I was afraid to write about this film here. What else can I say about it? My love for it as pure as the adoration you feel for your first love. This is what movies are all about to me: a dream world that is punctuated with staccato blasts of violence, neon and Goblin’s never topped soundtrack. It took the remake of the film to get me to write down my feelings on this film.
Suspiria is all about the impact that magic has on our world, a subject about which creator Dario Argento said, “There’s very little to joke about. It’s something that exists.” The genesis for the film came from a trip through the “Magic Triangle,” the place where the countries of France, Germany, and Switzerland meet.
The movie theorizes that if there are three Fates and three Graces, there must be three Sorrows: Mater Lacrymarum, Our Lady of Tears, Mater Suspiriorum, Our Lady of Sighs” and Mater Tenebrarum, Our Lady of Darkness. This was inspired by a 19-century book by Thomas de Quincey called Suspiria de Profundis.
Argento brought his wife Daria Nicolodi on that aforementioned trip and when he lamented that they hadn’t seen a witch, she shared a story her grandmother, the French pianist Yvonne Müller Loeb Casella, had told her of an academy that she attended on the border between Germany and Switzerland that had a faculty that practiced black magic.
While Argento claims that this story was false and other elements were more of the inspiration for the movie, Nicolodi feels otherwise. “Suspiria was imagined and written by me, thanks to the fundamental inspiration of my grandmother’s story,” she said. “Then, for the usual quibbles related to the cinema industry, this story was signed by both of us.”
Even the end of the movie was inspired by a dream that Nicolodi had in which she encountered an invisible witch and then a panther exploded.
While she was to originally star in the film, to make it more marketable to American audiences, Jessica Harper took over the lead. You can still see Nicolodi at the airport scene in the beginning and hear her as the voice of Helena Markos (supposedly, that’s a 90-year-old ex-prostitute who Argento found on the streets playing that role).
Suzy Bannion (Harper) is an American ballet student lost in Germany, arriving in a violent rainstorm and looking for her new school, the Tanz Dance Academy As she arrives, another student, Patricia, flee in terror. Despite the storm and her pleas over the intercom, no one will allow Suzy into the school. The cab drives her back to down as she watches Patricia run through the woods.
Patricia finds her way to a friend’s apartment but within moments, she’s pulled out a window — Argento’s biggest directorial signature — stabbed and then lynched through the apartment’s stained glass skylight while her friend watches on, helplessly, before she’s impaled by pieces of bloody stained glass.
You might say, “Wait, what is happening here?” Argento isn’t going to slow down or explain anything to you. What do you expect from one of the last movies shot in Technicolor and specifically lit to take advantage of the otherworldly colors that that film stock produced? Argento told cinematographer Luciano Tovoli that they were trying to make the film look like Disney’s Snow White. In fact, he had to be talked out of making the students of the school all twelve years and under by his producer — and father — Salvatore Argento. Argento made the girls all around twenty years old but didn’t rewrite their dialogue, which is why they act so naive and their dialogue is so childlike. Next time you watch this movie, notice the doorknobs. They were placed at the same height as the actress’ heads so they would have to raise their arms to open them. All so they would really be children, not adults.
The next morning, Suzy goes back to the school where she meets the headmistress, Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett in the final role of her career) and Miss Tanner (Alida Valli, who is also in Argento’s Inferno). She’s supposed to stay with Olga (Barbara Magnolfi, The Suspicious Death of a Minor), but she’s kicked out in moments and must return to the school. There are some scenes cut from the film that reveal that Olga is probably a witch in training, hence why she plays with Suzy so much.
The next day, Suzy starts her classes but quickly grows dizzy. Then, she becomes friends with Sara (Stefania Casini, The Bloodstained Shadow). Later that evening, when the girls are getting ready for dinner, maggots rain from the ceiling. Again — why? Supposedly its just rotten food, but it feels like something much more sinister is happening, especially when Sara notices the academy’s director wandering the halls late at night and hiding behind the curtains.
Can things get worse? Sure they can. The school’s blind piano player is killed by his own dog. And just as Suzy remembers that Patricia had uttered the words “secret iris” to her, she passes out just as a man enters her room, chasing Sara through a series of rooms until she becomes entangled in barbed wire before the black-gloved man decides that this is now a giallo and slits her throat. This was an incredibly painful scene for Casini to shoot, as even though the barbed wire was fake, it still entangled and tore at her skin.
Suzy learns from Sara’s friend Dr. Frank Mandel (Udo Kier!) that the school had been established by Helena Markos, a woman that everyone in town believed was a witch. She is now dead, the victim of a fire, and another of Mandel’s friends, Professor Milius (Rudolf Schündler, Karl from The Exorcist and Father Conrad from Magdalena, Possessed by the Devil, one of the scummiest possession movies you will ever see) believes that her coven is suffering without her as their leader.
Suzy returns to the school and discovers that she is alone. She follows the sound of footsteps to Madame Blanc’s office, where a mural of irises opens a secret door. Entering this passage, she overhears the Blanc and the teachers plotting her doom. And then, running from Blanc’s nephew Albert and his servant, she finds Sara’s body.
As Suzy hides in a room, she discovers that Helena Marcos is sleeping there. As the witch awakens, she possesses Sara’s body and come after Suzy to kill her. A flash of lightning reveals where Marcos is hiding and Suzy stabs her through the neck with a giant neon peacock quill — quite literally The Bird with the Crystal Plumage — and kills the old woman. The entire school begins to burn and fall apart around her, killing the teachers who had just been planning to kill her. As Suzy escapes into the rainy night, she pauses to smile. I absolutely adore this scene, this moment of survival, this brief bit of exhilaration. Suspiria is quite literally a haunted house ride and our heroine has survived.
The Italian band Goblin — credited as The Goblins — composed the score along with Argento before the movie was filmed. Of note are the hushed whispers of Claudio Simonetti, who has said that that much of what he says in the songs is nonsense.
I’ve gone on record numerous times about my hatred for the remake of this film. But I want to use this time to talk about what this movie is, not what that one isn’t. Everything magical about film is within these 98 minutes. Instead of worrying about narrative cohesion and things making sense, I find it best to just sit back and let Suspiria take you somewhere amazing. You’d do well to watch this movie with that in mind.