Take a good look at the tag line that reads on the top of the poster on the left. How can any horror fan resist a line like that? The first time I ever read that wonderful sentence, it was 1990. I was a sophomore in high school, in the library of South Texas High School for Health Professions, sitting next to Julio, a guy from my English class and reading the The Psychotronik Encyclopedia of Film. It was an odd entry in our library's roster, but there it was in front of me and I was reading about this film about a girl who attends a high school that's actually a front for a coven of witches and how it was one of the most terrifying films ever made. The film was summed up in less than five sentences and it would be five sentences that would change my life forever.
Three years later, I would lay eyes on a Laserdisc copy of this film at the local Hastings. That same year, I held the Magnum version VHS of this film for the first time at that same store. Reading the back of the box and staring at the picture of a young girl in a room surrounded by flowers on the walls, this was the film I itched to see, but couldn't rent. There was something about it that just pulled me to it, those promises of how terrifying it was and how I would never feel safe in the dark once I'd laid eyes on it. Little did I know what was about to invade my life.
In 1996 while living in California, I ran into that same Magnum VHS version at Adventure Video in Selma. Being over 21, I remember grabbing it and not even thinking twice about renting it. My cousin was with me at the time and he was a newbie at the whole horror thing and this was the perfect film to get him started. And in my own mind, I was thinking that this would be just another horror film. Wow, was I wrong.
This was the film that introduced me to director Dario Argento and the genre of film known as the Italian giallo. Horror fans everywhere know the premise to this film: An American ballet student, Susy Banyon (played by Jessica Harper) comes to the Tanz Akadamie to further her studies. She is welcomed at the school's front door by an unknown voice telling her to go away, just after a young girl flees from the school out into the raging storm outside. The girl ends up at an apartment building in the city with a friend and both are brutally murdered by an unknown assailant in a way can only be described as "breathtaking". This particular double murder is so powerful that even Entertainment Weekly had to give it props in a Halloween issue back in 2001. Susy returns to the school the next morning to be received by the creepy Miss Tanner (Alida Valli) and the school's vice-directress, Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett, in her final cinematic role) and what follows is one of the most unique and amazing horror films in the history of cinema. I won't get into all the details of the film because this is one of those films I consider "essential viewing" if you're a horror fan so I already assume that if you're reading this, you've seen it. And I'm assuming that you know that this was the first film in a proposed trilogy exploring "The Three Mothers": Mater Suspirioum - the mother of sighs (dealt with in this film), Mater Tenebraeum - the mother of darkness (dealt with in Inferno), and Mater Lacrymaum - the mother of tears (dealt with in Argento's recent film, La Terza Madre), which was finally completed just last year.
The film was a milestone for me. I had no idea that a horror film could be presented with such beauty to where it could be considered a work of art. Everything from set pieces to the use of vibrant color to the use of pulsating electronic music is combined here to give the viewer a one-of-a-kind experience. From the moment Susy is shown walking through the airport and the automatic doors open to let her through, you know that this isn't going to be your typical horror film. Argento's use of colors, his use of placement and camera angles all add to the mystery of the film itself. Look at everything from the color combinations in the airport to the blood red hue of the school itself, it all has a purpose in the film. He even uses colors for names of the different rooms the girls take their lessons in. The murder sequences are fantastic and so over the top that they seem surreal, almost dreamlike. They are presented with such force and such panache that you have no choice but to see them as brilliant, almost beautiful. Knives plunging through hearts, giant shards of glass piercing through human skin, barbed wire used as a torture tool, it's all handed to the viewer in a way never presented on screen before. And it all works. That's what Argento is known for and it's the legacy he's left behind to the world of horror and the macabre.
You can't watch an Argento film and expect it to make sense. Look at it this way: Think about the last nightmare you had. Think about how terrified you were. Did your surroundings make sense? Did things seem as they were in front of you? Did everything appear to sound coherent? That's how it is when you watch one of his films. You can't expect it to all match. You can't expect things to always make sense. You have to take bits and pieces and allow your mind to come to its own conclusion as you absorb every image and every sound. That's why many horror fans who don't think this film is everything it is feel the way they do. Some don't understand that a film presented in this fashion can't be viewed the way others are viewed. Especially with the ending when Susy escapes the burning academy. Look at her expressions as she pushes her hair back and smiles. It's like she awoke from a bad nightmare. She is calm. She is relieved. She is smiling because she's awake now and nothing can hurt her. Not any of the teachers, not even Helena Markos herself. You can't take Argento's work at face value. You have to look deeper within the film's layers to see just what the director is trying to portray. And that's the beauty of his films. They not make sense up front, but once you pull apart the various themes and elements, it begins to piece itself together.
This film cemented my love for Italian horror and it still remains my favorite sub-genre to this day. Argento is one of my favorite horror directors and I've almost been able to screen his entire catalogue. He's gone on to inspire and mentor so many other directors with his sense of style and direction and his films remain the favorites of millions. I also love the back story behind the conception of this film: Daria Nicolodi's grandmother told a story once of her fleeing a German academy of music because witchcraft was being practiced within its walls. On the Anchor Bay special 3-disc edition, you'll find her telling that story on the 25th anniversary interview disc. It's fantastic and is a must see for any fan of this film. This is a film that though she is given writing credit for, she does not appear in the film as a character (although she appears in the film's opening airport sequence for a brief moment). The film was originally intended to have young girls play the roles but when producers didn't allow it, adult actresses were cast. But notice how the dialogue between the girls in the film is almost child-like (i.e., when Olga teases Sara by saying, "I one heard that names that begin with "S" are the names of snakes!") and little things like the doorknobs on the doors being higher than normal still give off the illusion that the ladies are still playing the parts of young children. It's fascinating when you think about it. Especially to know that Argento used "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" as a model for the use of set and color.
If you're not a fan of the whole of Italian films, this still needs to be in your collection. I own the Magnum VHS version, the Quality Video re-release, the single-disc Anchor Bay edition, and the 3-disc Anchor Bay special edition. I have yet to stumble across the Laserdisc version (also by Magnum?) which is the holy grail for my ever-growing horror collection. If you see it or come across it, let me know. Nevertheless, this film is a remarkable piece of film making that has never been matched in the history of celluloid. Whether you love this film as I do, or you hate it, it still holds up, thirty one years later and packs the punch it did when it was first released. Each time I see it, it reminds me of why I love this genre the way I do and why I love the Italian films of the seventies and eighties.
Click here for the international trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sB4u6qC_ORE. And click here for a cool drive in TV spot: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sdO_n-0oZVA&feature=related/ Below, enjoy the U.S. Trailer: