Suspiria: Cinefantastique Podcast 1:36

Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper) stands before the hidden door with three irises.
Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper) stands before the hidden door with three irises.

It’s a ’70s flashback weekend on the Cinefantastique Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Podcast, as Dan Persons, Lawrence French, and Steve Biodrowski gaze in wonder at the Technicolor extravagance of SUSPIRIA (1977), Dario Argento’s pulse-pounding cult classic of supernatural horror, starring Jessica Harper, Joan Bennett, and Alida Valli. How does Argento’s extremely stylized vision of violence and terror hold up decades later, and which version should you watch: the American cut available on Netflix Instant View or the original, unexpurgated version on DVD? These answers and other secrets lie behind door with three irises – just turn the blue one…

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Sense of Wonder: Evil of Frankenstein, Suspiria and the Blu-ray Experience

The Baron prepares to create life in THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN
The Baron prepares to create life in THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN
Should horror, fantasy and science fiction fans with large DVD collections upgrade to Blu-ray? Read on for the experience of one DVD hold-out who finally made the change.

Last week I finally broke down and brought a Blu-ray player. Being a late adopter of new technology, I had put off this purchase as long as possible. I was happy with the DVD format and with the Roku box that allows me to stream Netflix movies instantly onto my 50-inch high-definition television. I knew that Blu-ray offered improved picture quality, and that it would even upgrade the look of my old DVDs, but I wasn’t sure the improvement was worth the money, especially when product reviews suggested that low-end, affordable players were not reliable; for the money, an upgrade DVD player sounded like a more reasonable alternative.  And so I sat, poised on the cusp of indecision, until the home video industry forced my hand.
Why do I say forced? Because, with increasing frequency, DVDs are being released without bonus features that are available on Blu-ray. I’m not talking about features that are possible only with the Blu-ray format, such as picture-in-picture and BD Live; I’m talking about material that once would have been a no-brainer for inclusion on a DVD, such as the alternate endings and behind-the-scenes featurettes that were included on Universal Pictures’ Blu-ray release of THE WOLF MAN but not on the DVD (unless you purchased the two-disc DVD available only as an in-store offer at Best Buy).
Even worse, we are seeing more and more examples of DVDs being released without any bonus features at all, a move that seems deliberately designed to drive the format out of existence. Why purchase a bare-bones DVD of SHERLOCK HOLMES or SHUTTER ISLAND when you could get the Blu-ray with all the extras? (Perhaps these DVDs still appeal to casual viewers who want only to rent, but without bonus features there is no advantage to opting for the disc instead of watching the films via Video on Demand.)
So, when I had an opportunity to get an advance review copy of the new Blu-ray disc for JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH, I decided it was time to leave the past behind and boldly embrace the future. After checking out prices and reading some reviews, I opted for the new Insignia Blu-ray Disc Player (model NS-WBRDVD), which offers built-in Wi-Fi connectability to the Internet.
Insignia is the in-store brand for Best Buy; its purpose is to offer good value for customers who do not want – or cannot afford – to go top of the line. My high-def television is Insignia, and it has provided extremely satisfying results for a price that no other brand could match, so I felt confident in selecting their Blu-ray player. Although many reviews warn against going economical when choosing this particular piece of technology, the previous Insignia Blu-ray player (model NS-2BRDVD) had a good reputation; the newer model added wireless capability and, on sale, was available for almost the same price ($129, marked down from $179).
Now, at last we get to the point of this little rumination, answering the question that all you other DVD hold-outs are asking: Was the purchase worth the price? Yes, with one caveat, related not to the disc functionality but to the alleged wireless capability. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
When I popped the Blu-ray disc of JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH into the machine, I saw graphics and images that looked every bit as clear and beautiful as the displays you see in the electronics sections of stores eager to lure you into adopting the Blu-ray format. That was more or less expected, but it’s always good to see expectation met and even exceeded.

Peter Cushing throws the switch, bringing life to his creation
Peter Cushing throws the switch, bringing life to his creation

Since I was not planning to run out and buy a casket-full of Blu-ray discs, the  factor that would immediately determine whether the new player was worth the money was whether or not it would improve the look of my old DVDs. To answer this, I selected my standard test subject: Hammer Films’ THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN (1963), available on the Hammer Horror Series DVD box set. One of many colorful horror films starring the late Peter Cushing as the brilliant Baron, THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN is far from the best in the series, but it has at least one stand-out sequence: a lengthy flashback, almost totally without dialogue, in which we see Frankenstein bring his creature to life.
The highly visual sequence, filled with impressive sets, props, and special effects (all carefully captured by the graceful camera of director Freddie Francis), is the one I use to judge any new piece of home video equipment; I previously played it on my first large screen television and again when that technological dinosaur was replaced by the current high-def widescreen set. Would the EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN DVD look even better with its standard-definition signal upgraded by the Blu-ray player to suit the high-definition monitor?
Unless my eyes deceive me, the answer is an unqualified yes. This DVD release was roundly criticized when it came out, from compressing two movies per side onto a double-sided disc, yet I have always found the results pleasing to watch, probably because the films themselves looked so good, with that slightly artificial sheen to the color and sets that leaves “realism” somewhat beside the point. On the new Blu-ray player, THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN looked slightly better than before – a rich, beautiful experience that does not leave one unsatisfied. (And a good thing, too – because the film is not available on Blu-ray, so this is the best the movie is going to look for the foreseeable future.)
Suzy (Jessica Harper) at the climax of SUSPIRIA.
Suzy (Jessica Harper) at the climax of SUSPIRIA.

After THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN, I next tried out the final chapter stop from the limited edition THX-Mastered DVD of SUSPIRIA. I chose this particular disc because Dario Argento’s 1977 film has long been noted for its striking visuals; even more important, the disc itself includes a series of tests to calibrate your television set to recreate the colors and tones of the theatrical version. With this kind of exactitude, the SUSPIRIA DVD seemed like another perfect test for the capacity of the Blu-ray player to upgrade the signal for a high-def television.
Again, the results were extremely satisfying. The widescreen image (slightly letterboxed, even on a widescreen monitor) betrayed traces of film grain – about the only detail marring an otherwise splendid image. The highly artificial colors came through loud and clear, practically popping off the screen, with a clarity beyond what had previously been delivered by the old DVD player. Even my wife, no fan of the film’s over-the-top violence, volunteered that the picture quality was “beautiful.”
Of course, the DVD is still no match for a Blu-ray disc, and I”m sure a SUSPRIRIA Blu-ray would look even better; nevertheless, the improvement in the DVD image is noticeable, and I think anyone sitting on the fencepost about whether to upgrade really should consider this. If you’re like me, you hesitate, thinking you don’t want to replace all your old DVDs with new Blu-ray discs – but even if you hold onto those old discs, they will look better, especially on a plasma TV, whose deep blacks are suited for cinematic visuals (as opposed to LCD TVs, which reportedly are better suited to sports broadcasts).
Sci-Fi films like AVATAR showcase the beauties of Blu-ray high-def.
Sci-Fi films like AVATAR showcase the beauties of Blu-ray high-def.

