By David J Howe
I can still remember the first time I saw Dario Argento’s Suspiria. It was back in the late 70s or early 80s, and the cinema had been fitted with quadraphonic speakers. The film was showing as a double bill with Cross of Iron and all I remember of that film was that it was so boring that I left mid-way through. However Suspiria … what an experience. The sound came from all around, and at moments, you would swear that someone was breathing and sighing somewhere over your left shoulder. Very eerie indeed.
This experience seared Suspiria into my memory. But what makes it such a good horror film in the first place? I think the answer lies somewhere in the mix of plot, visuals and sound design which Argento developed so effectively.
From the opening moments, the film is an impressive and awe inspiring concoction of light, colour, sound and menace. An American girl, Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper), has arrived to study dance at the Freebourg Danz Akademie in Germany. She exits the airport in a torrential rainstorm and gets a taxi. Arriving at the Akademie, she sees another girl, later identified as Pat Hingle, leaving in a hurry and running off into the rain.
The lead up to this point has been a riot of suspense, brooding camera angles, colours and the most unsettling musical score yet composed for a film. Argento worked with the rock band Goblin to develop the catchy tinkly signature theme (which to my mind is so much more effective than that for Halloween) and a pounding score interlaced with sighing, bells and other sounds which dominates the film. Argento reportedly had the music pre-recorded and played to his actors as they were actually filming, and this provides a balletic approach as the cast’s movements tend to be in time with the music.
Everything has a surreal power: from the rain pouring down the drains in close up, to blue and red-washed panels of colour at the airport. Even the opening and closing of the airport doors is imbued with portent. Then, in the taxi as Suzy heads for the Akademie, there is a first hint of the background as the word ‘Witch!’ is echoed out with the music as Suzy is driven through lightening-lit trees, revealing a momentary shadow of what appears to be someone holding a knife.
The first major set piece comes when a bedraggled Pat Hingle (Eva Axén) arrives at her lodgings – an art deco riot of colour and design inspired by the artist M C Escher (amusingly the Akademie is in Escher-Strasser ‘Escher Street’) – and reveals she’s been kicked out of school and now plans to get away. However something is approaching the bathroom, and in scenes of incredible power, accompanied as always by Goblin’s pounding score, is attacked by an unseen foe, dragged through a window, chased across the rooftops being stabbed repeatedly with a large knife (which, in scenes edited from some versions, is seen to actually penetrate her beating heart), trussed up with some electrical cable and then allowed to fall through a large stained glass skylight into the main hall of the building to be jerked up short and hanged by the neck. The camera lingers on her body awhile, then pans down to reveal her flatmate dead on the floor, impaled with glass and stanchions from the window above.
This is arguably the most impressive tour de force death scene ever committed to celluloid and it is powerful and disturbing in equal measures. The killer is never seen – aside from a hairy, muscular arm – and the violence is extreme.
The next moment of note for me, has always been when Suzy is heading to her first class, having arrived at the Akadamie the next day. She has decided to stay off-site, which seems to annoy the harsh Miss Tanner (Alida Valli), and as she passes the cooks at work, a knife flashes, the air is filled with motes of light, and ‘Witch!’ is sounded once more …this sequence is accompanied by quieter music underpinning the action and featuring the Suspiria theme. On arriving in class, Suzy suffers a brain haemorrhage and is confined to a room at the Akademie. Miss Tanner has got her own way.
After a sequence with maggots, and an introduction to the mysterious Directress of the Akademie, the next major scene comes when the young nephew of one of the Teachers is attacked by a dog owned by Daniel (Flavio Bucci), the blind piano player, and Daniel is summarily dismissed. Later that night, Daniel leaves the tavern where he has been drinking and is attacked in an empty square by one of the stone gargoyles flying from atop the monuments there. That we never see the gargoyle is a masterpiece of editing and camerawork, and the only clue is that the statue is there one moment and then gone the next. Seconds later, Daniel’s dog turns on him and rips his throat out. This is perhaps the most gratuitous scene of gore in the film as the dog is seen worrying at and eating the flesh … but why does the dog attack his master? It’s only when you consider who the dog bit to start with, and also that Daniel is perceived to be a threat to the Akademie (‘I may be blind, but I am not deaf’) that it starts to make sense.
