Suspiria (1977) is not only Italian cult film director Dario Argento's best known work (and the most success he's yet had in the US market in both theatrical release and video), but his masterpiece. He brought to it every trick and talent to create this amazing surreal/oneiric work. Strangely enough, it is unlike the majority of his work, violent thrillers (gialli1). To date, he has only made one other decidedly supernatural film, Inferno (1980), part two of a projected, though as yet unfinished, trilogy (Suspiria being the first part).
Long challenged ridiculed and vilified, evenby critics (Americans, in particular, he actually has quite a following among many European critics) for his tendency to favor style over substance (though he would argue that the style is part of the substance, if not dictated by it), and visuals over plot, Argento has remained true to his auteur2 passion. This "challenge" is certainly not unwarranted, but does seem to miss the point. As has been noted, "there's no Room with a View  in his future," but Argento isn't interested in making that sort of picture, he "has never wanted to ascend to bigger and better things. Just bigger and better horror" (McDonagh, FC).
But Suspiria isn't about plot and whodunit (a cynic might even call the "plot" progression and resolution a McGuffin of sorts, only extent to provide an excuse for the bizarre visuals and almost impressionistic horror). It's a dark fairy tale (at its "Grimmest"), a dream, a fugue. The only "sense" that must be made is within the trance logic of the film, itselfwhere reality and surreality are interchangeable. As the Time Out Film Guide puts it, "what horror movies seemed like when you were too young to get in to see them." A dark fairy story for adults.
The story is of a young American girl who goes to a strange dance school in Germany where she discovers a group of witches. It is the first part of a three part trilogy of what is called the "Three Mothers," the names having been derived from Thomas de Quincey's essay "Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow" from his 1845 collection Suspiria de Profundis ("Sighs from the Depths") whence comes the title. In the "essay" (de Quincey's works are largely inspired from opium dreams he had) we are introduced to three mothers, "awful sisters.... Our Ladies of Sorrow," in de Quincey's words: Mater Lachrymarum ("Our Lady of Tears"), Mater Suspiriorum ("Our Lady of Sighs"), and Mater Tenebrarum ("Our Lady of Darkness").3
In Argento's formulation, the three Mothers are evil, they "rule the world with sorrow, tears, and darkness." Each is based in a different city, Freiburg, New York City, and Rome and each of their "horrible houses, the repositories of all their filthy secrets" contains certain keys (both real and metaphorical) to the nature and the means of destruction of each.4
Both de Quincey and some of the other ideas came from Argento's longtime significant other Daria Nicolodi (and mother of actress Asia Argento who has appeared in her father's films; some sources incorrectly state Nicolodi was married to him). She was a fan of the writer and recalled stories from her grandmother of a music academy she had attended where (supposedly) black magic was practiced (Nicolodi contributed a great deal to the writing of both "Mother" films but was uncredited, something of a sore point between her an Argento). What better beginnings to create a dark fairy tale?
The opening sets the atmosphere of the fairy tale and starts with a short introductive narrative that could come from such a story:
Suzy Banyon decided to perfect her ballet studies in the most famous school of dance in Europe. She chose the celebrated Academy of Freiburg. One day at nine in the morning she left Kennedy Airport in New York and arrived in Germany at ten-forty local time.
She moves through the quiet airport
and exits, the automatic doors
opening almost menacingly. Once outside, she is alone in the wind and rain and thunder. No longer back in the (real) world she came from, but in the world of dreams and witches. As the taxi driver
she finally flags down answers, the rain started only a half hour before she arrived.
Through the rain and the blaring soundtrack5, past strangely unsettling shots of fountains and water pouring down drains, past an eerie forest (a fairy tale staple), we are drawn with Suzy into the world of the nightmare. Arriving at the academy she sees a desperate girl panicking, saying something too hard to hear (later she pieces it together) and running away fro the building into the woods. A voice on the intercom orders her to leave. As the taxi passes back through the woods, the figure of the fleeing girl is illuminated by lightning.
