October Horror Month
I know I’m a bit late with this review but I couldn’t rush my review of Dario Argento’s horror masterpiece. I’ll confess I didn’t always rate this very highly when I first saw it back when gore and spectacle was all I looked for in my horror but the more times I watched the more I Iiked it. There is talk of a remake in the works and I can understand the negative reaction from fans of this film and it is hard to understand why anyone would risk a remake of good or especially great film since the inevitable comparisons are rarely favourable for the remake.
Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) is a young ballet dancer who has been accepted at the prestigious Tanz Akadamie in the German city of Freiburg. When Suzy arrives at the airport it is raining heavily and she gets soaked trying to catch a taxi. The academy is a very ornately decorated building with a touch of the fairy tale look about it. She sees a woman in brown coat shouting something about secrets and irises to someone inside then closing the door and running away. Suzy rings the doorbell but the person who answers over the intercom tells her to go away. Since Suzy can’t get into school she goes back to town to find somewhere to stay and sees the woman from the building running through the woods.
The woman Suzy saw is Pat Hingle (Eva Axén), a student of the academy who has just been expelled. She gets into town and goes to her friend’s apartment and tells her that she needs to get away from Freiburg. She goes into bathroom to dry off and is startled when the window blows open. Her friend shuts it again and notices that Pat is really startled. Pat thinks she sees something through the window and she has a closer look and sees a pair of eyes that seem to float in the air just outside of the window. Two large hairy arms break through the glass and pull her through. Her friend runs out into the corridor and cries out for help but nobody comes. Pat gets stabbed on the roof several times and of course Argento shows it graphically with the knife going into her heart. Then an electric flex is tied around her neck and her body is then dropped through the glass roof. The falling glass kills her friend on the floor below the roof
Suzy gets back to the school next morning and the place buzzing with everyone up and around. The police are there to investigate Pat’s death by talking to people who knew her. Miss Tanner (Alida Valli) introduces herself to Suzy and welcomes her to the school and she’s got this sergeant major strict nanny look about her. Tanner introduces Suzy to Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) the vice director of the academy who seems to be fairly friendly and polite. Madame Blanc tells Suzy that her room isn’t ready yet so she’ll have to rent a room with a student in town. Madame goes to talk to the police investigating Pat’s death and Suzy tells them that she saw someone running towards the school when she arrived. This tells them what time the murder happened
Tanner takes Suzy up to the locker rooms and introduces her to other students. Olga (Barbara Magnolfi) is the student that she’s going to be rooming with. Tanner tells them that someone will have to lend her a pair of ballet shoes. One of the women offers to sell her a pair of shoes but Suzy has her own in her luggage. Another woman Sarah (Stefania Casini) introduces herself. There’s a lot of childish bickering between the women and they seem to act younger than they are.
In Olga’s room later Suzy settles in. A pretty male dancer called Mark (Miguel Bosé) brings in her luggage and Olga teases Suzy that he’s attracted to her. He has to rush off back to the academy for dinner and Olga tell Suzy that that to help pay his fees he has to run errands for Madame Blanc.
Next morning at ballet class Madame Blanc tells Suzy that they have her room ready and just assumes Suzy will be moving in but Suzy likes it at Olga’s and wants stay there. Madame Blanc objects that she said would be staying at the school but finally has to accept it. Miss Tanner is impressed by Suzy’s decisive nature.
Suzy goes out into the hall on her way to class with Miss Tanner and she has to pass the cook who is sitting outside the kitchen with a very shiny knife. A bright light is reflecting off the blade and right into Suzy’s eye. She suddenly feels weak and dizzy. When she gets to Miss Tanner’s class she’s really not fit to take part but Miss Tanner insists and drives her on until she collapses with blood coming out of her mouth and nose.
When Suzy comes round she’s in a large bed being fussed over by Miss Tanner, Madame Blanc, the cook and a doctor called Professor Verdegast. They make her drink some liquid and Verdegast gives her an injection. He recommends that she eats only bland food for a few days and has a glass of red wine with every meal to help her blood. She’s looks little a little girl stuck the bed while adults fuss over her and this is no accident. Madame Blanc has had her luggage brought over from Olga’s apartment so they have basically moved her into the academy against her wishes.
Sarah comes in later to see her. She has the room next door to Suzy. Suzy is not happy with the way they seem to be treating her like a child. Pavlos the large mute handyman brings Suzy her dinner with a glass of wine which surprises Sarah. Before they can really get talking a bell rings. Sarah says that means 15 minutes until dinner is served and she leaves to get ready. Suzy drinks the wine and starts eating her dinner. She feels things in her hair and Sarah next door is also feeling things in her hair. There are hundreds of maggots falling from the ceiling. Out in the corridor the other students are al complaining and shaking maggots from their hair. Miss Tanner and Madame Blanc are trying to find out what’s happening so Miss Tanner goes up the attic with Mark and they find a box full of spoiled food that is completely infested with maggots.
They get the male students to move beds into the practice room to turn it into temporary dormitory and they put sheets up to partition off the students from the teachers. When they turn the light out there’s still a red light on behind the sheets lighting them up and meaning they can see the teachers in silhouette. This really ramps up the already dream-like quality of the location. After lights out everyone goes to sleep but Sarah hears a strange wheezy snore from bed just the other side of the sheet from hers. She wakes up Suzy and they both listen to the sound. Sarah is the director of the academy who they have never seen are always being told is away on business abroad. Sarah recognises the sound from a night she had to stay in a guest room and she heard that same snore. Next day someone told her that the director stayed overnight.
