Although often compared unfavorably to Goblin’s music for SUSPIRIA, keyboardist Keith Emerson’s score for the sequel, INFERNO, is every bit as in tune with the film, perfectly matching the mood and action. Unlike Goblin’s heavy rhythms, shrieking vocals, and shrill synthesizers of the previous film, Emerson employs a much more subtle approach, weaving a score out of quiet piano motifs supported by orchestral arrangements, only occasionally reaching into his electronic bag of tricks for a more outre effect. The result comes closer to a conventional piece of film scoring, underlining the on-screen action without drawing as much attention to itself. Read More
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.
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.
This film is a fascinating and frustrating phantasmagoria of the mysterious and the unexplained, a strange journey into realms beyond human understanding, where events happen without rhyme or reason, and little or no explanation is given. Although framed as a conventional horror film (with a protagonists searching for the secret of an evil power lurking in an old building), INFERNO borders on the surreal in its approach. The casual disregard for narrative logic, for the laws of cause and effect, recall Luis Bunuel at his most anarchic; the stylized beauty of the imaginative imagery is reminiscent of Jean Cocteau. However, as an experiment in “Absolute Cinema,” in which form overrules content, INFERNO cannot be reckoned a total success. The combination of the beautiful and the bizarre is hypnotically entertaining, but imagery does not resonate quite deeply enough to compensate for the lack of conventional virtue.
At times the storyline feels simply empty rather than esoteric, and one wishes that more effort had been put into making sense of the whole thing. The saving grace is the lingering suspicion that somewhere, tantalizingly out of reach, just beyond the edge of awareness, is an answer to the mystery. Whether or not this is actually true, INFERNO feels like an intriguing enigma, one that holds interest precisely because it withholds any definite resolution.
Writer-director Dario Argento had been plying his trade, making horrific psycho-thrillers (known as giallo in his native Italy) since the early ‘70s, reaching his peak with Deep Red in 1975. Then he took a turn into supernatural horror with Suspiria in 1977 and scored his biggest hit in the United States, where it was released by 20th Century Fox (under a subsidiary label). The financial success prompted this 1980 sequel of sorts, which, unfortunately, failed to equal the financial success of the original. Although the film is much less well-known in the U.S. than its progenitor, it is a worthy follow-up that in some ways exceeds the original, even if it is nowhere near as satisfying on a visceral level.
INFERNO tends to disappoint fans of Suspiria – the Argento film for most North American horror audiences. That effort took the visual extravagance of Deep Red and magnified it to an even greater degree, casting aside the psycho-thriller trappings in favor of an Gothic spook show (actually, Baroque would be a better term, considering the architecture on display). Having distilled the story down to a bare minimum, Argento sustained Suspiria on style, and he pretty much succeeded, with shock effects that went way, way over the top. However, the film was unevenly paced, and the Grimm Fairy tale trappings were less deeply disturbing than the psychological horrors of his previous work.
For INFERNO, Argento crafted a sort of indirect sequel, with no continuing characters. Instead, he sets up a mythology regarding the “Three Mothers,” immortal supernatural beings who control mankind’s destiny, sowing destruction, death, and sorrow. The connection between the two films is revealed when a student named Rose (Irene Miracle) reads a book by an architect-alchemist known as Varelli, who designed three incredible manses, one for each of the Three Mothers: one in Germany, one in New York, and one in Rome. Having introduced the witch Helena Marcos (a.k.a. “the Mother of Sighs”) in SUSPIRIA, Argento centers the film on the “Mother of Darkness.” (The two figures were introduced in hallucinogenic essay “Levana and our Ladies of Sorrow” by Thomas De Quincy, author of “Confessions of an Opium Eater”; a third, the Mother of Tears, finally arrived in U.S. theatres in 2008.) When Rose disappears after her discovery, her brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey), who has been studying music in Rome (and briefly glimpsed a mysterious, beautiful woman – presumably, the Mother of Tears) returns to New York and searches for clues in the incredible ornate building where his sister was staying. His dream-like quest eventually brings him to a face-to-face encounter with the Mother of Darkness, but a (rather convenient) fire consumes the building, allowing him to escape, physically unharmed but with a new knowledge of dark and troubling things at work in the universe.
