Movie of the Month: Lisa and the Devil (1973)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Hanna made BrandonBoomer, and Britnee watch Lisa and the Devil (1973).

Hanna: I didn’t know anything about Mario Bava the first time I saw Lisa and the Devil (1974)It was two or three Halloweens ago, when streaming services pepper their suggestions with every horror movie in their arsenals, especially Argento & Bava films from the 70s with irresistible, colorful covers.  The film has persistently clung to my mind since then because of its totally bizarre ending and its resplendent, House of Usher-esque mansion.  I don’t know if it held up for me on a second viewing, and it has a gross depiction of sexual assault at ~1:14:00 that I had completely forgotten about, but I still overall enjoyed Bava’s spooky dreamscape.

At the outset of Lisa and the Devil, Lisa—a German tourist played by Elke Sommer—is climbing off a tour bus in Toledo, Spain.  The very first stop of the tour brings her group to a mural of the Devil carrying the dead away, with a face that “expresses a quality which reflects the very soul of pleasure and evil.” Lisa seems struck by this mural, and inexplicably leaves her friend behind with the tour group to go wandering through the small Spanish village alone.  She’s drawn into an antique shop and finds herself mesmerized by a sort of box-less music box/turntable with six rotating figures (if somebody could tell me what this thing is called, I would be much obliged – it’s extremely cool).  She interrupts the shopkeeper’s conversation with the lone customer in the shop, who’s fussing over the particularities of a large wooden doll, to purchase the object.  The customer turns to look at Lisa, who realizes that he bears a striking resemblance to the “very soul of pleasure and evil” plastered on the mural.  From that point on, Lisa is lost; she dashes from the shop and wanders hopelessly through the deserted streets of Toledo, finding it impossible to return to the town square and repeatedly running into the menacing man from the mural (played by Telly Savalas) and the human manifestation of his life-size wooden doll.  Eventually night falls, and she’s picked up by a tense couple and their driver in a lovely green car.  Lisa is hopeful that this is the end of her nightmare, until the car breaks down in front of a sprawling Spanish villa of an elderly blind countess (Alida Valli) and her odd son Maximillian (Alessio Orano).  The villa is staffed, of course, by Leandro, who continues to drag around his giant wooden doll for a mysterious purpose.

The rest of the film slowly unfolds into a visually striking festival of murder.  The long shots of Lisa wandering throughout the remote village and the rich, green grounds of the villa are fantastic, and the interior of the villa oozes with a thick, decrepit opulence (I love the rotting cake room).  I mostly found the performances a little lackluster, especially Sommer (who, despite being the leading lady, has about 10 lines of dialogue), but Telly Savalas is a pleasure to watch as a puckish devil butler who’s perpetually sucking on lollipops.

Britnee, I think I’m a Bava newbie compared to the rest of the Swampflix crew.  I’ve heard some people say that this one is especially strange and dream-like, but it was the first Bava film I ever saw, so I didn’t have much of a reference for his body of work.  How do you think Lisa and the Devil stacks up against his other films?

Britnee: I’ve actually only seen a couple of Bava films, but there was something different about this one. The other films I’m thinking of—Blood and Black Lace (my first Movie of the Month choice!) and Kill, Baby…Kill! in particular—weren’t as dreamlike for sure, but even more so, none had a character as comical as Leandro. Bava’s characters tend to be dark, mysterious, and serious – just not the type of characters that you really connect with.  In no way is that a bad thing, because I’ve never watched a Bava movie for the cast.  Bava movies are beautiful, bloody treasures about creepy sickos, and I expect nothing more.  Leandro caught me off guard because I expected him to be terrifying since he’s basically the Devil.  I thought he was going to terrorize Lisa from the moment she ran into him in the antique shop, but he felt like more of a guide instead – guiding Lisa and the audience to and around the castle while making clever comments and sucking on lollipops.  He felt more like a witty uncle than Satan.

My absolute favorite thing about Lisa and the Devil are all of the creepy mannequins. The first one we see that continuously reappears is a mannequin of Carlos, the dead lover of the dead woman who Lisa resembles.  But we eventually get introduced into a room filled with them!  It seems that everyone who’s murdered by this bizarre castle family is transformed into a mannequin.  This becomes apparent when Leandro takes Lisa’s measurements after she faints.  I was hoping for some satanic ritual where Leandro turns the dead bodies into mannequins before our eyes, but it never goes down that road.