This consideration is especially important for Cinefantastique readers. Horror, fantasy, and science fiction films offer opportunities for visual extravagance far beyond the levels seen in most non-genre films. Does it really make much difference whether you see THE BLIND SIDE or 12 ANGRY MEN in high-def – maybe, but not as much as seeing AVATAR, STAR TREK, BLADE RUNNER, or LORD OF THE RINGS.
The next big question is whether or not you will eventually opt to replace your DVD collection. My first impression is that I’m in no hurry. Although Blu-ray has the capacity to deliver a much better image, you do have to contend with the picture quality of the original source: I’m sure that old movies shot in formats like 70mm or Super Panavision (such as 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY) will look much improved on Blu-ray, but I’m not sure that some old exploitation opus with grainy cinematography will benefit from a Blu-ray transfer – short of a complete digital restoration. For the time being I am content to hold onto the DVDs, but I will finally get around to replacing the still lingering laserdisc collection.
So, would I recommend the Insignia Blu-ray player? Well, that depends on the one caveat I mentioned earlier: although I purchased the unit to replace both my DVD player and the Roku box, I have not yet been able to get the wireless functionality to function, which means I cannot use the Insignia player to stream Netflix Instant Movies (or any other video on demand service). Judging from a search around the Internet, I am far from the only one to suffer this problem. I have no doubt that there is a way to overcome this obstacle (if worse came to worse, I could hook the Blu-ray player to the Internet by an Ethernet cable); but frankly, overcoming an obstacle should not even be a consideration when paying $129 for a brand-new piece of technology. My old Roku box cost $99, and it worked the first time I fired it up. If Roku wireless connection to the Internet easy, then Insignia should be able to do the same, without putting their customers to unnecessary trouble.
insignia blu-ray
click to purchase

My conclusion is that, had I paid full price for the Insignia player, I would feel that the extra $50 (for the new wireless model) would have been wasted; however, since I got the player for the same price as the old, pre-wireless model, I am not inclined to take the unit back to the store and demand a refund. Since I still have my Roku box, I can use that for instant streaming of movies. But customers seeking both a Blu-ray player and a movie-streamer in a single device should be aware of the potential problem; you may be better off spending a little bit more for a player whose wireless capacity works without resorting to customer service.

NOTE: This article has been expanded since its initial posting.

Suspiria by Goblin – Soundtrack Review

One of the most memorable elements contributing to the success of SUSPIRIA (1977) was the soundtrack. Combining elements of music (a synthesizer-heavy rock combo) and sound effects (heavy breathing, murmuring voices), Goblin provided something that went far beyond traditional background scoring, to become an integral part of the film. In a fashion somewhat similar to Ennio Morricone’s contribution to Sergio Leone’s Westerns, Goblin helped director Dario Argento achieve an almost operatic effect on screen; their auditory excess was the perfect counterpoint to Argento’s extravagant visuals, transforming a series of horrific set pieces into beautiful arias of violence. 
Goblins’s soundtrack music has been preserved on various vinyl, tape, and CD release; in fact, the original album pressing was probably one of their most successful releases, thanks to the popularity of the film. However, their SUSPIRIA music, which is so perfectly integrated into the film, fares less well as a stand-alone item. All that pounding, howling, thumbing, and wheezing is enough to send chills down your spine even without the movie images (it is the perfect imaginary soundtrack), but not all of it could be called a pleasant listening experience (unless your idea of pleasant is having your nerves set on edge).
The highlight of the album is “Suspiria ,” the main title music that recurs throughout the film. One of the greatest tracks in the entire Goblin catalogue, this opens with an eerie 14-note melody line doubled on vocals and synthesizer, with a buzuki strumming the accompaniment. Halfway through, it switches to a rock-and-roll arrangement with guitar, bass and drums pounding out the rhythm while Simonetti’s synthesizer slices through the texture, playing a speeded up version of the melody. Then song segues back to the slower, moodier approach to bring the piece to a conclusion. This is great stuff – by turns eerie and overpowering – and it really rocks!
“Witch” features a combination of timpani drums, vocals, and synthesizers, with some bass guitar underneath. The piece is a non-melodic collage of sound that works perfectly in the film, less so as a piece of musical entertainment.
“Opening to the Sighs” – with its pounding timpanis backed by synthesizer – sounds like a brief reprise of “Witch.” Building quickly to a climax, it serves as an intro to the next piece (on the original vinyl album they were listed as one continuous track).
“Sighs” begins, appropriately enough, with sighing vocals that suggest sound effects more than music (a technique Goblin had used in “Wild Session,” a track for Argento’s previous film DEEP RED). Then some jangly acoustic guitars jump in with arpeggios and a repetitive riff, backed by wailing vocals. The music finally guilds up to some ominous organ cords before fading out.
“Markos” is heard twice in the film: once during the maggot infestation, one at the conclusion. The track features a sequencer playing a simple synthesizer line, while timpani and other drums pound in the background the the bass guitar ripps through a series of solo lines up and down the fretboard. For all its sound and fury, this is one of the most musical tracks on the album – it sounds a bit like a furious jam session.
The next two pieces do not appear in the film itself. Like “Opening to the Sighs” and “Sighs,” “Black Forest” and “Blind Concert” are two separate titles that were originally combined into one unbroken track. With an electric guitar picking a moody pattern (enhanced by a flanging effect), bass and drums providing a traditional rhythm section, and keyboards adding melodies, “Black Forest” is straight-ahead piece of jazz rock fusion that begins softly before eruptng into an explosion of solos, alternating between guitar, synthesizer, and saxophone (the later by guest musician Antonio Marangolo). As musical entertainment, this is one of the best tracks on the album.
“Blind Concert” is somewhat less successful. After a brief transition from “Black Forest” (in which the “Suspiria” theme is played on celesta over some jangling bells and a vibraphone), the instrumental sinks into a funky jam session. While the drums and bass lay out a functional but uninspired riff, keyboards and guitar doodle in a sharp stereo split from your left and right speaker; an overdubbed synthesizer sweetens the results somewhat. Though not a great track, it is an interesting opportunity to hear the musicians just get together and play.
When the SUSPIRIA soundtrack was originally released, the final track was “Death Valzer,” a solo acoustic piano piece that, in the film, is played by the blind pianist when the ballet students are practising. It is a pretty little waltz, but it served as a weak climax to the album. Subsequent CD releases have improved on this by including several bonus tracks, including an alternate version of “Markos” and some variations on the “Suspiria” theme.
The new “Markos” track features a different synthesizer sound played by the sequencer, and the track fades out without the funny little final pops and whistles of the original. The “Suspiria” variations include a version with keyboardist Claudio Simonetti chanting non-grammatical nonsense about witches, over a scaled down arrangement of the theme played only on celesta and bells, and a new rev-ed up version performed by Simonetti’s band Daemonia. This version retains the three-part structure of the original but retains a more conventional rock-and-roll arrangement throughout, blurring the distinction between the different passages.