For much of the running time, this is an amazingly restrained effort from Argento, substituting a more subtle Keith Emerson score in place of the pulverizing Goblin music used to such great effect in Suspiria. Emerson occasionally reaches for a more frenetic approach to match the horror sequences, but in general the emphasis is more on mood than shock.
Also considerably toned down is the photography. The colors are just as artificial and intentionally unbelievable, but they are no longer as garish. The effect is even mor Bava-esque than in Suspiria, which expanded on experiments by Argento’s predecessor, director-cinematographer Mario Bava, who crafted ornate lighting schemes without regard to realism.
In keeping with this muted approach, no single set-piece ever reaches the intensity of Suspiria’s famous opening. In fact, the gore seems trimmed way back: instead of lingering on the details and dragging them out as long as possible (his usual approach), Argento builds to climaxes and quickly fades out. (This would suggest post-production censorship, but Anchor Bay’s DVD was released with Argento’s involvement, indicating that it represents his director’s cut.) One or two moments of violence even take place entirely off-screen, to be revealed only after the fact. One might almost be tempted to use the word subtlety, but the term is make sense only in comparison to Argento’s previous work.
In at least one sense, INFERNO notably outdistances its progenitor. For all its outre formal experimentalism, Suspiria featured a conventional (and admittedly weak) narrative that followed a lead protagonists in a linear fashion and contained only a handful of murders (all of which happened for reasons that were easy to understand). INFERNO dispenses with almost any semblance of coherence; like Once Upon a Time in the West (the Sergio Leone Western for which Argento co-wrote the story), INFERNO effectively segues from set-piece to set-piece, whether or not much plot connects the individual scenes.
The overall thread of Mark’s search for his sister is clear enough, but that doesn’t stop Argento from killing off any and all peripheral characters who happen to wander into the Three Mothers’ sphere of influence. This is complicated by the fact that these wicked stepmothers do not necessarily act directly but through intermediaries, so it is not always clear who is actually perpetrating the physical violence: a demon, an acolyte, an innocent person possessed by evil? (The point is underlined by a brief montage showing a pair of hands cutting the heads of three paper dolls; each doll is followed by a cutaway to an apparently unrelated event: a lizard eating a bug, a woman committing suicide, the lights going out in the apartment of a character who has learned the truth about the Three Mothers. Though never exlained, one must conclude that the hands belong to the Mother of Tears, who uses the dolls to work her evil magic, causing long-distance death and destruction.) The effect is at once confusing and disorienting, creating a universe in which death and evil lurk ever waiting to claim the unwary, no matter how ignorant and nonthreatening they may be to the forces of darkness at work.
The result is a much smoother piece of work overall, lacking both the intense highs and the lulling lows of Suspiria. This more carefully balanced approach keeps INFERNO floating on a level altitude for most of its running time. Unfortunately, the disregard for narrative also raises suspicion that Argento has simply found a convenient rationalization for his own lack of story-telling prowess; it is almost as if an artist, who could not draw a straight line, turned to abstract art as a way of hiding his short comings. This becomes most apparent in the frankly disappointing ending: as in Hammer Films’ Plague of the Zombies, a convenient fire burns down the abode housing the villain, saving the hero from actually having to do anything. (One should also note that this non-narrative format, in which a variety of loosely connected characters are killed off for transgressing on the territory of an evil supernatural female, was distilled and perfected by Takashi Shimizu in his Ju-On films.)
Perhaps INFERNO’s most effective quality is that it is so damned cryptic! Using alchemy as his metaphor (an esoteric precursor to science meant only to be understood by its practitioners), Argento unfolds this tale, full of implied significances which are never unexplained.* The audience is left, like the film’s hero, feeling as if exposed to a dark mystery with no solution—or perhaps a solution beyond human explanation. As Argento said at an American Cinematheque retrospective of his work: “When I read about alchemy, I kept asking ‘Why?’ But there is no why!” Alchemy is all about process—that is, the journey, not the goal. That’s what Inferno is: a dark journey.
As if to belie this mysterioso approach to narrative, the DVD does reinstate one scene previously missing from American prints of the film: a brief dialogue between Rose and the bookseller from whom she bought the fateful volume that results in so many deaths. Poised like a traditional expository scene (the equivalent of Udo Kier’s brief cameo near the end of Suspiria), the vignette is really more of a “non-explanation” explanation, which really doesn’t elucidate much of anything (“..the only true mystery is that our very lives are governed by dead people”). But its appearance so early in the film at least clues viewers in to the fact that they shouldn’t be hoping for a narrative neatly tied up with explanations.
Although INFERNO focuses mostly on the Mother of Darkness in New York, it features a cameo by the Mother of Tears in Rome, who shows up at a music lecture Mark is attending, complete with a white kitty cat (rather like the one Blofeld used to have in the Bond films). Later, the film drops a hint about the dwelling place of the Mother of Tears: as Sara, Mark’s fellow student, approaches the Biblioteca in Rome, she notes a sickly sweet smell – like the one Rose, Mark’s sister, noticed in her New York apartment, signaling the presence of the Mother of Darkness. However, Argento’s later MOTHER OF TEARS ignored this hint and placed the Mother of Tears in a completely different dwelling place. In retrospect, viewers must assume that the sickly sweet smell emanated from the alchemist lair into which Sara stumbles while trying to find her way out of the library.
Denied a theatrical release (or even a handful of art house screenings) in the U.S., INFERNOmade its U.S. debut on a now out-of-print VHS tape, which provided adequate picture and sound quality, but cropped the left and right sides of the widescreen image, chopping down Argento’s carefully framed images and thus deleting much of the atmosphere. Consequently, Anchor Bay’s 2000 DVD release represented the first chance for most American viewers to see the film in something like the form its director intended.
The disc corrects this the aspect ratio with a nicely letter-boxed image (enhanced for 16X9 TV screens) and a choice of Dolby 2 channel or Dobly 5.1 sound. The soundtrack is in English only (no Italian ), which is unfortunate: English-speaking leads McCloskey and Miracle get to speak in their own voices, but the dubbing of the Italian supporting cast leaves much to be desired (check out the lame voice given to Alida Valli, who sounded so much better in Suspiria). The sumptuous colors of Romano Albani’s cinematography shine through, and Keith Emerson’s moody music is sharp and clear. Since the film’s effectiveness comes more from the interplay of visuals and music than from story, this combination is not to be underestimated: if you’ve only seen the film on video and found it disappointing, now is your chance to experience the full effect of INFERNO.
In addition to preserving the film in excellent condition, the disc also offers some relatively brief but entertaining extras: a theatrical trailer, a gallery of stills, talent bios, and a videotaped interview with Argento. The trailer captures the tantalizing quality of the film, despite probably giving away too many of the scare sequences. The stills, all in black-and-white, show a few memorable scenes from the film, plus one or two behind-the-scenes images of Argento at work—not as extensive as one would like, but not bad, either. There are three talent bios, for Argento, for his brother Claudio, who produced the film, and for Daria Nicolodi, Argento’s one-time paramour, who co-starred in INFERNO and co-writer Suspiria. The only extensive bio is for Argento, but the other two hit the main points of interest to the uninitiated; also, the bios for both Argentos benefit from the inclusion of quotes pulled from existing interviews, rendering them slightly more usual than the usual dry rundown of facts. All the bios are followed by selective filmographies.
The highlight of the disc’s extras is the interview with Argento, which is actually more of a brief, behind-the-scenes documentary, including stills, clips, and comments from Argento’s assistant director Lamberto Bava (who went on to direct the Argento-produced Demons and Demons 2.) The interview is presented with the subjects speaking in their native language, and viewers have the choice of watching with or without English subtitles.