We follow her to a bizarre apartment complex where she finds a room with a friend. There, she goes from seeing black clothes on a line outside the window, to a pair of evil eyes staring back, to being pulled through a window pane face first starting one of the most elaborate murder set pieces I've seen (the length of this has necessitated my dropping an in depth description an analysis I'd planned). Dragged by some hairy man or creature, she's stabbed repeatedly while her friend, screaming, bangs on doors for help (no one answers). Laying her across a stained glass window in the ceiling (over the lobby), a telephone or electric wire is tied in a noose around her and she's stabbed in the heart with graphic detail. First her head breaks through, then her whole body crashes through the glass, snapping taut just a few feet above the floor. The camera pans from the pooling blood over to her friend who was both impaled in the chest and abdomen by the metal frame from the window and with a large pane of glass bisecting her face.
"The celebrated Academy of Freiburg"
The school, itself, it out of a dream or a nightmareit's located on "Escherstrasse" (there's wallpaper in one apartment that looks like knock-off Escher). Bright brick red on the outside, the inside is so obviously an (intentionally) over-decorated set that it only "feels" right and enhances the sense of bizarre otherworldliness (yet still not detached from what is still recognizable) of the place.
It's all reds and blues and lacquered blacks (it was filmed with three-strip Technicolor which was, in McDonagh's words in FC, "manipulated in the laboratory to produce a palette of saturated, almost cartoonlike primary colors"). Wallpaper (or paint) with what seems to actual artwork instead of patterns and when it is a pattern, so dense that it speaks horror vacui. Red curtains, what seems to be blue velvet walls, strange archways ribbing the halls, interspersed with ornate little statues. Odd bulbous windows on the doors that could resemble the four chambers of a heart. Stained glass. Light, sometimes red, sometimes, jaundiced, that comes from no visible source. It all looks so fake, but makes so much sense in the contextas long as one realizes the context is not naturalistic or even generally atmospheric, but half-remembered images and impressions from daydreams and nightmares.
What other kind of place could a group of wicked witches live other than this fantastic art nouveau/art deco candied gingerbread house (by way of pulp visions of oriental opium dens and brothels)? The decor is like an impressionistic collage which is meant to evoke the feeling, rather than make logical sense. Argento has no pretensions about being realisticthis is a dream and it must be draped accordingly.
Gallery of the Grotesque
As any good fairy tale or nightmare, Suspiria is populated a a group of strange and grotesque characters, surrounding the "normal" Suzy (who is the "innocent," the "naive" Kind in a modern day Schwarzwald not unlike that of Wilhelm and Jakob).
The girls at the academy, while hardly " wicked stepsisters," are either forgettably indifferent (and in the background) or a bit petty and odd (and isn't the idea of a German ballet academy a bit unconventional, at least, let alone the obvious lack of dancing ability among the "students"?). There is a cook/maid/housekeeper (?) who looks almost like a fat old Chinese woman. Or man. Maybe some other ethnicity. Young (silent) Albert, who is almost pale enough to appear albino. Udo Kier as the odd blind piano player, dressed in black, who eventually (suspiciously) has his throat ripped out by his own dog.6 The servant is tall and, well, ugly. He understands only Romanian and has had all his teeth taken out because he discovered he had gingivitis. The second in command administrator, Miss Tanner, is cold and looks like an older (uglier), more evil Miss Togar.7 The number one administrator, Madame Blanc, who is oh-so genteel and patronizing (false maternal feelings), which seems to be a façade (of course it is: "we must get rid of that bitch of an American girl"). And the "absent" directress who really isn't absent. Whose "snoring" is like a last rasp death rattle. She's not old, she's ancient. The head witch: Helena Marcos...Our Lady of Sighs.
One of only two "normal" who are a part of Suzy's life is Sara (Daria Nicolodi), who befriends Suzy (the only one). She's a bit neurotic and worriedbut for good reason, she suspects something is seriously wrong at the Tanzakademie and was the one who warned Suzy away on the intercom that first night, forcing her to stay at a hotel. She "knows" of the directress and recognizes the labored breathing while the girls are bivouacked in one of the practice rooms following a rain of (real) maggots from the attic where rotten meat was stored (as the "book" in Inferno explains, "the land upon which the three houses have been constructed will eventually become deathly and plague-ridden...the area all around will reek horribly"). The girls are surrounded by white sheets on clothesline in the darkened room. Argento, like a nightmare, illuminates them from behind with red light introducing the frail body of the hag as she lies down to sleep on the other side (and also dreamlike, none of this makes logical sense).