TRIVIA 

The credits for SUSPIRIA read “Music by The Goblins, in Collaboration with Dario Argento.” The group’s actual name is Goblin, and Argento receives no credit for composing any of the music on the soundtrack album. (A similar credit would appear in the 1979 DAWN OF THE DEAD, which Argento co-produced.)
Maurizio Guarini (who filled in on keyboards from time to time) has claimed that he recorded with Goblin for the SUSPIRIA soundtrack, explaining that his name was left off the credits for legal reasons (he was under contract with another label). The music shows little sign of his contribution. The only tracks on SUSPIRIA that display any of the jazz-rock stylings Guarani brought to Goblin’s earlier album Roller, are on “Black Forest” and “Blind Concert.”
The original vinyl record album featured two sleeves. When removed from the outer sleeve, the inner sleeve unfolded to reveal a pop-up of Dario Argento’s initials, decorated with the demonic Goblin logo and the dead ballerina poster art from SUSPIRIA. The inner sleeve featured a black-and-white photo of Argento working with Goblin in the recording studio, plus several color photos from the film, including behind the scenes images of Argento on set.
SUSPIRIA: Original Soundtrack (originally released 1977). Music composed and performed by Goblin: Claudio Simonetti (piano, organ, synthesizer, celesta, sequencer, vocals); Massimo Morante (electric and acoustic guitar, bazuki0, vocals); Fabio Pignatelli (bass, tabla drum, acoustic guitar, vocals); Agostino Marangolo (drums, percussion, vocals). With guest Antonio Marangolo on saxaphone.

Suspiria (1977) – A Nostalgia Review

SUSPIRIA was one of those films I missed the first time around. When it hit U.S. screens in 1977, I found the advertising campaign decidedly uninteresting; for some reason, it suggested a schlocky gore movie to me. Not that I was opposed to explicit horror: I had been sneaking into R-rated movies like THE EXORCIST since 1973, but I had to feel there was something more than just mindless mayhem to get me into the theatre. The largely negative review in Cinefantastique magazine, which called the film “hackneyed in concept, but experimental in form,” was not enough to change my mind, but it did inspire me to check out SUSPIRIA when it played on cable television. That was the beginning of my life-long love affair with the work of Dario Argento, which continues to this day, thanks to the art house release of THE THREE MOTHERS this weekend.

In retrospect, I was of the perfect age and temperment to enjoy Argento’s garish, overblown, and thoroughly ear-splitting horror film. A film student, I loved cinema in general, but I especially loved films that utilized the form to its fullest extent. In Argento, I saw a sort of Italian equivalent of Brian DePalma, a filmmaker eager to employ every device at his command in order to achieve an effect on the audience. Argento did not utilize any of DePalma’s split-screen tricks, but there were similar lengthy tracking shots meant to pull you psychologically into the world of the movie; there was an over-powering rock-n-roll soundtrack (by Goblin), just as there had been in DePalma’s PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1975); and of course, PHANTOM’s young ingenue, Jessica Harper, played the lead in SUSPIRIA.
I had little patience with people of more conventional taste, who preferred subtlety and complained that excessive technique was distracting, distancing one from the drama, reminding the viewer that he was watching a movie. For me, this was the whole point. I knew I was watching a movie, and no amount of “subtlety” (for me, a synonym for a prosaic, unimaginative style) was going to convince me otherwise. I reveled in SUSPIRIA’s artificiality, in the outrageous art direction and unbelievable lighting schemes.
Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper) take a taxi to the dance academy - an example of the film's artificial lighting schemes.From the very first reel, the taxi ride from the airport, I knew I was seeing something special, when the passing streetlights were conveyed not with alternating light and darkness but colors shifting from red to green. It was a bold gambit: immediately challenging the viewer with the obvious artificiality, announcing that what they were seeing made no pretense to verisimilitude. No, I was seeing a film in which the director had pulled out all the stops (post-SPINAL TAP, we would say he turned the amplifier up to 11), flooding the screen with sound and color – a rich, overwhelming experience that explored some of the farthest reaches of what cinema could achieve when unleashed from conventional boundaries.
One scene that particularly won me over involved the death of a blind pianist, walking home one night with his seeing-eye dog. The dog senses something, and the man cries out, “Who’s there?” For several minutes, nothing really happens. Argento builds the scene by editing back and forth between the man, his dog, and the stark facades of the buildings surrounding them, while the screeching soundtrack attempts to pulverize the audience’s nerves. The idea of extending a moment through editing was intriguing – creating a sense of anticipation not through action but through the juxtaposition of images suggesting something about to happen.
I was also amused by the way the scene quotes from the English horror film NIGHT OF THE EAGLE (known as BURN, WITCH, BURN in the U.S.). Near the end of that wonderfully suggestive film (also about witches operating in secret in an academic setting), a man outside a university sees the oversized statute of an eagle, atop the building, come to life and take flight, attacking him. In SUSPIRIA, Argento deliberately tilts up one building, revealing the statue of a gryphon. After cutting in for a closer shot, he cuts to a reverse angle, and the camera swoops down – accompanied by the fluttering of wings – upon the blind man.


