Last week, I was a horror movie nut who had gone her whole life without seeing a Dario Argento film.
No longer, my friends. No longer.
Images of gory, dead people, particularly in the Spoiler Section. In case you’re squeamish, which — if you are — probably means you’ll have no interest at all in this movie.
Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) is accepted into a prestigious ballet school in Germany, which would be totally awesome if the school weren’t run by homicidal witches.
1. I honestly wasn’t really expecting to enjoy Suspiria. Everything I had ever read about it described it as “surrealistic” or “artsy” or “doesn’t actually make much sense” . . . and, as a rule, those aren’t usually my favorite type of movies.
But I did enjoy Suspiria. Parts of it were problematic and parts of it (unfortunately) made me laugh, but the basic story was completely comprehensible, even if there were some motivation problems and about sixteen different plot holes.
Let’s talk about what didn’t work first . . .
2. . . . like supporting characters.
Certain characters are introduced in this movie as if they’re going to be important and then, er, disappear entirely with little to no explanation. I don’t expect every student at the academy to matter, but there are two at least who should do something after the first half of the movie, even if that something is simply dying in a creative manner. Not so in Suspiria where they are simply and utterly dropped.
There is also a creepy blond child . . .
. . . but he’s so weirdly irrelevant that I’m not even sure why he’s in the movie. I don’t object to creepy children in horror movies on principle, but if you’re going to have them, they should contribute something to the story, not just stand around awkwardly with bug eyes.
3. We also have to — have to — talk about the dubbing.
This is an Italian film set in Germany with an American lead, so I wasn’t actually sure what language the movie would be in when I popped in the DVD. Well, as it turns out, it’s in all kinds of languages. Apparently, Argento filmed all his actors speaking whatever the hell language they actually happened to speak, and then dubbed over everyone for whatever country they were selling to. Subtitles were not an option on my DVD.
This is a terrible thing.
I am well aware there are people out there who hate subtitles, and I can sympathize with them. I just won’t willingly watch a movie with them unless it’s animated. (Not every animated movie works without the subtitles — the dubbed version of Vampire Hunter D was so horrifying, we switched it within five minutes — but I’ve enjoyed dubbed Miyazaki films before, and I can’t even watch Cowboy Bebop with subtitles. It’s not Spike, dammit! It’s not Faye!)
But for live action dubbing . . . God no. Only if it’s an old, terrible, kung fu movie. Then bad dubbing is just part of the fun.
Here the dubbing was just something to get passed because, yes, it was pretty terrible. Some people were more terrible than others — the old guy who tells Suzy about witches was particularly bad — but it was very distracting for the first thirty minutes of the movie. I mostly got used to it after that, training myself to just watch the eyes, watch the eyes, but then some wrong twist of the mouth would catch my attention again and I’d briefly fall out of the movie.
4. On the positive side . . . good Lord, this is a colorful movie.
That sounds like a complaint, but actually I’m quite fond of Technicolor. Admittedly, color can and often is overused in a horror film, but I still like the use of it in Suspiria. Not because it’s more subtle — Jesus Christ, no — but because it’s a bit more consistently surrealistic. It’s not one of those horror movies, for instance, that’s shot all realistically until the heroine happens to find herself in a heavily tinted blue or green morgue.
Also, the movie was made in 1977, so really, all those other movies are just badly copying this one.
5. So, yes, the visuals in this movie are awesome. I mean, there are a couple of odd shots (like why are we zooming into Suzy’s wine glass again — her face being off screen is just sort of weird), but most of them are pretty great.
The deaths are a lot of fun too, gory and surprising and awesome . . . well, mostly. The first victim has a partially awesome death and a partially just hilarious death . . . but we’ll get to that later.
6. The music is also pretty spectacular.
Most of the soundtrack is done by some Italian rock band called Goblin, and all I can say is I can’t get this theme song out of my head. They use it often in the film — possibly a little too often; I haven’t fully decided — and it’s really very effective . . .