Being the other "normal" person means she is damned to be eliminated. She does not belong in the dream except to be destroyed. And destroy her, the dream does. She and Suzy count the footsteps of the staff as they "leave" one night, realizing that they aren't leaving the academy, but going somewhere inside. Suzy, too ill to join (due to a combination of what might be a "curse" and a suspect doctor's prescription of what is supposedly red wine), remains in bed while Sara tries to find where they go.
A hidden wall, mysterious corridors. She hears what sounds like childlike voices and running above her as she continues in the bowels of the house. Someone (apparently a woman who picks up a straight razor) begins chasing her from green and black into red. Sara breaks glass panes on the walls that only have the wall on the other side and finally locks herself in a room. As the blade attempts to lift the latch, she spies what appears to be a doorless transom window. She crawls through and lands in a pit of concertina wire, like razor quicksand tearing her more and more to shreds as she tries to escape before almost mercifully getting her throat cut.
Two of the students overheard:
"Maybe there's a hex on this place."
"Yeah, maybe we should call in the exorcist and have a purge."
The connection between witches and fairy tales is so well established it almost seems not worth mentioning (but I will). The idea of a malevolent female (corrupting the feelings of maternal love one feels for and expects from an older female) is quite distressing, if not disturbing. That both plays on the idea of woman as evil temptress, destroyer/usurper of (male) order and against the idea that man is powerfuleven in eviland woman is not (which also disturbs the "order of things"). Regardless which reason or reasons, the concept resonates within and without the fairy story.
The only other "normal" character is a psychiatrist friend of Sara's (she was a patient after a nervous breakdown). For the only time in the film, Suzy leaves the confines of the immediate area where Mater Suspiriorum holds sway, to speak with him (following Sara's "disappearence"8). Of course he isn't a proper character, merely a means through which to introduce the pseudohistory of the trilogy. Playing the scientific type, he says that "bad luck" is not caused by "broken mirrors but broken minds." And perhaps this is all some horrible fever dream that Suzy need only to awaken from. He introduces her to "an expert."
It seems in the late 19th century there was a Greek woman (recalling mythology as with De Quincey) named Helena Marcos who had been "expelled" from some European countries because she was thought a witch (I realize that the term has been appropriated by numerous loosely related belief systems over the last centuryit should be clear that the discussion here relates to the fairy tale archetype). Known as the "Black Queen," she established academy originally as a dance and occult9 academy. She (supposedly) died in a fire in 1905 and the occult part was abandoned. He describes witches for her:
they are malefic. Negative and destructive. Their knowledge of the art of the occult gives them tremendous powers. They can change the course of events and people's lives but only to do harm.... Their goal is to accumulate great personal wealth but that can only be achieved by injury to others. They can cause suffering, sickness, and even the death of those who for whatever reason have offended them.
Like in the world of dreams and fairy stories, "magic is everywhere." And the "witch profile" is played out as expected.
In keeping with the idea of "occult" and things "hidden," the "key" to the discovery of the witches' inner sanctum turns upon half-heard words of the escaping student in the rainstorm when Suzy first arrives. This is not the first nor last time Argento has gone to this plot point of words or images that were misinterpreted of only partially understood by the character. She realizes that the girl was telling the way to enter the secret passage to where they staff goes each night (a flower that only appears to be artwork on a wall).
Happily ever after?
Suzy moves through the hallways, overhearing the witches say that she must be killed (as all heroines in fairy tales are threatened byeven if the death is only "apparent" as in Snow White or Sleeping Beauty). They perform what appears to be a ritual to make her sick (as prelude to death). Sara's body is found laid out on a table. She finds Helena lying in her bed half hidden by the barely translucent fabric of her canopied bed. Accidentally, Suzy tips over an odd metal peacock sculpture, breaking it into a body, tines, and balls that the camera follows across the floor. She picks up a tine to stab Helena who disappears when the canopy is drawn back, leaving only an impression in the mattress (similar to "Mother" in Hitchcock's 1960 Psycho).
She's challenged by Helena and is drawn to a black coffin-shaped door. "Hell is behind that door. You're going to meet death now...the living dead." With that, a reanimated (and armed) Sara comes through the door toward Suzy. Then lightning flashes, revealing Helena's silhouette sitting on the bed. Suzy stabs her in the throat, pushing the metal tine all the way through. As the now-visible Mater Suspiriorum dies, all hell breaks loose. Glass explodes, the ground shakes, the walls crack, things slide across the floor (the staff is suffering some unexplained torment as a result). Winds blows through the house, furniture collapses. Suzy escapes outside into a downpour...yet has more than relief on her facewhat appears to be a smile. Then we see the whole building is on fire.