The effect suggests that the statue has come to life, but subsequent long shots reveal it is still atop the building where it was first seen. Then what was that fluttering sound? What point of view was being shown as the camera swooped down? Was it some kind of invisible demonic force, somethign that resided within the statue? While I was still working out the answer to that question, the blind man’s dog turned on him and tore out his throat! I had to give Argento credit for taking me totally by surprise. The visual reference to one of my favorite films had me expecting danger from above. Little did I expect that death would come from below, not from an enemy but from man’s best friend. What an excellent piece of misdirection!
This scene was also at least partly responsible for Argento’s reputation as a filmmaker who did a poor job of handling basic story points. What did the scene contribute to the plot? In fact, why did the man die at all? Later in the film, we learn that witchcraft is afoot, and we are told that witches can use their power to destroy those who offend them, for whatever reason.  The death was obviously a set piece, thrown in for its own sake, and I simply assumed the blind man had somehow or other offended the coven living in the dance academy. Only years later would I learn the specific reason.
I was not completely blown away by my first viewing of SUSPIRIA. I was – and still am – dedicated to the position that you have not really seen a movie until you have seen it in a theatre. The television experience simply could not overwhelm me in the way that the film intended to, but enough of the impact survived to make me want to see SUSPIRIA on the big screen at the earliest opportunity. Back in the days before home video had decimated the repertory theatre business, this was not an impossible dream. Not too many months passed before the film showed up at the old Cameo Theatre, a dilapidated flea pit on Broadway in Los Angeles.
The Cameo was one of many old theatres in the downtown area, but it lacked the faded elegance of the Orpheum, the Los Angeles Theatre, or the Million Dollar Theatre (the later is the one seen across the street when Sebastian meets Pris in BLADE RUNNER). These other three theatres were relic from an earlier era – movie palaces that had once offered a fashionable, luxurious cinema-going experience – before shifting demographics and changing economics turned them into de facto museums. The Cameo, I suspect, was always a dump: there were no magnificent balconies, no elaborate decor, no carved pillars, no painted murals. It was really barely one step away from being a large auditorium.
Typically, the Cameo played quadruple bills of second run movies, at discount prices. I don’t think the marquee listed the titles (you had to walk up to the box office window to see them), and there was definitely no list of screening times. I suspect that most of walk-in customers simply bought a ticket and took their chances, walking into the middle of whatever film happened to be playing.
Of course, I had called ahead to get the correct starting time. I was too cheap to pay for parking in those days, so I parked literally miles away (there were no nearby streets without parking meters) and hoofed my way over, along with a fellow film student. After buying our tickets, we entered the dark realm of the inner theatre, which gave a pretty decent impression of what the outer circles of hell must resemble: there was a foul stench, incessant rustling, dark shapes silhouetted against dim lights, and the constant murmur of lost souls. From previous experience at the Cameo, I knew that this last sound was the multi-lingual audience translating the English dialogue into their native tongues for the benefit of their non-English-speaking companions.
Then the trailers and previews finished, and SUSPIRIA began.
As fun as the film had been on television, the expanded visual and audio achieved a much more awesome impact on the big screen. Although the projection and sound quality were far from the best, the audience was completely into the movie. The artsy effects and complete lack of realism did nothing to dampen their appreciation of the horror on screen. The sound may not have been six-channel Dolby stereo, but it was louder and more pulse-bounding than it could have been from my television speaker, and it figuratively rocked the house.
The show-stopping set-piece from the film's first reel: the victim is about to plunge through the breaking glassThe famous first murder was stunning. It must be a trick of memory or perception, but the shot of the unfortunate victim, crouched and wounded as a hand shoots into frame with a knife, gave me a sense of vertigo, as it it were off-balance, tilted. The scene goes on much longer than necessary to make its point, with a female victim pushed face first through a piece of glass, then repeatedly stabbed to death (including a glimpse of her beating heart), and finally hanged, her body dropping through a horizontal stained glass window that showers debris on her roommate, impaling and killing her as well. The sequence elicited an awestruck whisper from my friend, who, knowing I had seen the film before, turned to ask, in all seriousness, “Is this the best horror film ever made?”
I gave a vague answer, to the effect that it contained several great set pieces. From my television viewing, I recalled that the pace was uneven, with long slow passages separating the key horror sequences. This became even more apparent on second viewing. Numerous tracking shots down long corridors (with little or no payoff) combine with dialogue of Suzy (Harper) and her friend Sarah (Stefania Casini) whispering about what may be lurking within the dance academy where the film is set, to create some uninspired longeurs. Clever camerawork adds some visual interest to these sequences, suggesting an omnipresent evil, a sort of magical alternative world of witchcraft at work even when nothing is overtly horrific happening.
In the end, however, it is not enough to sustain SUSPIRIA through its many slow scenes. The result is a film of highs and lows, worth seeing for its bravura style but falling short of the critical mass that would achieve masterpiece status. As the lights came up and we headed back to my car, my friend expressed some muted praise for the film as a whole but he was slightly disappointed since the opening reel had led him to believe he had discovered “the mother lode” of horror movies. Alas, that turned out to be not quite the case.

THE COMPLETE CUT

Since then, I have seen SUSPIRIA several more times: on home video and at least twice in theatres, including a 1990s American Cinematheque screening – part of an Argento retrospective, with Argento, actress Jessica Harper, and actor Udo Kier on hand to answer questions afterward (Argento graciously praised Harper’s contribution to the film, declaring that her smile before the final fade out “saved the movie”).* I had heard that a longer version existed, and if I eventually saw it on an imported Japanese laserdisc – once the best way to find complete versions of truncated movies. Unfortuantely, the image was pan-and-scan, if I recall; nevertheless, it was a godsend to see the film in complete form.
In the uncut version, the opening murder is even more brutal, including several more stab wounds and a clearer view of the victim’s still beating heart. The death by dog lingers even longer on the aftermath, watching as the canine rips long strands of raw flesh with its teeth. But most important, we finally learn why the blind man drew the ire of the witches in the first place.
There is a scene in which he arrives to work at the academy, leaving his dog outside. Moments later, a furious Miss Tanner (Alida Valli) burst into the dance instruction room, announcing that the dog has bitten someone, who had to be taken to the hospital. She fires the pianist, who is outraged at the accusation against his dog. Leaving, he announces that, although blind, he is not deaf, implying that he knows some dark secret about the academy. From this, we can conclude that the coven took action both to silence the man and to punish the dog that had attacked one of their own.
The stark white-on-black lettering of the original - a contrast to the garing The other significant difference between the complete version and the U.S. cut is that the U.S. distributor (20th Century Fox, working through a subsidiary label) changed the opening title card. Instead of stark white letters on black background, the theatrical prints in America featured the word “Suspiria” spelled with pinkish “breathing” letters that looked a bit like mutant lungs. Although absurd (movie audiences typically laughed out loud at the sight of them), at the time I thought they had a certain charm. Now I’m glad to see the film, including titles, as Argento intended.