The following day during dance classes Miss Tanner storms into the practice rom to tell Daniel (Flavio Bucci) the blind pianist that his German Shepherd guide dog bit Albert, the strange little son of one of the teachers who is always hanging around silently. Miss Tanner is furious and wants the animal banned from the premises. When Daniel defends his dog and objects Miss Tanner tells him to leave too. But Daniel doesn’t go quietly but rants a bit about being blind but not deaf, clearly hinting that there are things he’s heard around the school.
Suzy is still getting her bland dinner with wine brought to her room. Sarah talks about the teachers leaving the school at the same time every night and when that time comes they both listen to their footsteps. Suzy points out that they aren’t leaving the school because the footsteps are not going towards the door, they are going somewhere inside the academy. She is incredibly drowsy and can’t stay awake. Sarah decides to makes a count of the footsteps to see if she can work out where they are going.
Daniel is drowning his sorrows at a bier hall but leaves when he’s had enough folk music and men in leather shorts slapping each other. As he walks with his dog through a large empty square the dog starts barking at something in the shadows. Daniel senses that someone is there and he calls out. Then there’s a strange flapping sound of something above him. Then suddenly the dog has Daniel’s throat in its mouth and it rips it open and Daniel dies. Two police officers arrive too late on the scene and the dog runs off.
The next day Daniels death is of course the talk of the locker room and one student mentions the place being cursed. Suzy goes to talk to Madame Blanc about the strange things happening. She remembers more details of that first night and Pat saying something about secrets and an iris. Madame Blanc says she’ll let the police know
Suzy goes for a swim with Sarah. Sarah thinks it was a mistake to talk to Madame Blanc. Sarah was Pat’s friend and she was talking to her at the door the night she died. It was Sarah that Suzy spoke to on the intercom that night. Pat had been making a note of all the strange things going on the school and that’s why she was expelled. She gave her notes to Sarah who only told one other person, a close friend called Dr Frank Mandel. When they go back their rooms Sarah is in a panic because Pat’s notes are gone. Suzy is drowsy again and keeps fading out while Sarah tries to talk to her. Sarah asks if she knows anything about witches but Suzy is asleep and Sarah is scared. She decides she must get way and hides the note she made of the footsteps in Suzy’s bed.
Sarah runs the corridors, avoiding shadows and sensing a presence coming after her. She climbs up into the attic but someone attacks her making her fall into odd glass windows. She gets inside a room and put the latch on the door but her attacker uses their razor to slip open the latch. Sarah piles boxes up against a wall and climbs through a window into the next room, which is full of razor wire. She screams as it rips at her flesh and she struggles towards an exit on the other side of the room. Her struggles are cut short when her attacker reaches in through the other exit and slits her throat.
Next day Suzy is looking for Sarah and apparently so is Madame Blanc. According to Blanc Sarah packed her things and left early the morning without saying anything to anyone. Suzy calls Dr Mandel to find out if Sarah has been in-touch with him and she agrees to meet him in town. Dr Mandel (Udo Kier) used to be Sarah’s psychiatrist and he is worried that the beliefs of friend of Sarah’s were affecting her sanity. He goes into full exposition mode and tells Suzy about Helena Marcos who founded the Tanz Akadamie and was reputed to be witch who had been kicked out of many other countries before settling in Freiburg where she became known as a the Black Queen to her followers. She went onto found the Akadamie as a school of dance and occult sciences but after Marcos was killed in a fire the school was run by one of her pupils who dropped the occult bit and focused on dance. Suzy wants know what it is witches do and after a passionless defence of materialism he passes onto Professor Milius who has made a study of the occult. He basically says that witches are bad and they do bad things to people to get rich or just because someone annoys them. Suzy asks about Marcos and that bring up the subject of the Black Queen, the head of coven of witches who wield much more power than the others. Without her a coven is powerless.
Back in her room Suzy dumps her dinner in the toilet and her wine in the sink, finally realising that she was being drugged through her special diet. She can’t find any of the other students and the cook tells her that Miss Tanner arranged tickets to the Bolshoi Ballet for everyone. In her room she sees orange glowing eyes and bat flies out of the cupboard and attacks her.
Suzy finds Sarah’s footstep note and uses it to find out where the teachers go every night. She has to sneak past the cooks in the kitchen but other than that she finds herself in Madame Blanc’s office pretty quickly. She can’t find another exit at first then remembers Pat taking about an iris and she sees a panel in the wall with irises for decoration. She turns and the secret door opens.
Through the door is another corridor, long and bend right round. In a room at the end she sees Miss Tanner, Madame Blanc and others. Blanc says wants Suzy to die and she repeats it like an incantation. Suzy backs up and finds Sarah’s boy nailed onto a coffin. Pavlos hears her and tries to find her so Suzy ducks into a room to hide.
In the room is Helena Marcos herself and she think Suzy has come to kill her. She calls on the dead to attack and that means zombie Sarah. I don’t know if Suzy did mean to kill Marcos before but she certainly does now but Marcos keeps flickering out of existence. When she finally succeeds all hell breaks loose. Things explode and the building starts collapsing. The other witches are clutching their heads in agony. Suzy runs and just get out before building collapses in flames.
This film is often credited with having no understandable storyline and even though it is not the most important it is still there holding it all together. The visual look owes a lot to the expressionist style of the Cabinet of Caligari and there is a fantastic dreamlike quality to the film. The Goblin soundtrack is a perfect accompaniment – at times playful and childish and others it is matching the on-screen violence with a percussive cacophony. They will come at us with their re-makes, re-boots and re-imaginings- it is doubtful they can come close to this.