7. . . until they abruptly cut if off between scenes.
It is, perhaps, not a surprise that this movie is an editing fail because it’s a horror movie from the 1970’s . . . and, well, almost all movies from the 70’s were editing fails. Still, even giving allowance for the decade, I was often annoyed by scenes that were transitioned badly, or really, just not transitioned at all. Especially when the two scenes in question were awesome, because the jarring cut-aways and sudden lack of sound took something away from them.
8. None of the acting was really remarkable in one way or the other — well, one girl was pretty terrible in her aforementioned death scene — but before we get to spoilers, I should at least introduce you to our heroine, Suzy.
Suzy isn’t actually a terrible heroine (not kickass, exactly, but certainly not as useless as, say, Chris from Friday the 13th, Part III), but she does annoy me a couple of times.
8A. She expects the taxi driver to help her with her luggage. Now, I know a lot of cab drivers do this, and in the middle of a rainstorm, I might appreciate it too, except for the fact that her luggage appears to consist of two small bags that she easily carries. It’s like she wants help with a couple of purses. Bitch, please. You can carry two and a half pounds for three steps. Promise.
8B. When her room at the school is temporarily unavailable — for whatever reason — Suzy has to stay with one of the other students who lives off-campus. When the room is ready the next day, she bitches about having to stay in the dorms, saying, “I can’t stand to live in a boarding school like a ten year old.”
And I’m like, well, maybe you shouldn’t have applied to live there in the first place, then. Asshat.
The rest of this review will contain spoilers. Be warned.
And Mekaela, no looking. I want to know what you think of this someday.
Mekaela, I want you to know, I’m disappointed in you. Also, people, you’re getting the very full recap today, so settle in and make yourself cozy.
Okay. Suzy takes her taxi to the ballet academy, which is a pretty cool looking place, you know, despite the evil witches.
As Suzy pulls up, a terrified woman runs out the door. Actually, she hovers in the doorway for a minute, muttering to herself like a crazy person, but Suzy can’t (yet) make out all the words because of the rain. The woman runs away, and Suzy tries to go inside, but whoever answers the buzzer sounds anxious and won’t let her in. Suzy is forced to go back into her cab and find some place to stay the night.
Meanwhile, Terrified Girl — also known as Pat — runs like a bat out of hell through the woods to wherever her nice friend lives. Nice Friend tries to calm her down and says that getting expelled isn’t the end of the world, but Pat says she isn’t upset about the expulsion. She’s frightened of something else, something supernatural that’s apparently too absurd to explain.
Of course, Pat gets killed, and her death scene is both awesome and totally ridiculous. First, she locks herself in the bathroom and sees something out the window. She stares through the window . . .
. . . which is a cool shot but a terrible idea on her part, and a big, hairy arm breaks through it and repeatedly smothers her face against the glass. Then Pat is pulled through the window and stabbed about 67 times, including once in her very visibly beating heart. Then she is dropped through the glass ceiling of the building and hung.
It’s not actually the overkill I object to — well, not seriously, although come on, she gets stabbed in the heart and is still screaming — but the stabbing scene itself which is so, so terrible, mostly because of the acting. The few minutes leading up to it with Pat in the bathroom is great — that theme song is really effective at building suspense — and the actual hanging moment is startling in a good way, but in between then, when Pat’s been stabbed a few times and is struggling to get away?
Oh, honey. Your death noises should not remind me of Pee Wee Herman from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Yes, I was openly laughing at you here, Pat. It took a little away from the terror.
Oh, also, Pat’s Nice Friend dies as well. When Pat breaks through the ceiling, shards of glass and metal fall to the ground and impale her.
Not nice, witches. Not nice.
Now back to Suzy: the next day she goes back to the academy and has no problem getting in. She meets a few fellow students: Olga, Sarah, and Boy. I can’t remember Boy’s name, and I refuse to go look it up because even though they set him up as a potential love interest (or possibly a villain — I just got that vibe), they do nothing with him. They do very little with Olga, either, which is unfortunate because she simply has fabulous hair.
