Monday, October 25, 2010
31 days, 31 faves: Suspiria
It was a major toss up for me whether to include Suspiria or Phenomena in my 31 Days posts, but as you can see, I went with director Dario Argento's supernatural masterpiece.
Suspiria is so revered among most horror fans (and I must say those who don't like it, seem to dislike most Italian cinema altogether) that it almost seems a moot point to review or discuss it. Everyone seems to have seen it and have opinions on it, but nonetheless...
As the opening credits start, the famous Goblin music begins and a voice over (the only one in the entire film) tells us that Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper) has come from New York City to a world famous dance academy in Germany to study ballet.
When a wide-eyed Suzy exits the airport, we can immediately recognize that something unusual is happening. There is a raging storm outside, and when she walks outside she may as well have been in a hurricane, the wind is so strong. After being ignored by several taxis, she literally runs out into the street until one finally pulls over. The darkness of the German countryside seems very forboding as the storm intensifies and Suzy can barely see out the windows.
Finally arriving at the school, she watches as a girl is leaving in noticeable distress, yelling at someone inside. When Suzy herself is unable to get anyone to let her in, she is forced to go back to town. On the way, she observes the girl who fled from the school, running through the woods as if being chased by something. It really must be noted that as this is going on, Goblin's violent drum beats and wailing otherworldly music imbues the frightening tone the film has already set within the first eight minutes.
Pat (Eva Axen), the scared woman in question, arrives at a friend's apartment where she is comforted and reassured that all is okay. Pat doesn't believe it for a minute, refusing to discuss the particulars and adamantly stressing that she is leaving (like, the whole country) in the morning. As she dries off in the bathroom, she stands by the windows and stares out as the rain still pours down. Upon further inspection, she's shocked when a pair of malicious yellow eyes glare back at her. Suddenly the window breaks and an arm (incidentally the hairiest arm I think I've ever seen) reaches in to grab her, pulling her outside where the assailant stabs her in the chest.
As her friend screams from outside the door, the murderer ties a rope to Pat and proceeds to stab her several times right in the heart - and I mean this is a graphic, no-holds-barred plunge directly into the heart. Argento, as usual, has no fear of showing the red stuff. But we aren't done yet. As Pat is pushed through a stained glass window ceiling, she is hung by that rope and her friend lies dead beneath her, impaled by pieces of the broken window and frame. Wow. Just...wow.
In the morning, Suzy shows up at the dance academy, meeting first Miss Tanner (Alida Valli) who gives her a speech about how they were waiting all evening for her but she never showed. It's obvious this woman is a hard ass, and even though Suzy explains that she did arrive last night, Tanner still seems a bit rough around the edges.
She leads Suzy over to meet Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett). They are discussing the fact that Pat was murdered by a madman just after she was expelled the night before for 'improper conduct'. She's also sorry to tell Suzy that her room isn't prepared and she'll be staying in town with one of the girls until it is ready for her.
Suzy soon realizes Pat was saying something when she witnessed her leaving the night before that could be considered important to the case but she cannot remember what it was. As also in both Profondo Rosso and Tenebrae, Argento holds back that information from us, having his protagonists all be unable to recollect important moments. It drives the plot forward, yet serves to confuse and bewilder the audience - but it's effective.
She meets some of the other students, including Olga (Barbara Magnolfi), who she will be rooming with. Later, at Olga's, they discuss Pat's death, and Suzy remembers a few key words Pat may have said, secret and iris. Olga doesn't seem to care much, saying Pat was a busybody and always in trouble.
The next day at dance practice, Madame Blanc tells her that her room is ready but Suzy tells her she'd rather stay in town, which seems to piss Blanc off a bit. In contrast, Miss Tanner congratulates her on having such a strong will.
As Suzy walks the corridors of the academy, she is overcome and gets dizzy after a bizarre confrontation with the cook in the hallway. In dance practice, she tells Miss Tanner she is too weak to dance, but Tanner insists she try. She passes out though, and when she wakes up she has been moved into the dormitory against her wishes.
A doctor comes to see her and says she needs to rest, be on a restricted diet and drink more wine. (Yeah! The cure for all that ails you!)
Her new dorm neighbor is Sarah (Stefania Casini), who questions the wine prescription but rushes off when the dinner bell rings.
As Suzy readies for bed, she is startled to find a maggot in her hair. Noticing that they seem to be dropping onto her dressing table, she looks up and sees the ceiling crawling with them.
It's then revealed that they are everywhere in the school's second floor. Miss Tanner investigates the attic, crunching over thousands of maggots as she walks (ugh!). She finds cases of food that have spoiled and sets the girls up in the practice hall on the first floor for the night.
With the lights out, an eerie red light is cast over the room. After most everyone has fallen asleep, Sarah hears a strange snoring noise and wakes Suzy up to tell her that it sounds specifically like the directress that isn't supposed to be back at the school for weeks.
