Horror Bites - The Witch


Dario Argento's baroque tale of ballet and blood is a kind of a crazy fork in the road when you consider the films he made which came before. The straightforward detective mystery elements which were so strong in his earlier films have been almost thrown out entirely. Some stylisation was always present of course, but even the telepathy subplot in Deep Red was nothing compared to the madness which would follow. The whole strangers in a foreign land idea is still present, but the rest of the familiar ingredients are almost gone. The shift in colours and sounds alone as American student Suzy (Jessica Harper) passes through the airport doors are just a hint of what is to come. It's a surreal journey into the occult in which reality is almost completely absent. Let's take a look at why this nightmarish journey is such an enjoyable ride.

The visuals and the music are a major component here, in a film which assaults the senses at every opportunity. The viewer is bombarded with percussion in the opening credits and they aren't allowed much respite from there on out. It's a dazzling, brain frying experience with coloured lights that bleed into the sets and crazed chanting voices in the score. I'm particularly fond of the parts which are just someone shouting rah-rah-rah into the microphone, as well as all the whooping synthesizer sounds used. It does take time for a subtler melody every so often, but this is a trick to make things feel calm. There's nothing quite like the exaggerated cacophony provided by Claudio Simonetti and his prog-rock band Goblin. Like the rest of the material included it takes parts from Argento's earlier movies and amplifies them to absurd levels.

The story itself is a tale of mystery deaths and the disappearances of the young girls at a German ballet school which offers a certain level of intrigue. But there's a sense of unease which is increased by the bizarre nature of everyone and everything in the rest of the film. The building itself is a hellish structure with a gaudy red aesthetics. It's full of lurid neon lighting that often appears from unseen sources to accent the characters on screen. Even the opening sequence in a supposedly a normal apartment is also filled with pink and black designs which prick the eyeballs and upset the stomach even before all the violence begins. Some of the 1970s wallpaper in later scenes is probably even more disturbing than all the bloody carnage.

The acting is also pretty strange to say the least, although some moments can be put down to dubbing if you watch it in English (case in point the random cameo by Udo Kier doing a Basil Exposition bit). The teenage girls at the school seem to be behaving like much younger kids at times, with weird lines like 'names that begin with the letter S are the names of snakes!' Cue hissing sounds. It's probably a throwback to an earlier draft when they were actually children in a fable. At the core this is still a kind of fairy tale in some ways, as Suzy and her friend Sara (Stephania Casini) go on a naive journey to uncover a witch's secret hideaway. It's hardly a ginger bread house where the unsuspecting are roasted alive, but the implications are just as unsettling.

The employees at the academy are also a strange bunch, even before all of their weird secrets have been revealed. The performances by Alida Valli as Miss Tanner and Joan Bennet as Madame Blanc are detached and cold in ways that make them rather suspicious, and probably a bit unsuitable to be top members of the teaching staff. Though to be fair the students flailing about aren't very convincing either. There are also creepy boys, unblinking old ladies and mute handymen stalking the halls. They all add to the weird atmosphere. Most of these people are strange enough even without the mysterious school director breathing from behind the curtains.

Of course all the potential witchcraft going on behind the walls is just as eerie. It probably goes without saying that all the decaying flesh, broken glass and surprise pits of razor wire help with the levels of horror. Purely as a slasher movie it delivers all kinds of bizarre set pieces as hairy hands burst into rooms and weird animal eyes peer out of dark corners. But there's a certain inescapably nightmarish feeling to everything as characters are chased through crimson hallways and into shadowy attic rooms. Everything about school is oppressive and even the most mundane scenes have a heightened reality to them. Even the blood itself is sometimes garish and almost mauve. As some might say, a shade of Dario Magento.

Things don't always make a lot of sense in some sequences, but the narrative draws you in. It's a hazy dream like story which allows for some of the more outlandish sequences to feel right at home. The gruesome deaths and the extravagant locations all merge into one hair raising fun-house ride. One brief moment of bland expository dialogue is probably the single bump on the road, but by this stage in the narrative you just have to let it happen. An initial viewing may be eye opening or shocking, but everyone should experience the really hypnagogic depths of Italian blood letting. It's a quintessential film for anyone vaguely interested in horror or world cinema -- there's nothing quite like it.