My first glimpse into the world of European horror was, as usual, my mother’s fault. I came in after playing baseball and she told me “Put on 17.” I did, and was treated to the last 10 minutes of The Deep Red Hatchet Murders (Profondo Rosso). I had no idea what I was watching, but I liked what I saw and made a mental note of the title and director. Now, I am not a big fan of change, so I may have been the last guy in the city to get a VCR, but once I did it was not long before I remembered that little snippet from Deep Red. Unfortunately, it was not on the shelf, but Suspiria was—and things would never be the same for me.
Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) is an American Ballet student coming to Freiburg, Germany, to study at the famed Tanz Academy. Her arrival is met with a terrified girl at the door yelling something to someone inside before she runs off. Suzy is refused entrance and goes into town to stay the night. The frightened girl, Pat (Eva Axén), goes to a friend’s where she is stabbed brutally several times before being hung when she crashes through a stained glass ceiling. Falling glass and metal also kill her friend.
The next morning, Suzy is introduced to Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett, matriarch of the Collins family on Dark Shadows, in her final film role) and Miss Tanner (Alida Valli). She is introduced to Sarah and Olga and finds she is boarding off campus with Olga. The next morning a room opens up, but she decides to stay with Olga, which is not to the liking of Blanc and Tanner. As she heads down the hall to her first lesson, she encounters one of the cooks and Blanc’s nephew. The cook flashes her eyes with the edge of the silverware and she begins to fall into a weakened trance, leading to her collapse.
When she awakens, her belongings are now at the academy in her new room despite her wishes. She finds Sarah is in the room next door and they become fast friends.
As they prepare for dinner, they are bombarded by maggots falling from the ceiling (due a bad shipment of meat) and the girls are forced to sleep in the practice hall, where Sarah insists the school director is sleeping also, even though they have been told she is out of town. As morning comes, the blind pianist, Daniel (Flavio Bucci), enters leaving his dog outside. The cook and boy approach the dog and moments later an angry Miss Tanner tells Daniel his dog has attacked the boy. He quickly resigns and leaves gladly after a few choice words for Miss Tanner.
Suzy and Sarah continue talking about the odd goings-on and Suzy later realizes the staff appear to be heading INTO the building rather than leaving it. Finding herself suddenly drowsy, she falls asleep leaving Sarah to count the steps. Daniel, the pianist, is soon killed by his own dog while walking home. Suzy confesses to Madame Blanc about hearing the words “Iris” and “secret” from Pat as she left, angering Sarah, who tells Suzy she was the person Pat was talking to and offers to let her see the notes Pat had, which conveniently vanish. Overcome by a sudden drowsiness, Sarah is left to look into things on her own. She is chased up to the attic and using a vent to escape the killer, drops into the room next door, filled with razor wire. She slices herself to pieces getting to the door and has her throat cut for her trouble.
Of all the murder scenes Argento has concocted, this is the one scene that has always stood out among the others. Yes, nobody keeps a room filled with razor wire, especially not a dance academy, but who cares…it is a spectacular and unforgettable death scene. Unable to find her friend the next day, she goes to see Sarah’s friend Doctor Mandel (Udo Kier), a psychiatrist who treated Sarah a few years back. He gives her the back-story of the Academy, noting that suspected witch Helena Markos founded it. She was referred to as Mater Suspiriorum, the Mother of Sighs. Professor Millus explains to her a coven can only survive as long as their queen is alive.
Returning to the Academy, she finds they are all at a show for the night and the phone lines soon go down thanks to another storm. Finally realizing she is being drugged, she dumps her glass of wine in the sink and waits for the staff to leave. Using the count of their footsteps, she makes her way past the two cleaver-wielding cooks, and enters Blanc’s office. Remembering the Iris comment from Pat at the door, she finds the secret entrance and hears Madame Blanc ordering the death of “that bitch of an American girl.” As he turns to leave, she finds Sarah’s corpse and runs right into the room inhabited by Helena Markos, the directress. She knocks over a glass peacock, awakening her, and is attacked by her friend’s animated corpse. Since the directress is now invisible, Suzy sees her silhouette in a flash of lightning and plunges one the glass feathers into her neck, killing Markos. She makes a hasty getaway as the building crumbles and burns.
You can easily see the influence Mario Bava had on Argento by his use of the colors red and blue. He achieved this spectacular effect by filming in a three-strip Technicolor process that was pretty antique by this time (You can learn more about DP Luciano Tovoli’s stunning work on Suspiria by reading his recent interview with American Cinematographer). Besides directing, he also co-wrote the story with longtime companion Daria Nicolodi and was the first of his Three Mothers trilogy, along with Inferno and the recent Mother of Tears. It featured the music of Goblin and it opened up a wonderful world for me. Thank You, Maestro.
As always, I suggest you…
Watch and Enjoy!
Next, we look at the best zombie movie EVER.
Fred’s writings about horror movies can also be found on the Movies Unlimited page of the new Famous Monsters of Filmland site.