The next morning, Miss Tanner has a total shit-fit when she believes that the seeing eye dog that belongs to the blind pianist at the school has attacked Tanner's nephew and bitten him. Daniel (Flavio Bucci) screams in disagreement, swearing his dog would never do such a thing. He storms out (as quickly as a blind man can) with Tanner on his heels practically forcing him through the front door.
What Tanner didn't see was the mysterious cook, walking with the nephew right by the dog. We don't see what happened, but after Suzy got sick when she had her encounter with the cook, one tends to wonder.
As Suzy and Sarah discuss the fact that the directress was most certainly in the house, they notice that even though the staff supposedly goes home at night, they can hear them walking through the halls after hours, obviously staying inside the academy and all gathering together in private.
At the same time, Daniel is heading home from a brew house with his dog. Walking across the plaza he is blindsided (no pun intended) when a stone phoenix comes to life, scaring his dog into attacking him, viciously ripping out his throat. Hard to believe not a soul was in that plaza to help him though, am I right?
Suzy has a little heart to heart with Madame Blanc the next day, admitting to her that Pat had said the words iris and secret. Blanc seems surprised by this, but says she'll let the police know.
Soon after, Sarah explains that Pat was hysterical right before she left the school, that she had been taking notes about the strange things that had been going on in the school. Before Pat left, she gave the notes to Sarah, who agrees to let Suzy read the notes. She explains that Pat was trying to determine where the teachers went at night by counting the footsteps she heard outside her room.
But later, as Suzy struggles to stay awake, Sarah is paranoid because someone stole the notes. She only has one tidbit of information to give her, and asks if Suzy knows anything about witches. But Suzy falls asleep again before answering.
Sarah, frightened when she sees someone entering Suzy's room, runs to the attic to hide. Chased by an unseen assailant, Sarah bumps into a hidden attic room from which a pulsating light emanates. As she tries to hide, the stranger tries to gain access to the room. Soon Sarah piles boxes up so she can escape through the window, but as she does, she falls into a giant-ass pile of razor wire. (Because everyone keeps that around the house in case of emergency, right?) The killer reaches her and finishes the job.
In the morning, Suzy discovers Sarah is missing, and decides she absolutely has to speak to Sarah's psychiatrist, Dr. Mandel (Udo Kier!). Mandel explains some of the history of the school, including the fact that it was founded by Helena Markos, a Greek immigrant, who was thought to be a black witch. Markos is also known as Mater Suspiriorum, or the Mother of Sighs. However, the shrink says most of the time, people who think they are witches are just mentally ill. But the fact is that there are some witches, those who practice in powerful covens, that use magic to gain wealth and will do whatever they can to obtain it, including murder.
When Suzy arrives home she discovers all the students have went out, leaving her alone in the school. Seeing her dinner left for her, she is finally suspicious of the strange drink given to her each night and dumps it down the drain.
Counting the footsteps from Sarah's room, she finds herself at Blanc's office. She discovers irises painted on the walls and at last remembers what Pat had mentioned the night she died. Finding a hidden door behind the wall, she happens upon a secret room where a coven is discussing the fact that Suzy needs to disappear. (Meddling kids!) In other words, die - and soon. She sees that Madame Blanc seems to be the leader, the coven's black queen. Seeing the dead body of Sarah nearby, Suzy is able to sneak away, only to end up in a room in which a woman sleeps behind a curtain. A woman with a very recognizable snore.
When Suzy accidentally wakes the directress, the old witch dares her to try to kill her, and identifies herself as Helena Markos. She reanimates Sarah, who comes after Suzy with a knife. Able to grab a tail feather from a glass peacock, Suzy jumps at the ghastly outline of the directress and stabs her, effectively bringing her reign of terror to an end. (Well, that was certainly easy!)
The coven is unable to exist without her and they are helpless to defend themselves when unseen forces cause the building to fall apart around them. Suzy is able to get out just before the dance academy explodes in flames. The End.
The very best thing about Suspiria is the color. Vibrant splashes of color saturate nearly every scene. Brilliant blues on the walls, the reds of the makeshift sleeping quarters, the yellows of the walls outside the coven quarters...it's all so striking that you can't take your eyes off of it.
The entire film feels like you're in a dream - no, a nightmare.
Musically, Suspiria is far superior than most horror films, with a simply terrifying score from Argento favorite, progressive rock band Goblin. At times the pounding drums and never ending wailing seem almost too much to take, but honestly it's just perfect. Probably the most recognizable score of any Argento film, it's a haunting accompaniment to a stylishly sublime, aesthetically pleasing piece of horror film history.
The style of Suspiria is what is generally mentioned first in discussions of its mastery, and like any Argento film, you're going to get it in droves. Yes, the plot is sometimes perplexing, but that is par for the course with the Italian director. Sometimes in film, you have to look past confusing plot elements and just enjoy the stylized suspense. This is one of those times.