Fans of Lamberto’s famous father, director-cinematographer Mario Bava, will be pleased to see that the elder Bava’s uncredited (but always acknowledged) contribution to INFERNO have finally been clarified here. Rumors have abounded that Mario Bava directed the film’s underwater sequence (a genuinely creepy standout), but in truth it was his skill as a cinemagician that was put to use. Although set mostly in New York, Inferno was filmed mostly in Italy. It was Mario Bava who supervised the composite shots that put New York skylines outside windows and in the background of an interior set simulating Central Park. He also contributed a few more noticeable special effects, such as the Mother of Darkness’s disappearance (exactly like a similar scene in Bava’s directorial debut Black Sunday) and reappearance in skeletal form after bursting out from inside a mirror.
The original DVD release also included a four-page booklet that listed the Chapter Selections and contained a brief interview with Leigh McCloskey, who discusses Argento’s enigmatic approach to directing actors and relates how the actor filled in for his stuntman during the film’s fiery conclusion.
Although INFERNO will probably never replace Suspiriain the hearts of many fans, it is an effective horror film that mixes graphic violence with narrative ellipses in an intriguing way that prefigures the work of Lucio Fulci (The Beyond) and Takashi Shimizu (Ju-On: The Grudge). For those wanting easily understandable stories and/or fast-paced shocks, this film may not be for you, but if you are willing to enter a magical sinister world where mysterious things happen for little or no apparent reason, you may find yourself swept up in a nightmarish landscape such as few films have ever created. And there’s always something to be said for a film that studious eschews the oft-repeated admonition of most horror films: “There’s got to be a rational explanation!”
No, there doesn’t. And this film is the better for it.
INFERNO (1980). Written and directed by Dario Argento. Cast: Leigh McCloskey, Irene Miracle, Eleonora Giorgi, Daria Nicolodi, Sacha Pitoeff, Alida Valli, Veronica Lazar, Gabreiele Lavia, Feodor Chaliapin, Aria Pieroni.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.)
Fortunately, 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.
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.
SUSPIRIA 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).
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.
*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.)
…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
Mater Lachrymarum, Our Mother of Tears. She it is that night and day raves and moans, calling for vanished faces. She stood in Rama, when a voice was heard of lamentation – Rachel weeping for her children, and refusing to be comforted. She it was that stood in Bethlehem on the night when Herod’s sword swept the nurseries of Innocents […] Her eyes are sweet and subtle, wild and sleepy by turns, oftentimes rising to the clouds; oftentimes challenging the heavens.
– Thomas De Quincey, Suspiria de Profundis
I, Varelli, an architect living in London, met the Three Mothers and designed and built for them three dwelling places. One in Rome, one in New York, and the third in Freiburg, Germany. I failed to discover until too late that from those three locations the Three Mothers rule the world with sorrow, tears, and darkness. Mater Suspirorum, the Mother of Sighs and the oldest of the three, lives at Freiburg. Mater Lachrymarum, the Mother of Tears and the most beautiful of the sisters, holds rule in Rome. Mater Tenebrarum, the Mother of Darkness, who is the youngest and cruelest of the three, controls New York.
– From “The Three Mothers” in INFERNO
Cinematic horror has a relatively easy time portraying the visceral, but there is more to the genre than Grand Guignol gore. There is also a metaphysical aspect that might, in its simplest formulation, be distilled down to a fairy tale battle between opposing forces of Light and Darkness, Good and Evil. This second aspect of the horror genre is harder to film; after all, how do you photograph an abstraction? (It is obviously much easier to film a knife sinking into a torso.) With SUSPIRIA and INFERNO, Italian filmmaker Dario Argento took a stylized (metaphoric) stab at conveying the unseen presence of “magic…all around us, everywhere,” using deliberately artificial lighting schemes and eccentric camera angles (buildings reflected in puddles, people reflected in buildings) to suggest a parallel world of strange and sinister forces lurking somewhere behind what we call “reality.” THE MOTHER OF TEARS, the concluding chapter of Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy, dispenses with the overt stylization of its predecessors (which seemed to take place in some kind of adult fairy tale) in favor of a sobering dose of realism. Ironically, this more prosaic approach turns out to be even more effective at portraying a profound metaphysical horror lurking behind the physical violence on screen. Evil is no longer confined to one of Varelli’s architectural monstrosities; it walks the streets of Rome by daylight, infecting those it touches, creating a eruption of senseless violence that seem to signal the coming of the Apocalypse. Read More
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).