Olga is set up to be the Bitch — although Suzy seems to get along with her just fine — and the two end up rooming for a day off campus. When Madame Blanc tells her that the room at the academy is ready, Suzy’s like, yeah, no. Even though the room at the school is free (as opposed to fifty dollars a week at Olga’s), and even though, as far as I can tell, Suzy never checks with Olga about her plan to permanently live there . . . you know, she doesn’t want to live like a ten year old at a boarding school. Fucking rich girl.
Anyway, Madame Blanc is not particularly happy about this decision, and very shortly afterwards, Suzy falls ill, bleeding out of her nose and mouth. (But it’s okay! That’s totally normal. I know when, say, my allergies are acting up, I always get mouthbleeds. And then I just rest and drink a glass of wine every night, and I feel all better. Suzy, you fucking stupid rich girl.) While she’s unconscious, all of her things are moved into the school. Supposedly, Olga kicked her out because she didn’t want to catch whatever Suzy had — not that we’ll ever know if that’s true or not because we never see Olga again. She’s a pretty vivid character to just drop off the face of the earth. And for that matter, if it was so important that Suzy stay at the school with the other students, why doesn’t Olga have to?
As for the other character that gets introduced and then promptly dropped: Creepy child, Albert, is actually someone’s nephew –I can’t remember if he’s related to Madame Blanc or Miss Tanner — and his whole purpose in the film seems to be getting bit by a dog.
See, the guy who plays the piano, Daniel, is blind, and he has a seeing-eye dog that he leaves tied up outside the academy while he works. Albert –with full on Zombie Eyes — goes towards the dog one morning, and I was already writing down, “Aha! Another movie where the pets never make it!” when we cut to Miss Tanner rushing in, saying that the dog has bitten poor Albert. Daniel doesn’t believe that the dog would do such a thing without provocation. Miss Tanner cares not and fires Daniel, tossing his cane across the room.
Again, witches. Not nice. Not nice at all.
Also not particularly nice: what happens to Daniel.
As Daniel’s walking by these awesome buildings, his dog begins barking like mad. Daniel freaks out, wondering who’s there, and just when you think something is going to swoop down from the sky and kill him, Daniel’s own dog jumps up and tears his throat out. I have to say, I wasn’t expecting that at all. Poor Daniel. Poor dog.
So, things are a bit tense at the academy, with people dying left and right. Thankfully, Suzy becomes friends with Sarah, who’s a bit on the nervous side. Obviously she has cause to be — I’d be freaked out, too, if my friend and piano teacher were violently killed, and if I lived in the kind of school where maggots rained from the fucking ceiling.
(I was tempted to post a picture of the maggots here, but I thought I might get death threats. People really hate maggots.)
Supposedly, the maggots are coming from boxes of rotten food in the attic . . . I’m not sure if the meat is actually to be someone’s dead body or what . . . so the girls all sleep on the lower floor together.
There’s someone sleeping behind the sheet where Sarah and Suzy are. Sarah is freaked out because — OMG — she recognizes that snore! It’s the weird whistling sound the school’s director makes whenever she sleeps, which is odd because she isn’t supposed to be there yet. Suzy seems creeped out by this as well. I’d be like, “Yeah, whatever,” and roll back to sleep, but I guess I’ve never heard a truly ominous snore before.
As time goes on, Sarah gets more and more freaked out about the possibility of witches. She tries to talk to Suzy about this, but she always does this in the middle of the night when Suzy is incredibly exhausted and can barely think (due to her supposed Medicine Wine). Drugged Suzy does figure out that the staff members aren’t leaving the school at 9:30 like they’re supposed to — if you count the footsteps, it sounds like the teachers are going further into the school.