The ending of this film is so unexpected.  Just when we think that Lisa is free and leaving Spain, she’s trapped on a plane with corpses and Leandro.  This is where she turns into a mannequin and essentially dies.  Brandon, what are your thoughts on the ending?  Should Lisa have lived or died on the castle grounds instead?

Brandon:  I don’t have any strong opinions about whether Lisa should have survived this film un-mannequined, but I do appreciate that she got to escape from the castle grounds after sunrise.  At first, the shifting geography of the city and Lisa’s role as a silent observer had me thinking of this movie as a dream-logic story, but her return to the modern world outside the castle helped me re-contextualize everything as fairy tale logic, which is its own distinct thing.  The way the castle feels untethered to the modernity, the way its decadent food is used as bait to lure in outsiders, and the way Bava constantly frames its inhabitants through mirror reflections all feel traditional to fairy-tale storytelling – something that didn’t dawn on me until the castle receded back into its own temporal limbo at, well, dawn.  I loved seeing Lisa emerge from that fairy tale realm to return to her modern-tourist reality, and by then I was pretty much down for however Bava wanted to wrap it up.  Maybe she couldn’t fully escape the castle because she ate the food and drank the wine: a classic fairy tale blunder.

As always with Bava, Lisa and the Devil is consistently beautiful, and parsing out the whats & whys of ~what’s really going on~ in its plot is miles beside the point.  What I love most about this film is how much it resembles a standard haunted castle horror movie (maybe with more shapeshifting mannequins than usual) but the longer you grapple with its internal sense of logic the less familiar it feels.  The car troubles that lead a foursome of naïve passersby to the film’s haunted castle are clichéd almost to the point of conscious parody, and yet the Technicolor surrealism they encounter inside is something you’ll be hard-pressed to find in any of the Hammer Horror or Corman-Poe movies it recalls.  Boomer, what do you think Bava brings to the creepy-castle horror movie as a genre?  Is his filmmaking or storytelling style particularly suited for this generically spooky setting in any way?

Boomer: One thing that I thought was notable here is that, when we think about Mario Bava, we mostly think about his earlier directorial work, starting with 1957’s I, Vampiri, then peaking in the early-to-mid 1960s.  That’s the era with perennial classics like Black Sunday (1960) and Black Sabbath (1963) as well as movies that we’ve mentioned above: Blood and Black Lace (1964) and Kill, Baby, Kill (1966). After that, we get things like Hatchet for a Honeymoon (1970), which I did not care for, and 1972’s Baron Blood, which I got on VHS many years ago and managed to sit through precisely once. When we talk about Bava, we always talk about him as a horror or giallo director, and although that makes up the bulk of his filmography, we rarely talk about his sword-and-sandals swashbucklers (Hercules in the Haunted World, Erik the Conqueror), his non-giallo crime thrillers (like Danger: Diabolik), or his westerns (The Road to Fort AlamoRoy Colt & Winchester Jack), and even his non-horror sci-fi The Day the Sky Exploded usually gets lumped in with his horror sci-fi like Planet of the Vampires and Caltiki – The Immortal Monster. But what’s really missing from this list are references to his comedy pictures, like spy spoof Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs and sex romp Four Times That Night

Strangely, I think it’s the last of these that has the most influence on Lisa and the Devil, as it allows for a little levity in the proceedings.  I don’t think any actor I’ve seen in a Bava film has been as magnetic and fun as Telly Savalas is here, hamming it up and clearly having a good time.  The scene in which he bums a smoke from one of the visitors and then loudly chastises the man for smoking indoors when the blind countess enters the room is an inspired gag, as are his seemingly improvised moments, like when he dances with one of the mannequins.  Italian horror movies are littered with scenes in which a person gives exposition to a bound or unconscious figure (Profundo rosso comes to mind), but Savalas manages to turn even this into a lively and comparably electric scene. I’ve often said that comedy and mystery “live” in the same mental space; what is a punchline if not a resolution that makes you laugh?  What is the answer to a riddle if not the solution to a mystery?  That Savalas is an American amidst these Europeans (most of whom probably learned their lines phonetically or were dubbed, both of which were in fashion at the time) also contributes to a separation between himself and makes him appear much more lifelike and composed.  All too frequently, casting is treated as something that’s purely matter-of-fact in films; Dune is about the dangers of trusting a white savior and deconstructing that narrative of white messiahs, but that also means it’s about a white twink savior, so of course the current film adaptation has the whitest and twinkiest of currently working actors.  Here, the casting of Savalas contributes to the tone, which I found fascinating. 

