Written by Dario Argento & Daria Nicolodi
Directed by Dario Argento
A Seda Spettacoli Picture
Starring: Jessica Harper (Suzy Banion); Stefania Casini (Sarah); Flavio Bucci (Daniel); Alida Valli (Miss Tanner); Joan Bennett (Madame Blanc); Udo Kier (Dr. Frank Mandel); Barbara Magnolfi (Olga); Eva Axen (Pat Hingle); Miguel Bose (Mark); Pavlo (Giuseppe Transocchi)
There’s no way around it; love him or hate him, you must agree that Dario Argento is unique, a pioneer of his type of thrills and scares as Hitchcock, Bava and Romero were of theirs. Argento breathed new and fresh life into the already thriving world of Italian horror cinema and, along with Lucio Fulci, is the perfect continuation of a tradition that was kick-started by Mario Bava and goes on to this day.
When people first started to take notice of him, Argento had been adding his own twist of blood and gore to mysteries, starting with Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970), a Hitchcockian mystery/thrilling that gave us a cloaked figure, a wrong-man (very Hitchcockian) who witnessed the crime, a damsel in distress and a twist ending that may or may not make sense. The picture was a hit and paved the way for the next two thrillers in his “animal” trilogy: The Cat O’ Nine Tails (1971), and Four Flies On Grey Velvet (1971), neither of which did as well as Crystal Plumage. Argento revitalized his career with the release of Deep Red (1975), a mystery/thriller that had all the wit and charm of Bird With The Crystal Plumage and scored high marked on the inventiveness of his murder sequences. Starring David Hemming as an English pianist in Rome who witnesses a murder and Daria Nicolodi (who would play a major creative role in Argento’s next film) as the spunky reporter who outclasses him in every way, Deep Red was a sprawling tale that features the murder of a psychic who identifies a killer for a crime committed twenty years before and the subsequent killing of everyone that the Hemmings character thinks might be able to shed light on the situation. Deep Red is violent, far more violent than Argento’s three films put together and Argento recognized a trait that he excelled in and that the audiences were excited to watch. Possibly thinking that a story other than the mystery/thriller would open up his imagination for violent set pieces, he and his lover, Daria Nicolodi (the female lead of Deep Red) sat down and penned a horror film that would look and feel like no other, a film whose violence would take horror fans to the brink of what was then acceptable in cinema: Suspiria.
Although Suspiria feels a bit like Argento’s other mysteries (there’s a mystery for Suzy Banion (Jessica Harper) to solve if she’s expected to survive her stay at the Tanz Academy), unlike his other films, there is ultimately no one person who is committing all the atrocities that needs to be stopped. One psycho-killer is a limiting device; he is a human being who needs to find his victims, stalk them and dispatch them without leaving clues (or at least enough clues for the hero, but not the audience, to solve the case). Argento and Nicolodi sidestep all this by making the villains a coven of witches, who can dispatch death wherever and whenever they want. We don’t realize the full extent of this until much later in the picture, but we can guess something extraordinary is afoot when Pat Hingle (Eva Axen) is attacked by someone crashing through her second floor window and Daniel (Flavio Bucci), the academy’s blind pianist, is likewise dispatched by his seeing-eye dog.
It all begins when Suzy arrives one rainy night at the Tanz Academy, a dancing school, and witnesses the strange departure of a hysterical student, Pat Hingle, pausing to shout something that Suzy only partially hears amidst the ranging storm (upon reflection, she recalls two words: “Secret” and “Iris”). Strangely enough, the narrative leaves Suzy behind and instead follows Pat for the next ten minutes as she sprints through the storm and eventually winds up at a friend’s apartment. It is here that whatever she is running from finally catches up with her. In a sequence that is still shocking on its hundredth viewing for its brutality (and not to mention the blastingly-loud score, courtesy of Goblin), Pat’s head is forced through a window then repeatedly stabbed (and a close-up shows the knife actually penetrating her heart) and then hung through a broken skylight. This is the image we’re left with when the narrative finally shifts back to Suzy on her first day at the academy; it is impossible not to think, “What’s going to happen to her?”
Suzy has a little difficulty adjusting to life at the Tanz Academy, not that we can blame her. The girls are catty and won’t loan Suzy a pair of dancing slippers without charging her. They’re served by the human/creature called Pavlo (Giuseppe Transocchi), who has perfect teeth (they’re false, of course), and one night, all the girls are forced to sleep in the studio when their bedrooms are suddenly filled with maggots falling from the ceiling (caused by crates of spoiled food in the attic). Very little of these incidents have much to do with the main plot, but they do lend atmosphere and thrills to the proceedings. Plus, as Suzy and her friend Sarah (Stefania Casini) sleep the studio, Sarah is awoken by the most horrible noise, a wheezing snore coming from directly behind her curtain. Sarah has heard this noise before, on a night that the directress of the academy stayed the night. Sarah, who was Pat’s friend, is spooked by the incident and does all she can to discover what it was that caused Pat to flee the academy. But it is Suzy (taken ill and probably drugged) who provides Sarah with the key to discovery: the sounds of the teachers’ footsteps, heard walking past the dorm rooms at night, do not head for the front door but rather further into the school. Where are they going and what are they doing there?