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).
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)
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)
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)
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)
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).
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).
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).
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)
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)
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)
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.
It took Dario Argento – Italy’s horror icon – thirty years to complete the “Three Mothers” trilogy he began with 1977’s SUSPIRIA, his biggest international hit. A mere three years later, he gave us the first sequel, INFERNO, but since then fans have had to wait while he pursued other interests: thrillers like TENEBRE, attempts to break into the American market (TWO EVIL EYES, TRAUMA), an eccentric interpretation of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (starring Julian Sands sans makeup), even a couple episodes of MASTERS OF HORROR series. His work has had its ups and downs, and older fans have sometimes wondered whether he had lost the spark of originality that lit up his work in the ‘70s and early ‘80s.
The news that he would finally direct THE THIRD MOTHER (a.k.a. MOTHER OF TEARS) struck a note of both fascination and fear: fascination that he would at long last return to realm of supernatural (instead of psychological) horror; fear that the result could not possibly live up to nearly three decades of anticipation. Fortunately, the new film (which reaches U.S. theatres in exclusive engagements this June) is a hyper-active horror show of stunning proportions that is completely unlike what came before and yet a fully satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. Critical and fan reaction has been mixed, but that is because Argento’s take-no-prisoners approach is not calculated to avoid risks; at times, it seems not calculated at all. It’s more like an eruption of horrifying nightmares that have been kept locked up for thirty years, waiting for their chance to explode on the screen.
I recently conducted a telephone interview with Argento, who is busy working on his next film GIALLO. We spoke about returning to the world of the Three Mothers, the changes in filmmaking over the years, and his career in general. Although English is not his native language, he expresses himself well; still, there are a few places where I have made the occasional grammatical correction, to ensure that the written words represent the meaning he conveyed as he spoke.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: It has been a long time since INFERNO. Did you have concerns about returning to the trilogy after all those years?
DARIO ARGENTO: The story is very long – over 25 years. At the time, I come from SUSPIRIA and INFERNO. I spent more than five years, on both films, and studied magic and painting and religion and history – many things. I was tired. I wanted new adventures. For this reason, after INFERNO I wanted to do some thrillers like TENEBRE or other types of things like OPERA. I also produced many films for my friends like Michele Soavi and Lamberto Bava. My life went in different directions. After many years, I said, ‘Yes, I will. The story is incomplete; I want to finish.’ I take a long time, for three or four years, during the shooting of a film, and I think about the story. And then suddenly a small suggestion comes in my mind. Then I start to write the story. Then collaborate with the two American writers, Adam Gierasch and Jace Anderson. [Walter Fasano and Simona Simonetti also contributed to the script.] It was good. I was again enthusiastic to speak about these themes – themes of magic, themes of the occult, so many themes I know very well. The imaginary, the spectacular. Paintings, too, old paintings about the devil and the Sabbath.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: MOTHER OF TEARS seems deliberately different from the previous films.
DARIO ARGENTO: INFERNO was very different from SUSPIRIA. SUSPIRIA is a story of witches; INFERNO is about alchemy. This is different from SUSPIRIA and INFERNO. Every film of this trilogy is different from each other.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: It’s not just the subject matter. Each of the previous films revolved around a dwelling place of one of the Three Mothers; the focus was very narrow. This film covers more territory; it seems bigger, broader, more external.
DARIO ARGENTO: Yes, it’s different. It’s another inspiration. I was very delighted to do this film. It was very strong in the aspect of the sex and the violence – very strong violence. I enjoy to do violence and horror things to the audience.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: Is that because you need to show more even violence to scare audiences than you did with SUSPIRIA and INFERNO (both of which were pretty extreme).
