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Film / Suspiria (1977)

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"The only thing more terrifying than the last 12 minutes of this film are the first 92."
Tagline for the US release

Suspiria is a classic 1977 Italian horror film directed by Dario Argento, written by Argento and his frequent collaborator/lover Daria Nicolodi, and partially based on Thomas De Quincey's 1845 essay Suspiria de Profundis. The film stars Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Alida Valli, Udo Kier, and Joan Bennett in her final role.

Suzy Bannion (Harper), an American ballet student, goes to perfect her art at a dance academy in Freiburg, West Germany. On the night of her arrival, however, one of the school's students is brutally murdered. As Suzy adjusts to her new life in school, she's soon overwhelmed by a series of strange and nightmarish events, causing her and fellow student Sara (Casini) to suspect that something very evil is lurking in the dance academy.

Probably the most famous of Argento's films, Suspiria is widely known for its dazzlingly surreal visuals, evocative soundtrack by Progressive Rock band Goblin, and shocking gore. It's the first installment of Argento's Thematic Series "The Three Mothers," which also includes Inferno (1980) and Mother of Tears (2007).

Luca Guadagnino directed a loose remake of the film that was released in 2018, starring Dakota Johnson and Tilda Swinton, and scored by Thom Yorke.

"Broken Tropes, Broken Minds":