REAPPRAISAL

The restoration of SUSPIRIA to its uncut form heightened the already over-the-top impact and clarified a major plot point, yet over the years the film has somewhat dimmed for me. I still enjoy the aural-visual assault, but I find myself more quickly losing patience with the slower passages.
Also, after seeing the work of Mario Bava (Argento’s forefather in the field of Italian horror), SUSPIRIA no longer seems quite as innovative as it once did. In films like THE WHIP AND THE BODY and KILL, BABY, KILL, Bava had already explored the possibilities of artificial lighting schemes, using wild color palettes to create atmosphere and suggest the characters’ psychological states, regardless of the apparent light sources on screen. It would be fair to see that Argento took this approach at least two steps further with SUSPIRIA (and with its follow-up INFERNO).
Unfortunately, Argento borrowed something else from Bava: a predilection for spooky vignettes that lead nowhere. Bava’s WHIP AND THE BODY, in particular, feels like a half-hour story padded out with endless scenes of characters walking down dark corridors; the beauty of these scenes cannot conceal their dramatic paucity (which might be forgivable) but also their lack of a horrific payoff. Seldom do characters discover anything frightening at the end of those long corridors; the point of the scenes seems to be the journey, not the destination. In a similar manner, SUSPIRIA features numerous shots lingering over the dance academy’s architecture in an effort to create atmosphere and suggest that the house is a repository of evil.
There is also a Bavaesque moment when, after Suzy and Sarah listen to the footsteps of the academy’s staff descending into some unknown part of the building, the camera takes us on a brief trip through the corridors. It is a nice little moody sequence, but the payoff is almost literally nothing: the camera dollies into a darkened, empty room; then cuts to a zoom in on the moon, as a seque to the next scene (the death of the blind pianist). In retrospect, it becomes clear that the camera was following the path that the staff took to their lair; one might even conclude that the death in the following scene is actually a result of rites and incantations that the staff are performing in their lair. Nevertheless, we are still left with a pretty piece of film-making that lacks visceral impact and also fails to elicit a shudder of anticipation. Argento no doubt wants to tease us with the mystery of what is lurking behind the scenes, but as an evocation of Freud’s “Primal Scene,” this sequence falls far short of similar scenes in Roger Corman’s Poe films (an apparent influence on Argento), which frequently featured characters confronting locked doors that hid terrible secrets.
Sara (Stefania Casini) hides from a killer - one of many scenes in which the suspense of slowly paced action is enhanced by Goblin's music.One element that helps push SUSPIRIA past its slow points is the soundtrack by Goblin (inexplicably renamed “The Goblins” in the film credits). This four-piece rock group (keyboards, guitar, bass, and drums) provided both entrancing musical motifs and almost avant garde aural assault. Most of the score is built around a repeating 14-note theme, played in 6/8 time, that suggests a demented fairy tale, effectively conveying the magical quality of the film. Many of the uneventful scenes are scored with whispering voices (titled “Sighs” on the soundtrack album); in a stero mix, the effect powerfully suggests unseen evil forces at work. The murder scenes are enhanced with jangly acoustic guitars; shrill, overlapping vocals; and pounding timpani drums. At times the music is discordant, almost atonal; it may not be a pleasant listening experience, but it adds the perfect punch to Argento’s visual excess – far more effectively than a conventional orchestral score could hope to do.
Though not known for providing in-depth characters, Argento cast his film well; his performers are, fortunately, interesting to watch, even if their roles are underwritten. Harper is the perfect picture of innocence; given little or no personality to work with, the actress uses her personal appeal to hold attention, so that we identify with her as we identify with the undefined heroes of fairy tales. Joan Bennett (known to fans of DARK SHADOWS) probably was not proud of appearing in a violent horror film (her last big screen appearance to boot), but she brings all her professionalism to the role of the academy’s head mistress, Madam Blanc. And Alida Valli (a popular character actress at the time) is perfect as Bennett’s right-hand woman; her stiff body language and sharp manner of speech (regardless of the dubbing) carve an entertaining characterization out of almost literally nothing.
The simplicity of characterization reflects the film’s fairy tale trappings. SUSPIRIA was conceived as a sort of violent, adult version of a story by the Brothers Grimm. Inspired by tales that co-screenwriter Daria Nicolodi’s grandmother had told her (of attending a school where the faculty practised magic at night), the screenplay was originally intended to feature young girls, until the producer objected that audiences would not tolerate seeing children put in mortal jeopardy. Argento had the last laugh: although the characters are played by women in their 20s, the dialogue retains its juvenile tone, and the academy’s doorknobs are set at eye-level, so that the dance students have to reach up for them as a child would for an ordinary door.