Later, she also remembers some of the words that Pat said in the rain storm (“iris” and “secret”) although she can’t make sense of them. She tells Madame Blanc about it, which is a bad idea, because it turns out that Pat wasn’t mumbling to herself after all — she was talking to Sarah, and the teachers know that Pat and Sarah were friends. Now Sarah thinks she’s in danger, and she’s very right about that.
Sarah is chased through the academy and jumps through a small window into a very conveniently placed pile of barbed wire. (I’m just imagining the witches building this school: okay, here we’ll place the piano and here we’ll place the altar and here we’ll place the barbed wire in case anyone tries to escape through this one particular window.)
(Also, don’t you look down whenever you jump through a window? I get that you’re pressed for time, Sarah, but come on. You should at least glance to see how far you’re going to fall, right?)
Anyway, Sarah rolls around in the barbed wire for awhile, screaming, trying to get out, and while she amazingly doesn’t manage to kill herself with all her wriggling, someone helpfully comes along and slashes her throat.
The teachers tell Suzy that Sarah up and left in the middle of the night, but Suzy is suspicious now. She stops drinking her Medicine Wine and goes to talk to Sarah’s friend — who is less of a friend and more of a psychiatrist, but whatevs. More importantly, I actually recognize this guy!
This is Udo Kier, who I know as that Rich Guy from Ace Ventura Pet Detective and that drunk, bitter, astronaut guy from that one episode of Seaquest DSV, and honestly, even I don’t know what’s wrong with my brain that I remember this shit. But there you go.
Anyway, Udo tells Suzy a little bit about the history of the school, how it was founded by a mean Greek immigrant named Helena Markos that everyone suspected was a witch. But Udo is a Man of Science and he doesn’t believe in witches, so he introduces Suzy to Random Old Guy Who Does Believe in Witches. ROGWDBiW tells Suzy that covens are only as powerful as their queen, so if the queen dies, all the
alien drones other witches die as well. A-ha!
Suzy goes back to the school, but all the other students have been taken to a play without her. She hears footsteps, though, and follows them to Madame Blanc’s office where there are irises painted on the wall. Turning the blue one opens a secret passage, which Suzy follows. The witches are all there, talking about how the American girl needs to die, and one of the servant guys (who I just called Lurch) starts coming towards Suzy. Suzy finds Sarah’s quite dead body and flees into a bedroom where she hears OMINOUS SNORING.
Of course, Suzy is a big damn klutz and wakes up the director — who is, of course, none other than Helena Markos. Suzy picks up a knife — you know how there are knives always just lying around, just like big damn piles of barbed wire — and goes to stab Helena, but suddenly the queen has disappeared from the bed. Helena then commands Dead Zombie Sarah to rise and kill Suzy.
Before Zombie Sarah can kill her, though, Suzy suddenly sees kind of a vague glowing where Helena Markos’s body used to be — how, I don’t know — and stabs it. Helena dies, which sets the building on fire. Also, all the other witches start dying. Suzy escapes and smiles in relief —
— and that is the end of this film.
Oh, and this is actually the first of a trilogy — but from what I understand, I don’t think the other movies are super directly related, more like there are evil witches in all of them. Maybe I’ll try Tenebre out at some point.
This movie has some serious flaws and plot holes and conveniences. But I find myself wanting to forgive those things because it was beautifully shot and creepy and interesting. Also because it was made in the 1970’s, and I’m just happy it wasn’t porn porn porn the whole time. I had a good time with this one.
Jessica Harper, I guess? (Suzy) Or — well, Dario Argento, really. I haven’t seen any of his other films to compare yet, but this has a very unique and (what I assume) signature look.
If you suspect your teachers are witches, don’t investigate further. Say nothing to anyone about anything. Quietly dance a little while longer and then fake a family emergency or something and go home. I assume students do sometimes leave this school, that the witches don’t kill everyone who attends. (Although to be fair, I still don’t know exactly why witches opened a ballet school anyway. Well, Evil can appreciate art. There’s no rule against that, right?)