  • Aborted Arc: Olga (Suzy's would-be roommate) is set up as a supporting character, but she drops out of the plot by the midway mark. It could be said that the same happens to Mark (Suzy's would-be lover), if it wasn't for the revelation that he is a member of the coven too, which takes this arc to another direction. According to Olga's actress, there was a scene showing Olga performing with the Bolshoi when the students are in town, and she believes the girl is a witch in training.
  • Advertised Extra: Despite Udo Kier having a very small role in the film, a number of foreign posters and covers for the film inexplicably bill him higher than the film itself actually does. One poster bills him right behind Harper and Casini, as if he's the male lead, while another bills him fifth, behind Harper, Casini, Bennett, and Valli, again as though he's the male lead.
  • All There in the Manual: The significance of hangings, throat-slittings, the Directoress' distinctive snoring, and the coven's deaths by asphyxiation only make sense if you know that the Directoress is the Mother of Sighs. This is important in the inspiration and the sequels, but makes less sense here. Even the film's title is drawn from the word "suspire", which means to take a deep breath or a sigh.
  • Alpha Bitch: Olga is the richest student at the academy and brags about how Suzy must rent a room from her. Then when Suzy gets sick, she moves all her things out of the apartment and into the school. Though we later find out that the witches in the school intentionally made Suzy sick in order to move her back from Olga's apartment and into the school to watch her, as she saw Pat Hingle leave before she was murdered, and they want to know what else Suzy knows.
  • And Starring: With Alida Valli as Miss Tanner, And with Joan Bennett.
  • Animals Hate Him: Daniel's guide dog attacks Albert, Madame Blanc's nephew.
  • Big Bad: Helena Markos, who is Mater Suspiriorum, the Mother of Sighs and who remains unseen for most of the film but makes her presence felt with everything that transpiring, being in her name.
  • Blind Musician: In one scene, where there's ballet practice, the music is played by Daniel, a blind man with a guide dog.
  • Boarding School of Horrors: The dance academy Suzy enrolls in is thoroughly one.
  • Bookcase Passage: Helena Markos, the Directoress and Mother of Sighs is in a hidden room that can be accessed by turning the blue iris on the wall in Madame Blanc's office.
  • Book Ends: At the start of the film, Suzy enters the academy in pouring rain, witnessing Pat run out, nothing on her person. At the end of the film, Suzy leaves the academy in pouring rain with nothing on her person (and fortunately for her no one on her trail.)
  • The Brute: The porter Pavlos is the one who pursues Suzy before she breaks into Helena Markos's bedroom.
  • By the Lights of Their Eyes: When the killer attacks.
  • Color Wash: A motif in the film. There is a lot of red, green and blue lighting.
  • Creepy Ballet: The ballet institute the heroine starts at turns out to be a front for a coven of witches.
  • Creepy Child: Albert, the nephew of Miss Tanner. It doesn't help that he's dressed in very outdated children's clothes. He's also a member of the coven.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: The deaths of Pat, her friend, and Sara are examples.
    • Pat is stabbed multiple times, to the point that her chest is open and her still-beating heart is stabbed. Then she's hung in the lobby of the apartment building.
    • Her friend meanwhile gets impaled in the debris when Pat's body is smashed through the ceiling glass.
    • Sara falls into a pit of razor wire and has her throat slashed as she's made it out.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: The final confrontation with the Big Bad is...surprisingly easy. A flash of lightning reveals Helena Markos's invisibility just long enough for Suzy to know where to stab.
  • Dangerously Garish Environment: This movie and its successor Inferno (1980) run on this trope. Both films feature exterior and interior shots illuminated with colorful lights which lends to a dream fever like atmosphere. Pat's Rasputinian Death is perhaps one of the most iconic examples.
  • Death of a Child: Albert is killed along with the rest of the coven once Helena Markos dies.
  • Death Trap: While following the teachers at night, Sara gets chased by an unseen killer and jumps out of a window into a room full of razor wire.
  • Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead: Once the Big Bad is killed, the threat is neutralized because the other members of the coven are powerless without the leader and die.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: Not that all three films aren't extremely weird, but the fact that most of the actual lore is established in Inferno (1980) makes Suspiria a bit of an oddball Three Mothers-wise. Mater Suspiriorum / Helena Markos is never named by her proper title throughout the film, and indeed is the only one of the Mothers referred to by a given name (and also by the title "Black Queen" given to her by Frank Mandel and Prof. Milius, never used again in the series). Nor, in this film, is there any suggestion she was part of a larger cult, other than her own coven of subordinates.
  • Empathic Environment: The storm at the end mirrors the destruction of the school.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Miss Tanner is furious about Daniel's dog attacking Albert.
  • Evil Old Folks: Most of the villains of the film are older women. The Big Bad is a centuries-old witch.
  • Evil-Detecting Dog: Done with a twist. The evil in question manages to possess it into attacking its owner. Prior to that is a more straightforward example: Seeing how Albert was part of the coven, it's likely that the dog recognized him as evil, which is what provoked him to attack.
  • Exact Eavesdropping: Suzy sneaks into the coven's inner sanctum at the exact right moment to overhear that they're beginning a ritual which will kill her.
  • Excuse Plot: It's all about the colors, music, and gore.
  • Eye Scream: Sara's corpse has giant pins stuck in its eyes.
  • Faceless Eye: The eyes that stare at Pat through the window.
  • Fainting: Suzy faints during ballet practice supposedly because of anemia. It's actually because of an enchantment a witch put on her.
  • Fairy Tale Motifs: Argento has said that the story was inspired by Snow White (Wicked Witches targeting helpless young girls) and it also has a lot in common with Hansel & Gretel.
  • Femme Fatalons: Helena Markos fingernails are noticeably long and sharp.
  • Final Girl: Suzy has elements of this before the trope had been popularized by Laurie Strode of Halloween (1978) - as a responsible, studious brunette who outwits the bad guys.
  • Foreshadowing: During Suzy's drive to the Tans Academy, the soundtrack calls out "WITCH!" several times.
  • Gorn: During Pat's murder, the killer stabs so deeply you can actually see her heart being punctured, but that's only the beginning. The Magnum release is the only American release with every frame of footage (even the recent DVD releases are missing anywhere from a few frames to a few seconds of footage), and the R-rated cut is only available in a pan-and-scan release, while the uncut version is available in both pan-and-scan and letterboxed releases.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: Surprisingly, when Sara's throat is being slashed, we barely see the knife slicing and then we get a closeup of her eyes. Surprising, considered what we saw during Pat's murder.
  • He Knows Too Much:
    • The reason why Pat is murdered by Markos. She sneaked into their inner sanctum and saw everything.
    • The unspoken reason why the witches make Suzy ill, move her into the school, and drug her food in the first place. She saw Pat flee and might know something. When she lets it slip that Pat was talking to someone else, they target Sara too.
