Do not be fooled by the bold visuals and the spectacular murder set pieces that Dario Argento uses in this, the first of a trilogy of films which also includes Inferno and Mother Of Tears. When you look past the style he dresses this one up in, it all still boils down to a coven of super powerful witches defeated by a wispy American ballet student who’s in something like her second week at the ballet academy where this all takes place.
I don’t know, but if my villain gets laid out by a ballet dancer who gets nosebleeds whenever she hears witches whispering, the only question I have is how was it that they lasted as long as they did? And if the witches were so powerful, why didn’t they just get rid of this interloper like they did with the other people they didn’t like? At the very least, they could’ve kicked her out of school for some trumped up charge like smoking in the bathroom.
American ballet prodigy Suzy Bannion goes to Germany to attend a prestigious school for dancers and on her very first night there runs smack dab into a mystery! Dario knows a thing or two about atmosphere so it’s very dark and stormy night as Suzy takes a cab over to the school only to see a student shouting something that she can’t make out much of except two words (“secret” and “iris”).
Said student runs away from the school and after Suzy is refused entry to the school by a mysterious voice on the call box at the front door, she sees the student running through the woods in the driving rain. This student meets her fate shortly thereafter in one of those tour de force murder scenes that probably helps give this movie a reputation better than it deserves.
But brilliantly staged murder scenes don’t exist in a vacuum, do they? Presumably they should serve a story that involves the murder. This is where Suspiria falls a bit flat.
After this initial death, the movie slows down considerably, though it does its best to mask this fact by having lots of fancy camera shots and events that seem to hint that all is not as it seems at the ballet academy. There’s the girls who are really crabby and obsessed with money. There’s the handyman with false teeth. There’s the maggot storm that breaks out in the girls dormitory. (Now we’re getting somewhere!)
But really, what was up with the maggot storm? It was explained by the gals running the school that it was because of some rotted food stored in the attic. If that was only a ruse to cover up some witchery, what was the point of the witches screwing around and dumping maggots everywhere in the first place? Don’t they want to be operating in secret? Why throw up all these warning signs that scream “Beware! Secret coven of witches at work!”?
The witches further demonstrate their ineptitude when Suzy’s best friend disappears without any explanation. Her friend had just confided to her that she had been pals with the first girl that disappeared and is suspicious about this and that, so Suzy finds it a bit odd that she would suddenly pack up and leave school after they decided that something funny was going on. Why get rid of one nosy brat, but not both? And couldn’t the witches get rid of people without arousing suspicion?
With this latest disappearance, Suzy finally gets around to investigating things at the school. This means that she sets up a meeting with a cop and a professor who know about the history of the school. What follows is a wad of exposition that explains the witchy origins of the school and its founder.
It’s really quite a clumsy device to give us the back story to explain what’s going on at the school. What I like about it is that after these people disappear and after she’s told about the details that make it clear that there’s probably something really dark and evil going on at the school, she goes back there!
Does that make any sense at all? If she believes that there is a coven of witches at the school led by a really powerful witch, why go back to certain death? If she doesn’t believe that, but thinks that the murder of the first girl and the disappearance of the second girl are related then she must conclude that there is a killer on the loose at the school and because of her relationship to the second girl, she would be the next logical target. Why go back to that?
Add in the fact that she’s been hearing voices, getting sick, figured out that the faculty don’t really go home at night like they claim and you have someone who by all rights should be transferring to some other less dangerous school, like a fashion model academy.
Back at the school, she engages in some really low level investigation (it basically amounts to retracing footsteps and pretending to have difficulty finding a really obvious secret door) and it results in a confrontation with the evil in the school that’s pretty lame.
I’m not sure what kind of sissy witches we were dealing with here that they couldn’t cast a spell or even lock the door to their secret meeting room to prevent Suzy from handling them without little difficulty. Heck, the bat on a string that harassed her in the bathroom earlier gave her more fits then these old hussies.
A stupid, not well thought out story hexes this one and unless you’re startled by loud noises or funky camera angles, you won’t find this one scary or unsettling. It starts off with a bang, but just continues to lose steam as it goes along and you realize how little of any it makes sense. If you want stylish Argento paired up with a story that keeps you involved, his previous outing, Deep Red, is a much better pick than this one. Ballet dancers vs. witches? How did this one not work?
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