the end makes it seem like it’s personal, what with the calling Susie “that American bitch” and all… Also, it’s pretty obvious right from the start that this is a coven of witches, and that the teachers are this coven. They try to make it a bit of a “who is this mysterious killer” film, but anyone who’s seen at least two movies in their life will guess it’s the teachers. It doesn’t detract much from it, other than the odd red-herring moments being particularly odd, such as when Miss Tanner and Madame Blanc are talking about Sarah’s disappearance – even though they were the ones who did it… Even right at the start, when Sarah warns Susie away from the school over the intercom – at this point of the film, Sarah isn’t that scared.

The film also has an interesting way to see it – Argento originally wanted his characters to be 12 years old. Imagine all the shit that these girls go through, only for it to be done to 12-year-olds. That’s messed up! BUT – it does explain why, in a genre that’s notorious for it’s readiness to get its women nekkid, there is little romance or suggestive content in the film. In any other film, Pat would towel off in the bathroom NAKED! Susie and the token guy in the academy would be HAVING SEX at some point. But they don’t, cos the film was written with children in mind, and then the ages just bumped up, without editing much of the content. It also explains the silliness of the earlier cat fight – they’re meant to be 12 years old.

Argento also decided to keep all of the door handles in the film above where they would normally be placed, to make the women of the film look smaller. Given that it’s quite effective, and once you know of the original script, it’s hard to not watch the film as though it’s happening to 12-year-olds, this makes the movie even more enjoyable sadistic.

Now having written all that I’ve written here, I need to stress one thing – I FUCKING LOVE THIS MOVIE. It’s woefully acted, doesn’t make much sense, has terrible dialogue and has dated quite a bit – but it’s justawesome. The use of colour is utterly amazing, and it’s so vivid it just adds to this surreal, nightmarish quality in the film. And for what is a notoriously cheap genre, Suspiria looks AMAZING – there’s been so much detail paid to set design, so much attention to the composition of the shots, that you wonder if this is what the filmmakers cared about.

They make these stunning, elaborate sets which are only used for one scene, and then never seen again, but they really add to the film. And the score by Goblin is just awesome. I literally listen to it for fun when I’m doing completely mundane things like laundry. It makes any situation just awesome.If you’ve never seen a Dario Argento film, make this your first. It’s certainly one of his most accessible, and definitely his best.

Copied over from my Facebook on inception of the blog. Originally written 3/12/2010


3 thoughts on “The movies I love: Suspiria (1977)

  1. It comforts me that the remake has been stuck in development hell for a while now…though at one point I heard Natalie Portman was attached, which might work…

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