SEEN TODAY

SUSPIRIA remains Argento’s biggest international hit, a cult favorite that many fans consider to be his best work. Having seen all of Argento’s other horror films, I would have to disagree. SUSPIRIA is a remarkable exercise in style, but Argento’s most well-realized film, as a whole, is TENEBRE, followed closely by DEEP RED. Working in the giallo format, Argento seems more adept at sustaining a film from beginning to end; his murder-mystery plots may not stand up to logical scrutiny, but they do tie the set pieces together more firmly and keep the pace moving along at an exciting clip. The virtuoso stylization seems to be more under control, crafting both suspense and shocks, without weighting the expository scenes down.
SUSPIRIA’s cult reputation has generated a backlash over the years. Many viewers are put off by the artificiality of style. Some see the simple plot and characterization not not as dramatic devices in the service of creating a cinematic fairy tale but as simple artistic failings. Even Argento fans argue about the strengths and weaknesses. There is a consensus that the film starts strong and fades, never matching its outstanding opening; some even complain that the ending is a major disappointment.
Here, I have to offer a defense. Although I have always been as knocked out as anyone else by the famous first murder (especially the more explicit, uncut version), I find the ending equally satisfying, if not nearly as terrifying. The film finally kicks into gear; the plot, having lain dormant most of the running time, actually comes to life. Most of the movie suffers from a passive protagonist, who does little but take note of the strange events surrounding her; only at the end does Suzy take action.
In some ways, Suzy is a typical Argento character, an innocent artist whose benign view of the world is shattered by a glimpse of the dark side. An American, she has come to Germany to perfect her craft: like Argento’s other artists, she is trying to create beauty, which derives from fashioning order of of chaos, from imposing man-made discipline upon nature, creating artificial structures that delight the mind with their symmetry; however, her education ends up moving in the opposite direction, revealing forces of darkness and chaos that lurk beneath the surface of our perceived reality.
Unfortunately, what separates Suzy from previous Argento protagonists is that she is not galvanized into action at the beginning of the film. Films like THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (which is referenced at the end of SUSPIRIA) began with a murder, witnessed by a character who spent the rest of the plot trying to unravel the mystery; the only event Suzy witnesses is a hysterical student mumbling a few barely audible words before stumbling off into a thunderstorm. Suzy reports this to the headmistress but takes no other action. Although Alida Valli’s authoritative Miss Tanner compliments Suzy on her strong will, the young dancer spends much of the film in a lethargy that we eventually learn was induced by drugs inserted into her food.
In Madam Blanc's office, Suzy finally gets a clueIn the third act, Suzy finally wakes up. After learning that the hysterical student – who was later murdered – was convinced that the faculty were witches, Suzy throws out her drugged food. (Apparently peeved, the forces of darkness send a black bat to nip at her hair, but she easily smashes it to death with a stool.) Now able to stay awake and count the footsteps as the faculty descend to their lair, Suzy traces them to Madame Blanc’s office, where in an archetypal Argento moment, the young student suddenly realizes the significance of what she saw and heard earlier; the fragments of memory unite, and she recalls that the murdered student was saying that turning a blue iris will reveal a hidden passage.
Following the directions, Suzy, in a sense, goes down the rabbit hole, discovering the source of evil at play throughout the film. She sees Madame Blanc leading the rest of the faculty in a ceremony that suggests a blasphemous inversion of a church service, and finds herself confronting Helana Markos – a witch who survived a fire that supposedly killed her years ago. Speaking in a raspy (and frankly overdone) voice that suggests a cartoon version of THE EXORCIST, her face covered in ghastly burn marks, Helena is the “Black Queen,” who sits at the head of the coven operating in the academy.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (from Dario Argento's directing debut) makes a cameo appearance as Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper) enters the lair of Helan Markos.This confrontation between ancient evil and youthful innocence is a splendid climax. The imbalance in powers between the two characters suggests a hopeless mis-match: not only can Helena render herself invisible; she can also summon the living dead (Sara, drooling blood, pins and needles poking out of her flesh and eyes). All Suzy has going for her is desperation and a make-shift weapon, the sharply pointed “feather” from the statue of a bird. (The statue suspiciously resembles the titular “Bird with the Crystal Plumage,” which figured prominently in solving the mystery of Argento’s directorial debut. The statue appears at approximately the same point, structurally, as the living bird did in the previous film.)
The coven of witches is destroyedFortunately, it is enough. Guided by good fortune – or just plain luck – plus a glimpse of the witch’s outline, Suzy is able to drive her point home, precipitating the destruction of the coven and the academy in a spectacular display of exploding objects, overturned furniture, ripping wall paper, and – at last – a cleansing fire, leaving no doubt that the vile contagion infecting the academy has been thoroughly eradicated. Suzy’s smile of relief, as she wanders from the immolating structure, is shared by the audience. As in a fairy tale like “The Three Little Pigs,” we identify with and exalt for the survival of our hero. The other characters are not believable people whose deaths we mourn; they are shadows, fragments, bits and pieces of our psyche personified on screen and wiped away so that our better self can emerge, unhampered, in the form of the character who will defeat the evil.
With its bloody violence, SUSPIRIA may not fully suppor this reading. In fact, the very nature of film, with actors playing characters, tends to subvert the nature of fairy tales, which exist more fully in the realm of the imagination, making it easier to interpret, for example, the first two little pigs as not separate entities but las ess mature versions of the third pig – that is, as stages of psychological development that will lead to the maturity necessary to survive. (See Bruno Bettelheim’s The Use of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales.)
SUSPIRIA may not resonate with the full force of a tale by the Brothers Grimm, but as an exercise in excessive style it is one of the most amazing experiences ever recorded on celluloid. A strange combination of the art house and the slaughterhouse, it may be too violent for the typical cineaste and too contrived for the typical gore-hound. Yet somehow Argento impressively straddles both worlds, offering a unique vision of magic and the supernatural that deserves its place in horror movie history.

TRIVIA

INFERNO, the 1980 sequel to SUSPIRIA, makes it clear that the trilogy (which was finally completed with MOTHER OF TEARS) is inspired by “Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow,” an essay in Thomas De Quincey’s non-fiction book, Suspiria de Profundis, which is a sequel to his earlier Confession of an English Opium-Eater. In “Levana,” De Quincey recounts an opium-induced vision of three supernatural figures (Mater Lachrymarum, Mater Suspiriorum, and Mater Tenebrarum), who oversea the tears of sadness, the sighs of resignation, and the darkness of despair that afflict mankind. Helena Markos, the witch ensconced in the German dance academy, is actually Mater Suspiriorum (the Mother of Sighs), although she is never so designated in SUSPIRIA itself (where we are told she was called “The Black Queen”). In fact, about the only obvious reference in SUSPIRIA to De Quincey’s essay is the title.

DVD DETAILS

3-disc limited edition DVDSUSPIRIA is currently available as a 2-Disc Special Edition DVD (see below), but the preferred version is Anchor Bay’s limited edition 3-Disc box set from 2001. Now out of print (some copies are still available from specialty dealers), this set contains the uncut 98-minute version of the film on Disc 1, plus theatrical trailers, TV and radio spots, a gallery of posters and stills, a music video (of former Golbin-member Claudio Simonetti’s new band, Daemonia, performing a beefed-up version of the “Suspiria” main title), and talent bios. The soundtrack features three language options: English, Italian, and French. Unfortunately, there are no subtitles, so English viewers are stuck with the English soundtrack (not a bad choice, considering that is the language of the lead actress, but it would be nice to hear the Italian dialogue for a change and know what was being said). The American trailer features a campy nursery rhyme, a phony skull, and the “breathing” letters seen in the U.S. version of the film. The Italian trailer is virtually abstract: a series of still images giving no hint of the plot, while credits emphasize Argento’s name, as if his reputation alone is enough to sell the film.
Disc 2 contanis a 52-minute Suspiria 25th Anniversary documentary, featuring interviews with Argento, co-writer Daria Nicolodi, cinematographer Luciano Tovoli, members of Goblin (Augostino Morangalo, Massimo Morante, Fabio Pignatelli, Claudio Simonetti), Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, and Udo Kier. This gives some pretty good insight into the inspiration for and making of the film. Hardcore fans may wish for even more in-depth detail, but what is here is well put together and even interesting enough to appeal to non-fans. Kier (who has only one brief scene in the film, as a skeptical psychiatrist) signs off by expressing a wish that he and Argento work together again – which came true six years later with MOTHER OF TEARS.
The final disc is a soundtrack CD containing three bonus tracks not found on the original vinyl release from 1977. The bonus tracks are somewhat misleadingly titled “Suspiria (Celeste and Bells),” “Suspiria (Narrator),” and “Suspiria (Intro),” implying that they are all remixes or outtakes of the main title theme. This turns out not to be the case:

  • “Suspiria (Narrator)” contains no narration; it is actually an alternate take of the track titled “Markos,” which features heavy pounding on the drums and some ripping baselines playing over a sequenced synthesizer riff.
  • “Suspiria (Celeste and Bells)” is the track that actually features narration. Keyboardist Claudio Simonetti chants non-grammatical nonsense about witches, while celesta and bells perform a subtle version of the main theme.
  • “Suspiria (Intro)” is not an intro but a new recording of main title music. Although there is no separate credit on the CD, which is attributed solely to Goblin, this version is clearly the one performed by Daemonia, as seen in the music video on Disc.

