31 Screams in October, #30: Suspiria (1977)

Posted: October 30, 2014 in Movie Review
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Suspiria (1977)

Director: Dario Argento

Starring: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci, Miguel Bosé, Alida Valli, Joan Bennett

I’m sure that all of us, at one time or another, had at least one teacher in our lives whom we thought of… albeit secretly… as a witch. Such thoughts aren’t exactly politically correct, nor are they in any way polite. However baseless such slanderous terminology is, the fact remains that this person irked you in some way. Still, what if you discovered that your school was in fact populated by a witches’ coven?

American ballet student Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) arrives during a driving rainstorm in Munich to enroll at a dance school. When she arrives, an unknown voice on the speaker at the front door gives her the old “go away and come back tomorrow!” routine. So, Suzy elects to find another place to stay for the night, but witnesses from her taxi window another girl leaving hurriedly from the building. The girl’s name is Pat, and something inside the dance school has spooked Pat to the point of seeking shelter at a friend’s apartment. But something evil has followed Pat from the dance school. An unseen assailant stabs her repeatedly, including a close-up shot of the knife stabbing her through the heart. The killer then sends her crashing through the glass ceiling of the apartment, hanging her with a cord. In the process, Pat’s friend also dies from being impaled by falling glass shards and metal fragments.

Suzy arrives at the dance academy the next day, making friends with one student named Sarah (Stefania Casini). But after Suzy becomes ill and collapses during a dance lesson, she is moved into a room by herself where she is put on a restricted diet that includes a glass of red wine with each meal. One night before dinner, everyone discovers maggots falling into their rooms from the ceiling above, and move from their dormitories to the practice hall to have a place to sleep. This is where Sarah hears a snoring noise which she recognizes as belonging to “the Directress.” The next day, the blind pianist is cast out when it is revealed that his seeing-eye dog has attacked the young nephew of one of Suzy’s teachers. The pianist later is killed when his dog inexplicably attacks him.

A day later, it is revealed that it was Sarah’s voice on the speaker the night Suzy saw Pat leaving the dance school, and that Pat and Sarah had been friends. Sarah produces a collection notes that Pat had been taking which point to the existence of a witch’s coven. Soon the notes disappear and, when the diet that Suzy’s been kept on leaves her in a state of fatigue, Sarah is left on her own.

While Suzy is sleeping, Sarah is murdered in the attic and it is made to look like she quit the school and moved out. Suzy takes it upon herself to meet with Sarah’s psychologist (Udo Kier), who tells her of the history of the dance school which was founded by the presumed witch, Helena Markos. Suzy decides to rebel against her prescribed diet and dumps everything down the toilet and bathroom sink. Her head now clear, Suzy ventures on to the office of her teacher Madame Blanc where she sees an image of flowers painted on the wall that triggers a memory from the night Pat was killed. Pat knew that turning the blue iris unlocks a hidden door, and that’s why both Pat and Sarah had been murdered. Suzy investigates, and uncovers the truth: this dance school that was once said to have been home to a witches’ coven still harbors that very same evil!

With most horror movies, I can usually cite one specific reason for why they appeal to me. In the case of “Suspiria,” it’s not that simple. First, there is the score from Italian rock band Goblin. This eerie, unnerving soundtrack sets the mood particularly with the tracks “Suspiria” and  most especially “Sighs.”

The cinematography in this movie is unlike anything I’ve experienced from any other horror film. Whole scenes are often bathed in red, green, or blue like the stage at a rock concert. The blues are particularly breathtaking. It sounds clichéd, but every scene is like a painting. Even the architecture of the dance school is a sight to behold.  I’m also pleased that, this being an Italian production and most of the actors having their lines dubbed, there isn’t a whole lot of breathless overacting like you’ll find in other Italian horror films. American actress Jessica Harper does a fine job in the lead, especially when you consider that some of her co-stars either spoke only in their native Italian or German, or could otherwise only speak English phonetically. I swear, to look at her, you wouldn’t know she was 27-28 years old at the time. She could have easily passed for 20 or 21. She gave up the chance to have a role in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” for the chance to go to Rome to shoot “Suspiria.” Good for her, and how fortunate for us!

“Suspiria” seems to get better every time I see it, revealing to me things I missed on previous viewings. It’s easily crawling its way up into my shortlist of all-time favorite horror films. Still I regret that, even now, I have only seen this one offering from the career of Dario Argento, when there are so many others I have yet to choose from. Some day, preferably sooner rather than later, I do hope to take a look at “Deep Red,” “Inferno,” “Tenebrae” starring John Saxon, “Phenomena” starring Donald Pleasance and Jennifer Connelly, “The Stendhal Syndrome” starring Asia Argento (the director’s daughter), and others. I can only hope that one or more of them will entertain me to the extent that “Suspiria” has.

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    You were right about the Everly Brothers’ tune: ridiculously obvious but perfect! I loved Jessica in “My Favorite Year,” so I look forward to seeing this movie, too. I am especially intrigued by the setting in Munich and by your comments about the sets. I listened to the Goblin’s piece. Nice!

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