To circle back on Bava’s storytelling style, the gothic is definitely where his powers reign supreme, and I don’t think that anyone else could have helmed this movie and captured that energy and atmosphere as well as he does here. Comparing this film to the body of work of his two major contemporaries, Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, both of them made their own dreamlike haunted house stories within a few years, with Suspiria for the former and The Psychic for the latter, although the reasons for the house/school being/seeming haunted in each of those films is decidedly different, both from one another and from Lisa and the DevilLisa is also a much more successful counterposing of the modern and the gothic than the aforementioned Baron Blood. In that film, a modern (for 1972) American co-ed visits his ancestral home in Austria and resurrects a murderous aristocratic forefather, while Lisa is a modern (for 1974) tourist thrust into a decaying relic of a home inhabited by murderous aristocrats.  That they both exist, were released a mere 2.5 years apart, and that Bava wrote both in addition to directing them, says something about his interest in contrasting those two things later in his life, and I do wish we could have seen more of that before he passed away in 1980.  Interestingly, although Suspiria is largely considered Argento’s masterpiece and The Psychic was a film I heard discussed in certain circles with frequency, Lisa and the Devil is one I had never heard of before this viewing. 

Shudder’s interface describes this as “Bava’s strangest film” (emphasis added), presumably because it boasts a more dreamlike atmosphere than his other horror fare, but I can’t say that I necessarily agree.  Although the ending leaves much to the imagination and interpretation, this is a film that makes explicit early on that the narrative takes place in a timeless non-time on a carousel that loops.  We first see the animated music box thing in the shop as soon as Lisa wanders away from her tour group, and it immediately captivates her, with the six figures depicted representing the characters that we will meet as well as the fact that, although they may be in motion and constantly moving away from one another, they are nonetheless in a closed loop that ends where it begins.  We are also let in on the fact that the ghosts or spirits that reside in the villa are not necessarily bound there, as Lisa meets Carlos for the first time far from the Countess’s home; it’s here that he drops his watch, breaking it in such a way that the clock’s hands do not lie over its face, cluing us in that not only is this a loop, but one in which time has no meaning. Full size mannequins weren’t really a thing until the mid-1750s, when they were made of wicker.  Wicker mannequins gave way to those made of wirework, which were supplanted with papier-mâché mannequins, which were themselves replaced with wax figures, which eventually gave way to the plastic mannequins—with which we are mostly familiar—in the 1920s.  The figures here appear waxen to me, which immediately pegs them as being outmoded and out of time by half a century in the film’s contemporary 1970s setting. 

Lagniappe

Hanna: Besides the gorgeous, lustrous cinematography, I will forever treasure Lisa and the Devil as the only film I know of with a haunted European villa and a haunted plane.  I would 1000% watch Lisa descend further into madness in a surreal plane-centric sequel.

Britnee: I thought Leandro was strangely similar to the bald, lollipop sucking detective from the popular 70s detective show Kojak. Well, it turns out that they’re the same person.  Telly Savalas is both Leandro and Kojak!  Kojak premiered shortly after Lisa and the Devil, so this lollipop habit crossed over between the two as they were most likely being filmed at the same time.

Boomer: Telly Savalas is best remembered as TV’s Kojak or as one of many Blofelds (he’s the one in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, for the record), but for me, he will forever be remembered as the stepfather from the Twilight Zone classic “Living Doll.” He’s also in The Alfred Hitchcock Hour‘s “A Matter of Murder” with Darren McGavin, meaning it’s the only time outside of their respective series that Kojak and Kolchak worked together, so stick that in your back pocket to whip out as trivia for your relatives at Thanksgiving this year.

