Horror Bites - The Witch

SUSPIRIA (1977)


Dario Argento's tale of ballet and blood is sort of a crazy fork in the road when you consider the films which came before, particularly the straightforward detective genre elements which were so strong in his earlier films. Some stylisation was always present but even the telepathy subplots in Deep Red were nothing compared to the fantasy madness that was to follow. Reality is almost completely absent as soon as American student Suzy (Jessica Harper) arrives in Germany to attend a dance academy. Strangers in a foreign land is still a theme here, but the rest out the window. The shift in colours and sounds as she passes through the airport doors are just a hint of what is coming in this surreal journey into the occult.

The visuals and the music are a major component here, in a film which assaults the senses at every turn. The viewer is bombarded with percussion in the opening credits and it doesn't let up very often. It's a dazzling, brain frying experience as coloured lights bleed into the sets and crazed chanting starts up in the score. I'm particularly fond of the parts which are someone shouting rah-rah-rah into the microphone, as well as the whooping sounds from the synthesizers used. It takes time for a subtler melody every so often to lure you in of course, but there's nothing quite like the exaggerated cacophony provided by prog rock band Goblin. Like the rest of the material it takes some parts from the movies which came before and amplifies them to absurd levels.

The story of mystery deaths and disappearances of young girls in a ballet school offers plenty of intrigue. It's increased by the bizarre nature of everyone and everything in the film. The place looks like hell itself with a gaudy red aesthetic and bright coloured lighting that often appears from unseen sources. The opening shock sequence set in what is supposedly a normal apartment building is also filled with pink and black designs which prick the eyeballs even before the explosion of violence begins. The wallpaper in Suzy's shared room early on is probably even more disturbing than the bloody carnage.

The acting is also pretty strange. The girls seem to be acting like kids coming out with weird lines like 'names that begin with the letter S are the names of snakes!' (cue hissing sounds) but perhaps it's a throwback to an earlier draft when they were in fact children. This is still kind of a fairy tale in some ways. The school staff as also a strange bunch, even before we find out their secrets. Creepy kids, unhelpful doctors and mute handymen all add to the weird atmosphere. These people are weird enough even without all the witchcraft stuff. Of course the decaying flesh, broken glass and surprise pits of razor wire help with the levels of horror.

Things don't make sense some of the time, but it draws you into a dream like story which allows for certain sequences to feel right at home. The gruesome deaths and the baroque locations all merge into one hair raising fun-house ride. A brief cameo from Udo Kier in what is the sole moment of bland exposition 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 depths of Italian blood letting. It's an essential film for anyone vaguely interested in horror or world cinema; there's nothing quite like it.

5/5