  • Hollywood Darkness: in this film, if a scene is lit with yellow or red, the characters can see. If it's lit with blue or green, the audience is to assume that they're in pitch blackness. This is why Sara accidentally jumps face-first into a giant pile of barbed wire that is clearly visible to the viewer.
  • Human Pincushion: Pat's friend is impaled by falling glass when Pat's dead body falls through the sky light.
  • Humanoid Abomination:The Big Bad is barely recognizable as a human being thanks to her being "the Black Queen."
  • Informed Ability: The fact that Mater Suspiriorum is the "wisest" of the three sisters is, uh, not exactly borne out by her actions of cackling like a madwoman and uttering villainous dialogue while only turning invisible.
  • Invisibility: One of the special abilities of the Mother of Sighs, Helena Markos. She tries to trick the protagonist with this ability, but it doesn't work.
  • Large Ham: Helena Markos in the American dub, ad nauseam.
  • Leitmotif: There are a few, but the 14-note motif used at the very beginning (entitled "Suspiria") re-appears eight additional times.
  • Lightning Reveal: It defeats Helena Markos's invisibility in the climactic scene.
  • Mythology Gag: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage makes an appearance.
  • Mr. Exposition: The daytime city scenes are just straight up exposition about the Tans Academy and the witch cult.
  • Musical Spoiler: In this case, literally, as the Goblin score will sometimes have a loud whispered WITCH. Nothing in the film indicates the presence of witches til late in the film.
  • Naïve Newcomer: Suzy is a new student at the school and doesn't get the weird goings on.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Because of Suzy's complete trust of authority figures, she's upfront and honest about all she knows about Pat to the staff of the academy. This backfires on her big time, as it makes the staff take steps to search the academy, allowing them to find Pat's diary in Sara's possession, target, and kill her while they've drugged Suzy unconscious. Later, they end up targeting Suzy herself, because her honesty and trust have shown the teachers that she also knows too much.
  • No Ontological Inertia: When Suzy kills the Mother of Sighs, the reanimated corpse pursuing her instantly disappears and soon after that the entire school burns down. This is explained by the eradication of the black magic present there which was accumulated and structured in the form of a coven by Helena Markos.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: Not a lot actually happens for most of the movie, but the lurid colors and strange sets create an unsettling atmosphere that's gotten under your skin long before any deaths beyond the first two occur.
  • One-Gender School: The film takes place at an all-girls' dance academy.
  • One-Word Title: Suspiria
  • The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: In spite of taking place at a ballet school, the film features almost no dancing, obviously because the two main actresses aren't ballet dancers. Suzy has only been at the school a day before she gets sick and has to be bedridden for a while - during which the plot unfolds, giving her very little time to dance.
  • Rasputinian Death: Pat is throttled against a window until the glass breaks and suffers numerous deep stab wounds, including her heart. Then the killer hangs her just to be sure. Honestly, not bad for a 90lb ballet student.
  • Raven Hair, Ivory Skin: Both Suzy and Olga clearly fit the bill.
  • Red Right Hand: The porter is ugly and has large, false teeth.
  • Sacrificial Lion: Sara is the supporting protagonist who takes the active role in puzzling out the witches' schemes, but she's murdered in the second act, leaving our protagonist to fend for herself in the climax.
  • Scars Are Forever: After Suzy kills Helena Markos, the Directoress she becomes visible and you can see her burn scars from the fire that nearly killed her.
  • Scenery Porn: This is probably one of the prettiest horror movies ever filmed. Take note of the gaudy interior design of Pat's friend's apartment complex.
  • Sean Connery Is About to Shoot You: Or in this case, Suzy Bannion is about to stab you with a hairpin.
  • Sexy Slit Dress: In her introduction scene, Olga wears her ballet garb under a long dress with a long slit to show off her long legs.
  • Shout-Out: The school is apparently situated on a street called Escherstrasse. Not coincidentally, several rooms in the film (including one outside the school, in a murder victim's apartment) feature Escher or Escher-esque motifs on the walls.
  • Sitcom Arch-Nemesis: Olga has this vibe with Sara, though it doesn't seem to be a particularly malicious one.
    Olga: Susie... Sara... I once read that names which begin with the letter 'S' are the names of SNAKES! Sssss! Ssssss! (Olga and Sara commence making faces at each other.)
  • Slashed Throat: Sara has her throat slashed with a straight razor while trapped in a room full of razor wire.
  • Slipping a Mickey: The witches-in-disguise slip a drug in Suzy's wine that comes complimentary with her meals.
  • Sole Survivor: Once the main heroine kills the head witch (Mater Suspiriorum, the Mother of Sighs), the building starts to collapse, and the moment she leaves, it bursts into flames, supposedly killing every single person within the building except for the main heroine. Luckily, that includes none of the student body as they were on a field trip to the theatre.
  • Spanner in the Works: Were it not for one of the teachers bringing many of the students on an unexpected field trip, the death toll from the destruction of the school after Suzy defeats Helena Markos would've been much higher. The witches were on to Suzy and set up the field trip to ensure there would be no witnesses to her death. Ironically, that just ended up saving more lives when Suzy came out on top.
  • Spoiler Cover: Especially latter day releases, which feature artwork of some of the film's more creative kills. To be expected with a film that's pushing 50 years old, as the assumption would be those that are buying it already know the plot.
  • There Is No Kill Like Overkill: Poor Pat has her face pushed through a window and then gets repeatedly stabbed until she dies. Then her corpse is dropped through a skylight to fall several floors and get hanged by the neck. No coming back from that.
  • Translation Convention: Notably averted. The film takes place in Germany with a cast of characters from around the world, but everyone speaks Italian. Snippets of English and German are occasionally heard, so it's not a case of the dialogue being translated for our benefit. People just speak Italian for no apparent reason.
  • Trash the Set: The Academy's self-imploding.
  • Unexplained Accent: It's not known why Madame Blanc has Joan Bennett's mid-Atlantic accent, given that she refers to Suzy as "that bitch of an American girl" - implying she is not American herself. It's plausible she danced in America (as she does know Suzy's aunt) and picked up the accent that way.
  • Unresolved Sexual Tension: It's pretty obvious Suzy and Mark like each other, but it never gets past the flirting stage.
  • Vader Breath: While sleeping in the dance studio due to the school being fumigated for maggots, Sara knows that Helena Markos, the founder of the dance school and The Mother of Sighs, is in the room with them because of her loud, wheezy breathing.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The story was inspired to co-scriptwriter Daria Nicolodi by a story about her grandmother having run away from a music academy in which they also taught evil witchcraft. Dario Argento later admitted that this was purely fabricated.
  • White Shirt of Death: Pat, her friend and Sara all wear white as they're brutally murdered.
  • Wicked Witch: Helena Markos, the Big Bad, she's ancient, she cackles, and curses people.