Next to die is Sara (Stefania Cassini), the only student to befriend Suzy. An unseen person overhears Sara and Suzy talking in the swimming pool, and that night, Suzy is unnaturally tired (there is something in her wine which makes her sleep). Sara is scared into leaving Suzy’s side and is chased up into the Akademie’s attic space by something unseen. She is then cleverly manipulated into a room from which the only exit is via a high window … and on the other side of the window is an area full of razor wire into which she falls. She is mere inches from the open door and apparent freedom, but her thrashing about in the wire cuts her to ribbons, and her torment is only ended when someone enters and abruptly slits her throat.
These tense scenes of chase and death are, like the rest of the film, awash with luscious reds and blues. The scene where the killer uses a knife to toy with the door latch, chinking it gently and forcing the panicked Sara to flee out through the high window, are terrifying in their simplicity, and the denouement with the razor wire is totally horrifying as Sara is unable to free herself and every movement leaves her further enmeshed and bloody.
It’s now time for the end game. Discovering that the Akademie is deserted – everyone has gone off to the opening of the Bolshoi at the Theatre – Suzy decides not to drink her blood-like wine and tips it away. She then explores the building, finds herself in Head Teacher Miss Blanc’s office, and locates a secret door in the wall. This leads to one of the most eerie curving passages I have yet seen – I’m certain that Argento chose the curvature carefully as you can never quite see around the bend to see what might be waiting for you beyond. The passage is decorated with runes and words and is lined with curtains which don’t quite reveal which lies beyond them.
Suzy finds Miss Blanc (Joan Bennett) presiding over a meeting of the coven of witches (basically all the staff at the Akademie) and saying that the American girl (Suzy) must vanish. The witches eat and drink in a faux Catholic ceremony, and call to Helena for power. We had previously learned that the Akademie had been founded in 1895 by one Helena Marcos, allegedly a witch, who died in a fire in 1905. Suzy is hit with waves of sickness and stumbles back into a room wherein she finds Sara’s corpse, sliced to ribbons, with impaled hands and pins stuck into her eyes.
Then Suzy enters another room where she accidentally knocks an art deco peacock with a jewelled tail (a sly nod to Argento’s film Bird with the Crystal Plumage) onto the floor and its component parts roll noisily across the floor, waking a figure who was asleep behind a curtain. Suzy picks up a crystal tail pin and approaches the curtain, as an ancient voice demands to know who is there. But when the curtain is pulled back, there is no-one to be seen.
Helena cackles and summons Sara, who enters the room laughing and wielding a large knife. This image of Sara is iconic and disturbingly effective. It isn’t explained exactly what has happened to her – one assumes that her body was used for some sort of ritual by the witches, explaining the nail-studded hands and pin-pierced eyes – but the sight of her laughing and stumbling, jerky and broken-boned, towards Suzy is one of the film’s highlights.
Suzy is panicked, but in flashes of lightning, she sees the outline of someone on the bed. She stabs the outline in the neck with the crystal pin and the incredibly aged and fire-burned figure of Helena Marcos flashes into sight. Marcos is blackened and aged and drooling. A truly horrific figure. As she dies, so Sara fades away and the room starts exploding around Suzy as she runs for her life, seeing all the witches dying and clutching their own necks as she goes. As Suzy flees the Akademie so it bursts into flame and is destroyed around her.
Suspiria is a tremendous horror film of the first level. It has a simple, but intelligent script, some superb set-pieces and visuals (with only a couple of mis-steps – the explanatory scenes about Helena Marcos are somewhat clumsy, and the bat attack on Suzy should probably have been cut) and a memorable score which underpins and stresses at every moment the horror and suspense. I never tire of seeing it, which is surely the mark of something special.
David J Howe