DARIO ARGENTO: No, the film is this [way]. This time, I want to do something much stronger.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: In a way, your approach here reminded me of what Roger Corman did with TOMB OF LIGEIA. He had made several horror films based on Poe, and they were all pretty much set inside a single house, and most of the movies were interiors, and they were all very artificial and insulated; even the exteriors were filmed on soundstages. Then for LIGEIA he suddenly went outside and filmed on real locations and took the horror out of the shadows – put it in the real world. MOTHER OF TEARS is like that: the horror is not just in the house; it’s in the streets.
DARIO ARGENTO: It’s in the streets; it’s in the airports; it’s in the museum; it’s in the train station. It’s everywhere. In the church.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: One curious element is the monkey that helps the witches. You expect witches to be surrounded by cats (like the the one the Mother of Tears was holding in INFERNO).
DARIO ARGENTO: The monkey is not a slave of the witch; the monkey is a witch himself. Because a witch is not necessarily a woman. Sometimes a witch is a monkey or a dog.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: SUSPIRIA took its title from “Suspiria De Profundis,” a book by Thomas De Quincy (author of CONFESSIONS OF AN ENGLISH OPIUM EATER), which included the essay “Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow,” describing “three sisters” named Mater Suspiriorum, Mater Tenebrarum, and Mater Lachrymarum. Most audiences did not make the connection at the time; what was going on behind the scenes in the German Dance Academy was a mystery, except that it involved an old witch. INFERNO filled in the back story: that the architect-alchemist Varelli had built three dwelling places, one each for the Mother of Sighs (SUSPIRIA), the Mother of Darkness (INFERNO), and now the Mother of Tears. Now that the audience knows all this, it must have been very hard to come up with something new that would surprise them.
DARIO ARGENTO: It’s not my purpose to surprise people. I want to just tell stories. Stories which come from my mind, my imagination. This is my purpose really. To [make] real my imagination, my fantasies.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: One surprise for me was the home of Mater Lachrymarum. I thought INFERNO hinted that the Mother of Tears lived in the Biblioteca Filosofica in Rome, but her dwelling seems completely different in the new film?
DARIO ARGENTO: She lives there sometime, yes. Everybody lives in a house different. She lives in the catacombs, because catacombs are full of souls, people who died – many, many thousands die and are in the catacombs. She is very happy to live with these lost souls in the catacombs.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: On the DVD for INFERNO you called it one of your most difficult films to make. How does MOTHER OF TEARS compare?
DARIO ARGENTO: Very difficult, very difficult. To imagine it, also to shoot it. First time I use the digital effects – not first time, but first time so strong, so many. This was difficult for me, because I like much more for it to be real, to look real. But sometimes the digital helps.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: You write and direct. When you’re shooting a film, do you ever feel that you wrote something too difficult to achieve?
DARIO ARGENTO: No, no, not too hard, never too hard. I hope to [make] something hard – and more hard than the film [I just finished]. I prefer to do another film that is much harder. Because life is not so easy. The imagination of people is unbelievable. I know the imagination of many people, normal people, but the imagination sometimes is horrible, terrible, disgusting. This is a part of our soul – the dark soul.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: In America, horror films often get toned down, to make them less dark. Is it different in Italy?
DARIO ARGENTO: No, no – the same problem. Because the financers want to distribute the film for television. Television doesn’t want too strong. Always the same problem. But I don’t care. Television doesn’t want because is too strong; okay – to me, is better. The DVD is free; the DVD is the new world – the new, free world. Okay – I have the DVD. I don’t have the TV; it’s okay, too – better.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: This film is a bit of a family reunion. You’re working with your daughter Asia, who appeared in TRAUMA, THE STENDAHL SYNDROME, and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. And with Daria Nicolodi, who co-wrote SUSPIRIA with you.