If this film’s ending was a chiller to you, I also recommend the short story “Showdown,” by Shirley Jackson. Although spooky season as defined by the Gregorian calendar may be officially over, if you believe, you can carry it with you in your heart all year, and this short story, which was previously mentioned in our Lagniappe episode about 2020’s Shirley, remains one of the most chilling ghost stories to ever stir my soul.

Brandon: We cannot let this conversation go by without acknowledging the bizarre existence of 1975’s The House of Exorcism.  Since contemporary distributors weren’t sure how to market Bava’s loopy nightmare in America as-is, they re-edited Lisa and the Devil into a cash-in knockoff of Friedkin’s wildly popular The Exorcist, titled The House of Exorcism.  In that cut, the haunted castle sequences of Lisa and the Devil are recontextualized as hallucinations Lisa suffers while writhing in a hospital bed, possessed by Satan (there are also some additional nude scenes shoehorned in to up the titillation factor for the drive-in crowd).  It’s a bizarre viewing experience if you’ve already seen Lisa and the Devil, simulating the horror of watching a shitty movie you remember being great – like revisiting the original King Kong only to find half the scenes replaced by clips from Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla.

Bava was rightfully appalled by the production of House of Exorcism, and successfully had his name removed from the project.  It’s embarrassing as a standalone film, but I will say there’s a welcome novelty in seeing the horror master’s usual laidback pace properly sped-up in the edited-to-shreds clips it uses from Lisa and the Devil.  It’s maybe the closest I’ve ever gotten to understanding disrespectful youngins who “speedwatch” everything at 1.5x.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
December: 
Brandon presents Lifeforce (1985)
January: The Top Films of 2021

-The Swampflix Crew

Inferno (1980)

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After the surprising international success of Suspiria, Twentieth Century Fox offered to help co-fund Argento’s next project, a sequel of sorts to that film titled Inferno. The conceit of Inferno (and, later, Mother of Tears) is that Helena Markos, aka Mater Suspiriorum (“The Mother of Sighs”), the villian of Suspiria, was only one of a trinity of powerful witches. According to the supporting materials, these witches use their great power to manipulate events “on a global scale.” I place those words in quotation marks because, although they appear frequently in the Argento apocrypha, neither of these stories feels global; Suspiria was a relatively confined story, as most haunted house plots are, and Inferno, despite featuring a narrative that takes place in both New York and Rome, also fails to feel like it takes place on a significantly larger scale. This isn’t meant to disparage either film, necessarily, but it does imply that Argento was shooting for something here that he doesn’t quite pull off.

Suspiria took its name from the title of an unfinished work, Suspiria de Profundis, by Thomas de Quincey, best known as the author of Confessions of an Opium Eater. Although the book was never completed, the section entitled “Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow” was, and its concept, that there are three Sorrows just as there are three Fates and three Graces, was the initial inspiration for Suspiria, although you wouldn’t know that simply from watching the movie. After all, Suspiria was a largely self-contained story, with nothing to imply that Markos was one of these three Sorrows, or that her power reached far beyond Freiberg, or that her influence did not begin and end with her coven. Even if this was always intended to be the case, an audience who is not familiar with this idea can’t help but feel that Inferno is attempting to graft new plot elements onto Suspiria retroactively, in a way that cheapens the earlier film’s nigh-perfection; Inferno feels like a cheat and a knock-off at the same time.

The film opens with Rose Elliot (Irene Miracle, who was hired for her ability to hold her breath for a long time—no kidding), a poet living in the most baroquely Old World apartment building in New York. She reads in a book titled The Three Mothers that there are three evil sisters who rule the world with tears, sorrow, and darkness, and that the book’s author, an architect and alchemist named Varelli, was hired by the sisters to build a home for each one: in Freiberg, Rome, and New York. Rose has become obsessed with the idea that the building she lives in was one such home, based on clues left in the book. She writes a letter to her brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey), a musicology student living in Rome, asking him to visit her. Mark is distracted by a beautiful woman (Anna Pieroni) in his classroom who is mouthing words at him* and loses the letter, which is collected and read by his friend Sara (Eleonora Giorgi).

