When Shall We Three Meet Again?
First of the Three Mothers Trilogy and reputed to be the last film shot in Technicolor in the West, Suspiria is held by some fans to be Dario Argento’s best (and is currently being remade). At the Museum of Arts and Design Argento family retrospective, all three horror films are screened after his bang-bang 1970-71 police procedural Animal Trilogy and span thirty years.
The director’s scripts theoretically inspired by De Quincey’s 1845 “Suspiria de Profundis,” this second group of three takes off from eleventh-century Black Sea witch siblings who forced architect E. Varelli (a nasty wheelchair invalid in the middle film, played by Feodor Chaliapin, Jr.) to construct a mansion for each of them. This background is not clearly explicated until the second feature, Inferno. Although less so in the ineffective third, Mother of Tears/La terza madre, the trio rely on set-piece imagery, outré décor, lush reds and blues and discordant music with not much nod in the direction of continuity, coherence and acting. Like radio drama that voiced what was not seen, Argento stops to tell things most awkwardly: that background read from Varelli’s diary-book, for instance, or Suspiria’s Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) speaking aloud her plan to count footfalls and their ending where carpeting begins, or Professor Milius (Rudolf Schündler) filling her in on witchcraft and 1895 Greek coven leader Elena Marcos.
In modern Freiburg, New York and Rome, Maters Suspiriorum, Tenebrarum and Lachrymarum -- of Sighs, Darkness and Tears -- set up shop and await world domination. To the thunderous downpour of all three films, American Suzy arrives at a famous Black Forest ballet academy to further her studies, only to be turned away at the door but witness frantic student Pat Hingle (Eva Axén) run out and away through the birches mumbling half-distinct words. The escapee is gruesomely killed in town, leaving her ballet-aspirant friend Sara (Stefania Casini) suspicious and confiding in the newcomer, stiffly received the next morning.
As if discordant music over long corridors of black wood and red trim were not sufficient, the staff is sinister enough to curdle blood -- or campy enough to draw laughs: powdered directress Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett); mannish disciplinarian Miss Tanner (Alida Valli); ugly silent butler Pavlo (Giuseppe Transocchi) with Alec Guinness Ladykiller teeth; female cooks who resemble male wrestlers, a Fauntleroy page boy (Jacopo Mariani), and blind pianist Daniel (Flavio Bucci).
Her male fellow students (including Miguel Bosé) fey and useless, and the other females catty, it falls to Suzy to sort things out. Her sudden anemia is unexplained, for there is no vampirism; if her courage is foreseen by evil, why has she been admitted in the first place, necessitating her being drugged into uneasy sleep? There is little logic, just the exuberance of individual scenes.
MAD’s nine Dario films in April are projected in atmospheric, hard-to-get 35mm. From a UK archive, this particular ninety-eight-minute Suspiria lies between the shorter censored American version and the longer, gorier original and opens, “Passed X [by the] British Film Council.”
(Released by International Classics Inc. and rated “R” by MPAA.)