DARIO ARGENTO: Because this is the third episode – the ending also – I wanted many people to participate who worked with me on the other episodes. Like the German actor Udo Kier; he was with me in SUSPIRIA. Asia was my muse. Daria worked with me many years ago. Many people were involved with this [trilogy].
STEVE BIODROWSKI: I liked that you have Udo Kier, who was in SUSPIRIA, play a character who delivers the exposition about what happened in SUSPIRIA. Also, MOTHER OF TEARS has an alchemist in a wheel chair who connects the new film to INFERNO, which had an alchemist in a wheel chair.
DARIO ARGENTO: Yes, everybody tied together.
I would also like, not now, but maybe in the next ten years, maybe to do another episode about where these strange things were born. In MOTHER OF TEARS I say all the magic sorcerers were born in the Black Sea. Because many famous spiritualists come from the Black Sea. Then maybe one time – I don’t know when – I do a film about the birth of the magic, of the people.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: Where did you find actress Moran Atias, who plays the title role?
DARIO ARGENTO: In Israel. She is an actress in Israel. Pretty famous. Before her, I see -because I want some face very strange, exotic – I see many actresses from Ukraine. From Belgium. From Poland. From Mongolia, too. I see many, many beautiful girls, women, from everywhere. Then, when I see her, I was, ‘Okay, she is my Mother of Tears.’
In INFERNO, we told about the Mother of Tears: the Mother of Tears is a beauty. For this reason, I wanted to have her completely naked. Because when you have a beautiful witch you don’t want to cover her magnificent body. Then you are naked, because Truth is naked, no?
STEVE BIODROWSKI: Have you seen the film with an audience?
DARIO ARGENTO: Yes, many times. One time recently, five days ago in London, in a big theatre, beautiful. People screaming. Somebody said, ‘We see the most horrible film in my life.’ Like the mother killed the child on the river. People are frantic! Plus I see the film in festivals in two places, in Toronto and in Rome, and it was good! I was happy, because now after many years people start to understand my work, my style, what I want to do, to tell to the audience.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: Are you ever surprised by the experience of watching one of your films in a theatre?
DARIO ARGENTO: No, I am very disturbed! I don’t like to see my films with the audience. No really, I don’t like it, because they put too many emotions in my mind. After the film, I am without breath [he sighs heavily] – ‘Oh my god!’
STEVE BIODROWSKI: What are you most proud of achieving with MOTHER OF TEARS?
DARIO ARGENTO: This time the story is put in the real world. Not closed in a house or in a museum. This is everywhere: in the airports, in the train station, on the streets – everywhere. There is something real. To show how life is under bad powers. We don’t understand, but it’s real. Bad powers – maybe it’s with the mask of politics, but these are bad powers, too. People are crazy, and the city explodes!
STEVE BIODROWSKI: Has making movies changed much since SUSPIRIA?
DARIO ARGENTO: Yes, of course. It’s changed a lot. Everything has changed from SUSPIRIA to today. Every five years, our life changes a lot. Me, too: I’m changed – my style. Movie film has changed because now we have digital special effects – very good, very bright, with wonderful technicians.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: Today’s movies often seem to borrow from your films, like the taxi ride in THE GRUDGE (which director Takashi Shimizu calls an homage to a similar scene in SUSPIRIA). Do you often go to movies and notice bits taken from your films?
DARIO ARGENTO: Yes, in art history we have people who take something from another, like Quentin Tarantino. In GRINDHOUSE he takes the music from BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE. But there is also another shot in GRINDHOUSE from my film SLEEPLESS – one long shot around the table without cuts. It was the same, but it was good. I was happy, because when he does these things, it shows he appreciates; he loves my work!
STEVE BIODROWSKI: Speaking of THE GRUDGE, Takashi Shimizu’s films seem very influenced by INFERNO. You have a loose collection of characters who are pursued by this irrational supernatural force that seems to have no clear rhyme or reason. Are you familiar with J-Horror?