The DVD set also contains a miniature cardboard poster listing the Chapter Selections on the back, a set of nine stills printed on 7×5 matte paper; and a colorful 28-page booklet. Packed with images (including a reproduction of the original U.S. theatrical poster), the latter features an introduction by Scott Michael Bosco, an appreciation of Argento’s work by Travis Crawford, and a lengthy interview with Jessica Harper (who turned down a small role in ANNIE HALL to play the lead in SUSPIRIA).

 Sara (Stefania Casini) comes back from the dead - as a zombie controlled by Helana Markos (a.k.a. Mater Susperiorum).

SUSPIRIA (1977). Directed by Dario Argento. Written by Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi. Cast: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci, Miguel Bose, Barbara Magnolfi, Susanna Javiocoli, Eva Axen, Joan Bennett, Alida Valli, Jacopo Mariani, Udo Keir.
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*The American Cinematheque screening of SUSPIRIA offered evidence that the film has a cult reputation that extends beyond that of Argento’s other work. The weekend retrospective of Argento’s work was well attended, but the SUSPIRIA screening sold out so fast that an unscheduled midnight screening was added on the day of the event, and that sold out, too. The only other sell out was for FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET – a film difficult if not impossible to see in the U.S., not available on VHS or laserdisc at that time. (PULP FICTION fans take note: Quentin Tarantino showed up too late to purchase a ticket.)

Suspiria de Profundis – Book Review

 Our Ladies of Sorrow. I know them thoroughly, and have walked in all their kingdoms. Three sisters they are, of one mysterious household; and their paths are wide apart; but of their dominion there is no end.

– Thomas De Quincey, Suspiria de Profundis

Although it will never achieve the status of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein or Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Thomas De Quincey’s Suspiria de Profundis deserves a small place in horror history for having helped to inspire Dario Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy: SUSPIRIA (1977), INFERNO (1980), and MOTHER OF TEARS (2007) – films that depict the evil caused by three ancient witches known as Mater Suspiriorum (Mother of Sighs), Mater Tenebrarum (Mother of Darkness), and Mater Lachrymarum (Mother of Tears). Although Argento takes great liberties with his source of inspiration, the resulting films do contain interesting echoes of De Quincey’s (literally) hallucinatory imagery. Read More

A Day to Celebrate Malicious Mothers of the Movies

We all know a boy’s best friend is his mother, but mom and apple pie do not always equate with wholesome goodness when it comes to cinefantastique. In movies, the old cliche about the female of the species being as deadly as the male usually refers to a luscious femme fatale, but there are also many memorable examples of malicious, malevolent, and monstrous mothers. Of course, the very concept of malignant motherhood is disturbing; it violates our deepest, most cherished expectations of the nurturing caregivers who raise helpless babes to become frolicking children and eventually well-adjusted adults. This inversion of expectations is what gives these monstrous mothers the nasty little kick that makes their wickedness all the more horrible; after all, fairy tales have taught us to expect wickedness from step-mothers, but real mother? No, never…


Mrs. Rand in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943).

I Walked with a Zombie edith_barret

This apparently benevolent matriarch has a little secret: in order to dispense medicine to the superstitious locals, she poses as a voodoo priestess. Near the end, it turns out she has an even bigger secret: enraged by a love triangle between her two sons and a woman, she joined one of the voodoo ceremonies and put a curse upon the woman, turning her into a zombie. The result is tragedy and sorrow for all concerned, including the eventual death of one of her sons. Way to go, Mom!


Mrs. Bates in PSYCHO (1960).

The mother of all monstrous mothers is Norman Bates’s alter ego in Hitchcock’s masterpiece of psychological horror. One might argue that the real Norma gets a bum rap (after all, we never see her, only her psycho son’s re-enactment of her), but the very fact that her son is so screwed up leads us to believe she must have been just as terrible as we can possibly imagine. In any case, whatever the reality of her as a character, the film uses her as a symbol of debased motherhood, destroying the old-fashioned schism of classic horror films, in which horror was something outside the home that attacked the goodness and purity inside. Here, home is the house of horror, thanks to the domineering matriarch.


Baroness Meinster in THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960).
Brides of Dracula
The Baroness claims the lives of no victims directly, but she has much to answer for. Her indulgent ways led her son, Baron Meinster, into a life of wickedness that eventually turned him into a vampire. Now she keeps him locked up on a chain, but she procures occasional female victims, to appease his bloodlust. The implication, as in PSYCHO, is that the horror proceeds from the mother-son relationship, in this case with the mother vicariously enjoying the dissolute ways of her son.


Gorgo’s Mom in GORGO (1961).

Mother Love expands to monstrous – and destructive – proportions in this English movie about a giant prehistoric beast run amok. Gorgo’s Mom is not really malicious; she’s just looking for her off-spring, but her effect on London is pretty dire, including the destruction of London Bridge.


The Horta in “Devil in the Dark” (Star Trek)
Star Trek Devil in the Dark Horta with eggs
Like Gorgo, the Horta is not truly malicious – unless provoked. Initially presented as a mindless monster, this silicon-based life form on the planet Janus VI racks up an impressive body count (over 50 victims). Like The Blob, she  dissolves her victims (with corrosive acid), and no obstacles stands in her way – she is capable of appearing anywhere. However, a mind meld with Mr. Spock reveals a startling truth: the Horta is an inoffensive creature, the only member of her species left alive, destined to mother the next generation of her race, when they hatch from the silicon eggs that human miners have thoughtlessly been destroying in their quest to find new deposits of valuable minerals. The poor Horta has merely been fighting back to protect her children and ensure the future survival of her kind. In the episode’s remarkable climax, the vengeful human miners try to attack the alien Horta, but Captain Kirk stops the lynch mob by threatening to kill anyone who harms the creature – siding with the “monster” instead of his fellow Earthlings (a moment that eerily prefigures Hugh Thompson Jr.’s actions at the My Lai Massacre a year later). Alone among the mothers in this list, the Horta survives to happily co-exist with her one-time enemies.


