Distributor: Seda Spettacoli (International Classics – U.S.)
Writer: Dario Argento, Daria Nicolodi (Screenplay)(Thomas De Quincey – original story)
Director: Dario Argento
Producers: Claudio Argento, Salvatore Argento
Starring: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci, Barbara Magnolfi, Joan Bennett
Released: February 1977 (August 1977, U.S.)
After drifting back to Hammer Studios last week, I thought it was due time that I showcase an Italian horror film! This one is the first I believe I had ever seen back in the day, and it doesn’t disappoint! Of course, it’s like a slasher film with a twist, but there are certain aspects to this film that raise it above the norm for that era. The movie is one of a kind, and although it doesn’t have any big names in it, it’ll impress you nonetheless! Let’s get to the film!
The movie begins with a narrator (Dario Argento) informing the viewers that a girl named Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper – image above) is leaving NYC, and has accepted an invitation to learn dance at a distinguished academy in Germany. A cab ride in the pouring rain takes her to the front door of the academy, where she rings the buzzer. A girl answers, but won’t allow her to enter. The girl sounds frantic, and Suzy seems a bit frightened. She then makes her way back to the cab to find accommodations back in the city, but as she travels back, she sees a girl run out of the academy, obviously in fear for her life.
The girl, Pat (Eva Axén), that ran away ends up in the city as well, and at an apartment where a friend of hers is living. She tells her friend that she’s been expelled, but the real reason is something too “absurd” to tell. Pat then uses the bathroom to dry off, but she has an uneasy feeling. She thinks she sees something outside the window (at least 2-3 floors off the ground), so she peeks out of the window. Suddenly, she sees a pair of eyes, and then a hand smashes through the glass, and forces her head through the other side of the window. The assailant then stabs her repeatedly. Her friend tries to gain access but the door is locked. She begins to run through the apartment building, screaming that there’s a murderer in the complex. Back in the bathroom, Pat is just about at the end of her life, and the killer wraps a cord around her neck, and tosses her through a stained-glass window, and she hangs. The shattered glass then falls and eviscerates her friend, who is standing below.
The following day, Suzy returns to the school, and is greeted by Miss Tanner (Alida Valli – image above), the school’s instructor. Suzy tells her that she arrived last night, but couldn’t gain entrance. She then introduces Suzy to Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett – image below, middle), the director. Both welcome her, but then also tell her that a student who was recently expelled (Pat), was brutally murdered last night. They pass it off as Pat’s fault for getting involved with some questionable people, and Suzy and the police seem to have no reason not believe her. Miss Tanner then shows Suzy to the locker room, where she meets her new roommate, Olga (Barbara Magnolfi), a third year student that seems a bit shady. She also meets Sarah (Stefania Casini), who seems very nice, and happens to have been Pat’s old roommate.
Later, Suzy is walking down the hallway to practice, when she sees the school’s cook (Franca Scagnetti), along with a boy, sitting in the hallway, staring at her. The sun shines off of the blade of a knife, and hits Suzy in the eyes, blinding her for a few seconds. She begins to feel light-headed, but continues to class anyway. She tells Miss Tanner that she isn’t feeling well, but Tanner presses her to practice anyway. After only a minute or so, Suzy falls down, passes out, and gets a nosebleed. She awakens to find her self in a room at the school (originally she was going to room with Olga, in an apartment in town), with Miss Tanner, Madame Blanc, and a doctor. This physician tells her that she’ll be fine, but puts her on a restrictive diet, that includes a glass of red wine with her supper every night.
Sarah, her new roommate, seems concerned that this doctor saw Suzy, but doesn’t give an explanation about why. All the students are getting ready for bed, when they are all accosted by maggots, falling from the ceiling. Miss Tanner investigates and finds that a box of rotten food in the attic is the trouble. She makes all the girls use cots to sleep in the dance hall (image above). Sarah is very agitated, and then the girls try to get some sleep (as the rooms are fumigated). Sarah awakes a short time later, and wakes Suzy as well. She tells her that while she was roommates with Pat, she would often hear someone (she suspects the staff) creeping around, and also heavy breathing from possibly the school’s director. The next evening, Suzy and Sarah use the pool to have some relaxation time. Sarah then tells Suzy that Pat was onto something fishy going on at the academy, and she mentions the word witch. You get the distinct impression that someone is close by, watching them.
The following day, the piano player, Daniel (Flavio Bucci), who’s blind and uses a guide dog, is thrown out of the school by Miss Tanner, because allegedly his dog bit Madame Blanc’s nephew. That evening, Daniel and his dog are walking through the city, and he gets a feeling of dread. The dog begins to bark as if someone is nearby, but planning something devious. In the blink of an eye, the dog jumps up at its master, seemingly under some evil influence, and tears out Daniel’s throat! Sarah wants to talk more with Suzy, but it seems that shortly after dinner, Suzy is having a difficult time staying awake. The first time this happens, it seems like no big deal, but the following night, Sarah investigates these strange goings-on. She follows some footsteps upstairs, but then looses track of whoever it was. She then finds herself being chased by an unknown figure in the dark. She slips out through a window, thinking she’ll just pop into another room and be able to get away. Unbeknownst to her, the room she hops into a room full of barbed wire. She struggles to get loose, but only gets more and more entangled. As she struggles, getting cut up, the figure that was chasing her comes into the room, and slits her throat.
Will Suzy be next? Or will she find out the school’s secret, and be able to put a stop to the murders. and confront the ultimate horror that resides within it!
OK, here are my thoughts:
I typically don’t review movies of this type (slashers), but this one is exceptional. This might be the first Italian horror film I saw in my youth, and believe me when I say, it scared the crap out of me! I must first talk about the soundtrack. You will not find a move that has a more influential soundtrack than this one. Guaranteed. The eeriness, and straight up frightening tones will have you on the edge of your seat throughout the flick. How this movie didn’t win an award for that, is mind-boggling. The death scenes/suspenseful parts were really aided by the music, and that cannot be denied. Another great aspect, and again, like the soundtrack, helps set this film apart from any others from its time (and maybe all time), is the color. Whether it be the blood, the lighting, or even the shadowy greys and blacks, they really set the wild and scary tone for the entire film.
Most people probably wont get real excited by the acting, and anyone would be hard-pressed to convince them otherwise, but Jessica Harper was very solid as the lead in this one. Alida Valli, as Miss Tanner, was a very frightening instructor. You can just imagine some school in Europe with a terrifying woman barking out orders, keeping everyone in line. The rest of the cast is bland, but honestly it doesn’t matter. The key elements of this film are ones that were mentioned earlier, and elevate it above the Status quo. The makeup and costumes were good, but not great. The special effects weren’t spectacular, but the suspense is what gets you, not the over-the-top gore.
Definitely give this one a shot, you’ll be impressed by some of the elements that drive this film. Most hardcore horror fans surely have seen this film already, but if you haven’t look it up on the web, and set aside 90 minutes for a viewing. Image below of Barbara Magnolfi – “Olga.”