After reading the letter, Sara tracks down a copy of the book but is attacked by a strange figure who recognizes the tome. Sara narrowly escapes this person and returns to her apartment building, where she asks her neighbor Carlo (Gabriele Lavia, who previously appeared in Profondo rosso as Carlo, although they cannot possibly be the same character) to stay with her while her nerves settle, only for both of them to be murdered by an unseen figure. Mark arrives at her apartment and finds their bodies, before seeing the same woman from his class leaving the area in a taxi. He calls Rose, who begs him to come to New York before she is murdered herself.

Mark arrives in New York and meets the building’s caretaker Carol (Alida Valli, previously Miss Tanner in Suspiria), elderly and infirm tenant Professor Arnold (Feodor Chaliapin Jr), Arnold’s nurse (Veronica Lazar), Rose’s rich but sickly friend and fellow tenant Elise van Adler (Daria Nicolodi, Gianna Brezzi in Profondo rosso and Argento’s wife and writing partner at the time), van Adler’s creepy butler (Leopoldo Mastelloni), and neighboring antiques dealer Kazanian (Sacha PitoËff), who sold Rose The Three Mothers in the first place. Each of these people come to a tragic end, save for the nurse, who turns out to be Mater Tenebrarum, Our Lady of Darkness, as revealed to Mark by Professor Arnold, who is actually the ancient Varelli. The apartment building burns to the ground (accidentally, which says more about the nonsensical nature of this plot and the irrelevance of all intentional character action than I ever could), and Mark escapes while Tenebrarum seems to be crushed by falling rubble.

Inferno is… not a very good movie. It has too many good moments in it to be a bad movie, but the overall structure leaves much to be desired and the experimental approach to narrative is rather frustrating. Like Suspiria, Inferno has an intentionally dreamlike ambience, but lacks the former’s vivid color and narrative intensity and is (somehow) an overall less coherent movie, despite the fact that there are parts of Inferno that are superior. Inferno feels like a series of vignettes, each one designed to exploit a particular fear; devoid of context, they are actually scarier, creepier, or more unsettling than analogous scenes in Suspiria, save for the fact that each one goes on just long enough that the impact is diminished, and that they are held together with a narrative so flimsy that it ultimately does a disservice to the dark imagery and mood contained within itself. Argento’s decision to forsake the previous film’s focus on witchcraft for an investigation of alchemy is ironic, given that even he could not turn the disparate, good parts of this film into a cohesive whole.

The score, composed by Keith Emerson, is particularly awful, especially when compared to Argento’s collaborations with Goblin; it features terrible rock organ music paired with Omen-esque Latin chanting, and the result is far too silly to be effectively unsettling. The sets, some of which were designed by the great Mario Bava himself, are fantastic, however. As for other elements that are effective, Rose’s underwater scene near the start of the film is a particular highlight, as is every scene with Nicolodi (who contributed to the story for this film as she had for Suspiria, but she had to fight so hard for her on-screen credit in that film that she decided not to bother to do the same here). The death of Sara and Carlo is extremely well done, as the record Sara is playing cuts in and out along with the lights as the electricity flickers. The scene in which Kazanian attempts to drown a bag of cats (evil cats which do the bidding of Tenebrarum, it should be pointed out, although it is still horrifying) only to be eaten by hundreds of rats is also well-done despite the scene’s inexplicable conclusion. If anything, “inexplicable” is the watchword here, as much of the narrative is clunky and scenes fail to flow organically from one to the next.

This is perhaps best evinced in Rome: Sara, inspired by Rose’s letter, goes to an unidentified building for some reason. There, in a library, she finds the copy of The Three Mothers, and then descends into the building’s basement for some reason, rather than checking the book out or coming back the next day. She somehow finds a room where, like, potions are being made, and she tries to communicate with the misshapen person tending the pots for some reason. Apparently she knew that this library would be the place to find this book, and that this library was also (maybe) the home of the third sister, somehow? It’s creepy and effectively unnerving, but it doesn’t hold up to even the most passive narrative scrutiny, which is the best description of the film as a whole as well. There are elements here that work very well, but this is more of a clip show of ideas Argento couldn’t put anywhere else than a movie. If you do choose to check it out, make sure to rent/buy the Blue Underground DVD release, which features Italian audio and English subtitles, as well as interviews with Argento, Miracle, and assistant director Lamberto Bava, son of Mario.