In lieu of "The End" or another fairy tale finish, we read that we "have been watching Suspiria." It was a storya dreamafter all.
And as per Hansel and Gretel, the witch burns.
1(Singular: giallo) Italian for "yellow," it is a reference to the yellow covers that mystery-detective-crime novels once had in Italy. It has come to mean similar films, usually featuring black-gloved killers, wild plots, and brutal killingsthe killings and the murderer as important (or more) as the solving of the crimes. In Film Comment Maitland McDonagh elaborates: "psychological/detective thrillers driven by the cruel, the outré...."
2A word that admittedly gets tossed around rather carelessly. But in the sense that the director puts his own personal visual and authorial "imprint" on the film making it indelibly his, I believe Argento qualifies. Of the many examples of Euro-horror I've seen, the only directors that come even close to approximating Argento are, not surprisingly, protégés who "studied" under him as second unit directors or assistant directors (of particular note is Michele Soavi, whose 1994 Dellamorte Dellamore shows not only Argento's influence but a great stylistic talent in its own right).
3The full text is available for further examination. The key is that it is inspiration for Argento, an important part being the line "their paths wide apart; but of their dominion there is no end...." Their function in the world (the dream world, the fairy tale world where these stories take place) is behind the scenes but powerful, being the source for much of the suffering of humanity. For how Argento views the partition of their respective spheres of influence, see above. Of note is that, unlike Argento, de Quincey portrays them not as mere evil, since for all the "sorrows" forced onto man, though they "banish the frailties of hope, wither the relenting of love, scorch the fountain of tears, curse him as only thou canst curse," it is in order to "plague his heart until we had unfolded the capacities of his spirit." Also: though one is named, Mater Tenebrarum, there is no connection with his film Tenebrae (1982).
4Taken from a pseudobook Argento introduces in Inferno to explain these conceptssomething the casual viewer of Suspiria would be unaware of (especially when it originally came out three years prior). Even then, it's so convoluted that it's difficult to follow for even the non-casual viewer.
5A collaboration between Argento and the rock band Goblin. It's amazing, an infectious, but harsh melody that repeats over and over, scratchily delivered words in the background (usually indecipherable, though "witch" is clearly heard), "la la..." along with the melody in a voice that mocks a child's' (the usual object of the telling of a fairy tale), loud percussion, cries and moans, and occasionally strings like the rubbing together of the wings of some great evil Old Testament locust. Only for the closing credits, does the band shift back to its heavy bass- and synth sound that, frankly, I don't care for. The rest is something Ennio Morricone (who worked on some earlier Argento films) would be proud of. Unfortunately, I can only describe it poorly.
6His dog supposedly attacks young Albert, though the scene preceding theoff-cameraattack suggests something or someone (we see the maybe-a-cook walking with Albert toward the dog who seems more curious than anything else) precipitated it. The attack on Kier occurs in a huge Platz surrounded by Roman-columned buildings in the middle of the night with no one around. Prior to the dog going at him, there is the suggestion of some flying or winged "thing" overhead as "flapping" is heard and strange shadows seen.
7Togar was played by the inimitable Mary Woronov in 1979's Rock 'n' Roll High School.
8Suzy is told that she "left without telling anyone," that she "packed her bags" and left. "If she wasn't happy here, she could've at least told someone. Why sneak off like a thief?"
9The various meanings of the word are apt here. "Secret," " concealed," "unknown" (as well as the more modern common usage of the word). Not only does this relate to fairy tales which are full of secrets to be discovered and "known" but to dreams, as well, as the way they (according to some) conceal meaning and understanding from the dreamerwhich with "proper understanding" can be revealed. Also, part of the barely heard words of the escaping girl were about a "secret."
(Sources: letterboxed uncut version of the movie; Maitland McDonagh, Film Comment January-February 1993 issue, Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: the dark dreams of Dario Argento 1991, 1994the title coming from this movie; Time Out Film Guide 1989)
(turn out the lights and turn up the stereo)