The Older Woman in ONIBABA (1964)
Onibaba02
This Japanese horror flick features a metaphoric if not literal Onibaba (“Demon Woman”), a mother whose son has died in a feudal war. Teamed up with her daughter-in-law, she makes a living by killing off stray samurai and selling their armor. When her son’s friend returns from the war and starts an affair with the young woman, the Mother-in-Law resorts to rather heinous method to break them up, filling her daughter-in-law’s head with superstitious fears – that seem to come true when a demon appears in the rice fields. Whether real or imagined, the supernatural horrors pale in comparison to the ruthless efficiency with which the two women dispatch their victims.


Carlo’s Mother in DEEP RED (1975)
Deep Red 1975
This Dario Argento thriller, one of his best, plays a wicked game, leading the audience to believe that self-pitying drunk Carlo is the murderer, but it turns out to be his eccentric mother, who previously seemed like nothing more than a comic relief supporting player (she cannot remember that the hero is a jazz pianist, not an engineer). Martha is one mean bitch, with a body count to her credit that would put Mrs. Voorhees to shame: axing a woman and shoving her head-first through a glass window; drowning another woman in scalding hot water; bashing another’s teeth in and impaling him through the neck with a blade that pins him to a table; and best of all, murdering her husband on Christmas by stabbing him in the back while Carlo (then a toddler) looks in soul-shattering shock (which may explain why he becomes a pathetic alcoholic).


Mrs. White in CARRIE (1976)
Carrie Piper Laurie
The deranged parent certainly gives Mrs. Bates a run for her money in the malevolent mother sweepstakes (a point underlined by director Brian DePalma, who renamed the high school “Bates High,” a name not used in the Stephen King novel). Mrs. White is a whacked out religious loony who sadistically mistreats her telekinetic daughter Carrie, acting out the kind of scenes we could only imagine took place in PSYCHO. No wonder the poor teenage girl eventually goes postal on the entire high school and eventually her mother.


Nola Carveth in THE BROOD (1979).
The Brood Nola Carveth
In this film, writer-director David Cronenberg turns the very act of motherhood into a miasma of horror. Nola is a psychotic undergoing treatment that allows her to manifest her inner demons somatically, which she does by giving birth to deformed children that act out her homicidal wishes. She claims only a few victims; the real horror is watching her birth one of her babies, biting open the external sack in which it grows and licking it clean. You won’t want to eat for a week.


Mother in ALIEN (1979).
Alien Mother computer
This Nostromo’s onboard computer does precious little to help the human crew against the marauding alien that has infiltrated the spaceship. Worse yet, after Ripley has reversed the ship’s self-destruct sequence, Mother refuses to acknowledge the override and insists on nuking the Nostromo anyway. Mother does not have enough personality to be a real character (she is no HAL 9000), but she seems to be one cold-hearted bitch.


Mrs. Voorhees in FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980).
Friday the 13th Mrs. Voorhees
Like Martha in DEEP RED, Mrs. Voorhees is revealed as the killer only in the final reel, so we have to retroactively credit her for the film’s high body count. She is one wacked-out woman, speaking in a childish voice that is supposed to represent her drowned son Jason. Speaking of retroactive reassessment, the revelation in FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 – that Jason is alive – makes Mrs. Voorhees seem even nuttier: she kills off a bunch of camp counselors to avenge her son, but it turns out he survived. So, did she just imagine the drowning? Has she been psychologically blind to his existence since then? Whatever the case, this is another bad example of the poisonous effects of Mother Love.


Anna in POSSESSION (1981)
Possession Isabelle Adjani
This weird story of marital discord features a woman (Isabell Adjani) whose deteriorating relationship with her husband somehow leads to her giving birth to a slimy monster with tentacles. As if this were not bad enough, she has a sexual relationship with Junior, who eventually starts to resemble her husband. None of it makes sense on a literal plot level, but the film is interesting if you read its outre elements as externalizations of the characters’ inner turmoils.


Sil in SPECIES(1995)
Species Sil
Her appearance and actions (seducing and killing her male victims) seems to put her into the femme fatale category, but the true horror of Sil is that she is capable of mothering a new alien race capable of overrunning the world and wiping out humanity. To give her credit, we have to assume that, as malicious as she acts toward humanity, she probably would have made a good mother to her own children.


Grace Stewart in THE OTHERS (2001)
The-Others-Nicole-Kidman-1999
Grace appears to be the very definition of a protective, loving mother as this ghost story follows her attempts to shield her children from a supernatural force lurking in their isolated English mansion. However, a last-reel twist casts a new light on her behavior…


Kayako in JU-ON: THE GRUDE (2003).

Kayako is both victim and villain: murdered by her husband, she comes back as a malevolent ghost, along with her ghostly son Toshio, wrecking death and destruction for years afterwards. Over the course of six films, she tallies up an awesomely impressive kill count, but what is most memorable about her is not mere numbers; it is the spooky, inexplicable, and almost random way she manifests, following no clear rules that would allow potential victims to avoid her. The American remake, THE GRUDGE, makes it clear that Kayako’s husband killed both her and Toshio. The Japanese original shows Toshio escaping his father’s rampage, leaving it up to the audience to figure out how he died. The only possible conclusion is that he was the first victim of his mother’s vengeful spirit.


Mater Suspiriorum, Mater Tenebrarum, and Mater Lachrymarum in the “Three Mothers Trilogy:” SUSPIRIA (1977), INFERNO (1980), and THE MOTHER OF TEARS (2007)

Inspired by Thomas DeQuincey’s essay “Lavana and Our Ladies of Sorrow,” Dario Argento created this trio of witches whose names translate as Mother of Sighs, Mother of Darkness, and Mother of Tears. Despite their names, they are actually “wicked step-mothers, incapable of creating life, who rule the world with sorrow, tears, and darkness.” Collectively, they are responsible for some of the most brutal and graphic murders ever perpetrated on screen (although, technically, the killings are usually carried out by underlings).
In each of the first two films, the atrocities are centered mostly around an ancient dwelling place housing one of the witches; THE THIRD MOTHER ups the ante, with Mater Lachrymarum’s evil influence spreading throughout the streets of Rome with almost apocalyptic effects. Never has the power of Motherhood been so explicity alligned with supernatural – not psychological – evil, creating a disturbing sense of an innocent world at the mercy of forces so powerful they almost defy comprehension.