*I can’t decide if this is an effective misdirection or the vestigial remnant of a cut subplot. If you know how Argento works, this first seems like one of his giallo trademarks–the misunderstood early clue that is later explained, much like the unheard words said by Pat at the beginning of Suspiria. Even if you’ve never seen an Argento movie before, the focus on and attention paid to these unheard words seems like a clue. Regardless, nothing ever comes of it, and this character does not reappear after Mark leaves Rome, although it can be inferred that she might be Mater Lachrymarum. We’ve got nearly three decades of Argento movies to get through before we reach Mother of Tears, though, so I wouldn’t expect an answer soon.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Suspiria (1977)

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I first became aware of Dario Argento during my freshman year of college. At the time, television channel Bravo was still transitioning from the arts-oriented channel that it was when it was first incepted into the reality-TV landfill that it is now; I was visiting home and caught the re-airing of their 2004 miniseries 100 Scariest Movie Moments. It’s a smart list, even if the ascending algorithm of fright is contentious (I adore Nightmare on Elm Street, but scarier than Jacob’s Ladder or Rosemary’s Baby? Please.), and it was from that list that I learned the name “Suspiria.” It ranked relatively high, coming in at number 24, and was the second-highest rated non-domestic feature on the roster (Japan’s Audition claimed the number 11 spot), which also included thrillers like Deliverance and Night of the Hunter, films that wouldn’t normally fall under the banner of “horror” per se.

Thus, I didn’t begin my journey into the Dario Argento oeuvre with his earliest work, I started with Suspiria. In fact, before beginning this project, I had not seen Argento’s films that preceded this, his most well-known picture. I Netflix’d the DVD of Crystal Plumage sometime in 2008, but never got around to watching it before sending it back, a casualty in my mad, gluttonous rush to consume every episode of Veronica Mars. The other films of his that I did uncover and watch, like Phenomena and Opera, all came from the middle of his career, after he had forsaken pure giallo and before he moved on to making the mediocre miscellanea of his later career. And, at the risk of sounding cliche, Suspiria was a revelation to me then and a revelation to me now.

The story follows young American ballet student Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), who has been accepted to a prestigious dance academy in the Black Forest of Germany. She arrives during a torrential downpour, and makes her way to the school just in time to see another young student flee into the woods, screaming about secrets. This same young woman is later murdered, brutally, and the friend with whom she took refuge is also killed. The following morning, Suzy meets school’s vice-directress, Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett in her final film role), and dance instructor Miss Tanner (Alida Valli), who appear to be strict but matronly. She also befriends Sarah (Stefania Casini), who was friends with the murdered girl and continues her investigation into the strange goings-on about the academy. Strange events begin to happen: Sarah experiences an unusual fainting spell that forces her to relocate to the school’s dormitories from an off-campus apartment, maggots rain from the ceiling after having infiltrated “spoiled food” being kept in the attic, and disoriented bats fly into open windows while faithful service dogs turn on their owners. It’s hard to describe the film’s plot without it sounding like a standard haunted house movie, but it’s so, so much more than that.

What is a movie? Or, perhaps a better question, what should a movie be? In the West, we have been trained to have certain expectations of films, to be receptive to a particular cinematic style with a mostly-linear structure, to recognize certain constants and feel secure in them. As a comparison, think about how you were first introduced to poetry as a student: poems were words arranged in a particular pattern, with meter and rhyme. You were likely given something palatable to read, something not too dissimilar from nursery rhymes, with an easily-identifiable structure. Then, you were introduced to something completely different, something that wasn’t recognizable as a “poem” within the limited context that you were taught. Films are much the same, as studios make the majority of their money from regurgitating the same kind of mediocre pablum over and over again across all genres: Meg Ryan is a relatable career-oriented everywoman who doesn’t realize that there’s something missing from her life, every superhero has to learn the hard way that with great power blah blah (I won’t even bother finishing that thought because you’re already ahead of me), and every generation has a raunchy sex comedy to mislead them about the birds and the bees. But sometimes, a movie comes along that doesn’t just repeat the same ABAB CDCD EE rhyme scheme of other movies you’ve seen before. Auteurs earn their credibility by taking the same things we’ve seen over and over again and tearing them to pieces, or forsaking them altogether, or using them in a transcendent way by playing with or manipulating audience expectation.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that movies which forego some element of cinema in order to exalt another aspect of film can be a worthwhile endeavor, and that putting narrative consistency on the backburner in order to focus on aesthetics or mood doesn’t necessarily make a film less successful than the median anymore than ee cummings was a lesser poet than Robert Browning. Suspiria is a movie that does just this, by honing in on atmosphere and tone rather than plot, and the film is well-served by this attention to detail. That’s not to say that the plot is irrelevant (this isn’t The Five Days, after all), but color and immersion are much more important here than they are in a lot of other films from the same period (or today). Contemporary critics took issue with the film’s plot structure, apparently failing to realize that Suspiria is intentionally dreamlike, influenced by fairy tales and nightmares more than monomyth. Even the opening narration, which others consider to be out of place and somewhat silly, contributes to the film by acting as a kind of horror-tinged “once upon a time.”