Suspiria can be described accurately as having a “loose plot.” Everything that happens can, more or less, be said to service the plot (even the maggots scene, which gets Suzy and Sarah downstairs so they can hear Helena Markos’s dreadful snoring, which in turn clues Suzy that she has stepped into Markos’s inner sanctum near the end of the film when she hears it again), but all of the events hang from the plot loosely, like baggy clothes on a thin man, and on repeated viewing it is easy to see that much in the film happens more for spectacle. Argento is playing with the audience much as the witches and their murderous servants play with their victims (as the wielder of the razor stalking Sarah taps the bolt of the door she is hiding behind over and over again when he could easily lift it). Pat’s murder isn’t just a slaying, but a slaughter meant to show others what will happen what will happen if they wander too far into the center of the Tanz Academy. Let’s consider the circumstances surrounding Daniel’s murder; it is precipitated by his seeing-eye dog apparently biting Albert, the nephew of Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) and we can assume that the dog picked up something evil from the boy (we never find out exactly what). But Miss Tanner’s (Alida Valli) firing of Daniel seems wildly over the top (after all, he had nothing to do with it), and his falling under the curse of the witches seems a little harsh, to say the least. At the scene of his death, they could strike at any time, but they play with him; he calls out “Who is there,” in the empty courtyard that he finds himself in, and the audience keeps their eyes locked on the empty space all around him, ready for something to come running for him. A pigeon dives at him, and we share its point of view. As the music becomes louder and the shots become tighter, the suspense builds to a fevered pitch until, suddenly, Daniel’s dog leaps up and tears his master’s throat out. It is a masterfully built sequence and Daniel’s death seems to be a snide answer to Daniel’s claim that his dog would never bite anyone, but his own death (albeit at the hands of a coven who were somehow controlling the dog) proves him wrong.
The film is filled with maddening moments like those already mentioned that inspire questions galore after the final credits have rolled. Why does the academy have a room filled with razor-wire and how could Sarah have not seen it been she leapt into the middle of it? When the coven’s effort to kill Pat, Daniel and Sarah are so effective, why is their effort to do the same to Suzy so paltry (she easily figures out that she’s been drugged and the attack of the bat in her dorm room is interesting but hardly worthy of an all-powerful coven)? And what is with all these characters and subplots that don’t lead anywhere? Olga (Barbara Magnolfi) is introduced, briefly lets Suzy room with her in town, and then disappears from the story almost completely when Suzy is hexed and forced to room at the academy with Sarah. We’re also introduced to a handsome young man, Mark (Miguel Bose), who is said to be broke and can only attend the academy because he’s under the thumb of Miss Tanner. He’s got the hots for Suzy, but his story doesn’t go much further than that. Was there any need for his character to be introduced at all? These seem to be examples of Argento giving into the fact that he is making a horror film rather than a mystery/thriller, which by nature are tightly plotted. The format of Suspira is allowing him to stretch out a bit and engage his imagination like he hasn’t been able to before. We notice awkward or superfluous sequences and characters less (on the first viewing, anyway) because it is a horror film and we are prepared to be taken for a roller-coaster ride of bright flashy colors and loud music while some pretty horrific things happen in front of us.
That’s not say that Suspiria is a flabby film. Argento has not jettisoned the mystery-writer part of his brain; it’s still there. Suzy has puzzles to solve if she wants to save her own life; where do the teachers’ footsteps go at night and what is the meaning of the words she heard Pat utter that first night? Suzy finds answers to these questions and they lead her into the center of the academy where the teachers, now identified as the members of Helena Markos’s coven, are plotting her death. Suzy stumbles further inwards and finds the Mother of Sighs herself, Helena Markos, who horrifically animates Sarah’s corpse to finish Suzy once and for all. But a chance bolt of lightning and a lucky strike puts an end to the dark mother and her coven. Suzy finds her way back into the rain, just as she arrived, while the academy burns and we are left to wonder what in the world we’ve just seen.
What we’ve just seen is Dario Argento’s masterwork, as Hitchcock has his Psycho and Kubrick had his 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is not a perfect film, but it doesn’t need to be; what it loses in sense and plotting it more than makes up for in visuals, energy and sheer nerve. Suspiria is one of the most visceral, colorful and intense horror films ever made; you’ll just have to excuse the odd loose end here and there.
And if you can’t, then you’ve got no business being a horror film fan in the first place. Go watch Bambi.