DARIO ARGENTO: Yes, I know the Japanese very well, because I am very friendly with Japanese movie people and the designers of Manga. They are big friends of mine. When I go to Japan, people are enthusiastic. One of the big successes of my life was SUSPIRIA in Japan. It was enormously successful. Also it’s number three of the hit parade in China. You imagine in China! Three hundred million copies! Not the real number, but it’s something enormous.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: In TENEBRE, your first film after INFERNO, you killed off the actress, Ania Pieroni, who was briefly glimpsed as Mater Lachrymarum, and some critics thought it was your way of killing off any hope for the third MOTHER film. I wondered if the death of the Jun Ichikawa character was a jab at Japanese horror films: they feature these evil female characters who are relentless and unstoppable, yet you kill one off very easily.
DARIO ARGENTO: Yes, of course! And very fast!
STEVE BIODROWSKI: Because you make thrillers and horror films, people compare you to Hitchcock or Mario Bava or Brian DePalma. Are there other influences that people do not see, other filmmakers whom you admire, like Antonioni?
DARIO ARGENTO: Yes. Ingmar Bergman, of course. Also American movies we call ‘black movies’ [film noir] of the ‘40s like CAT PEOPLE, the films of Jacques Tourneur [who also directed NIGHT OF THE DEMON].
STEVE BIODROWSKI: Do you think your films are misunderstood? For instance, critics say you are not interested in story, only in visuals?
DARIO ARGENTO: No, people understand, but the critics don’t understand very well. But critics are not important – absolutely not important. Because now audiences don’t believe anymore in critics. Many years ago critics wrote long articles about films. Now in seven lines they are finished: ‘The story is this. The actor is this. The color is good.’ Finished. This is a critic! Nothing!
STEVE BIODROWSKI: On the audio commentary for TENEBRE, Loris Curci tries to get you to explain the film, but you resist. Do you prefer not to explain your work? Would you rather have viewers figure it out for themselves?
DARIO ARGENTO: I like people to understand the movies without my lesson from the teacher. When you watch a movie, you understand your truth. It’s not my truth maybe, but your truth is okay.
DarkDreams.Org – the website dedicated to the cinema of Dario Argento – has a report by Alan Jones of the Italian premier of THE THIRD MOTHER, which took place on October 31 at the Adriano cinema in Rome:
As to the film itself, well, it’s not the conclusion to the SUSPIRIA and INFERNO trilogy any of us wanted to see. You know the story by now. The discovery of an ancient urn near a Viterbo cemetery awakens the cruel Mater Lacrimarum whose emergence unleashes apocalyptic social breakdown and mass murder in Rome. Art restorer Sarah Mandy can vanquish the evil nemesis if she listens to the guiding spirit of her mother and unlock her own hidden supernatural powers.
While it’s easy to criticise LA TERZA MADRE (occasionally different to the US MOTHER OF TEARS version) for what it isn’t rather than what it actually is – a gory, campy supernatural romp – the main problem with the film is simple. The layers of ethereal artifice given by lush cinematography and arch style to the prior two classic films lent their fractured stories a further atmosphere of palpable fever dream unreality. Stripped of that, and saddled with Fasano’s dull realism (his DO YOU LIKE HITCHCOCK photography was superior), the film’s equally episodic narrative comes off as contrived, crude and kitsch. Why on earth didn’t Argento use again the vivid colour palettes that made SUSPIRIA and INFERNO so fabulous to look at? He had the chance in Jace and Adam’s jewel-bleeding concept, but axed it as too fairytale instead of embracing its rich atmospheric possibilities.
THE THIRD MOTHER/MOTHER OF TEARS will open in Italy in over 300 engagements – large for that country. Its fate in the U.S. remains uncertain; although distibution rights have been picked up, a theatrical release -versus going direct-to-video – remains an open question.
E-Splatter.Com has the latest news on MOTHER OF TEARS, the third film in Dario Argento’s “Three Mothers Trilogy (which includes SUSPIRIA and INFERNO). The soundtrack album is due in November. The movie will screen at the American Film Market in Santa Monica, California this February. A DVD will come out in the UK in February or March, possibly preceded by a theatrical release.