Daria Nicolodi, who has a co-writer credit on the film, stated that she based her contribution on stories her grandmother had told her as a child, like the misadventures of Lewis Carroll’s Alice and, supposedly, the elder woman’s discovery that the faculty of a school she attended was secretly into occultism. Argento has claimed that this story is false, but I prefer her whimsical lie to his pragmatic honesty, as it’s a fun and intriguing fiction that’s better than the truth; that’s one of the things art is for, in my opinion. Argento has also said that he initially wanted the film to star adolescents, but that this was quickly nixed (watch that first murder scene and imagine that the victim is twelve years old, and you can see why this change was necessary); to maintain that viewpoint, the set was designed with all doorknobs at eye level so that the subconscious recognizes the actors as being smaller and more childlike. This kind of set detail, along with the omnipresence of bright, vivid colors, contributes to the film’s overall surreal ambiance. It’s a movie that’s experienced and felt more than it is one which is interpreted, and it’s all the better for it.

This is perhaps best encapsulated by the experience of the main character, Suzy. Suzy spends a great deal of her screentime being sedated each night while the heavy-lifting of the mystery is largely performed by others around her. Pat, the girl who flees the school in the opening, kept notes about the faculty’s suspicious behavior and practices; Sarah listens to the steps being taken by the teachers at night and records them so Suzy can use this information to discover the coven later; Suzy’s disappearance leads Sarah to Dr. Mendel (Udo Kier, of all people), who introduces her to exposition-laden Professor Milius (Rudolf Schundler). Suzy is a character who is acted upon more often than she is one who has agency, but isn’t that so often the case with dreams? In another movie, this would be a detraction, but here it’s actually a feature. If you haven’t seen this movie already, what are you doing here? Stop whatever you’re doing and go watch it, right now.

Additional notes:

  • I can’t believe I didn’t address this above, but this was prog-rock band Goblin’s second time collaborating with Argento, and the movie’s score is absolutely phenomenal. Anchor Bay’s DVD release of Suspiria includes a copy of the soundtrack, which has long been out of print but must be heard. It’s like the apotheosis of what a horror film score should be, at once delicate and disquieting, unsettling but eerily beautiful and vaguely mystical. Halloween’s may be the best-known horror score, but Suspiria‘s is technically and thematically superior and one of the best scores of all time.
  • When I first saw this movie, I had never seen any previous Argento films, so I didn’t know what his recurring motifs were. Although this is not a giallo film in the strictest sense of the word (obviously, the “mystery” here is much less important than visuals and mood), his trope of a character witnessing something at the beginning of the film that they struggle to comprehend is present here. As in Deep Red, a mirror holds an important clue and plays a key role in the resolution of an investigation. Most amusing to me, however, was the fact that Suzy’s ultimate defeat of the evil coven queen requires her to use a crystal-handed dagger that is part of a sculpture of a peacock, presumably the same genus as titular Bird with the Crystal Plumage.
  • He doesn’t factor into the film all that much, but Suzy’s love interest Mark (Miguel Bosé) is a total babe. Yowza.
  • A minor quibble: Why do the witches even care to bring Suzy into the school in the first place? In a more standard Hollywood film, they would probably be looking to use her in some way (see: Rosemary’s Baby) or convince her to join the coven, but there’s no real reason given or explored here, further adding to the dreamlike atmosphere. We never get an answer, but if this frustrates you, you may be missing the point.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond