Do you know The Three Sisters? No, they are not a wholesome singing group or a Motown invention… Otherwise known as The Three Mothers, they are evil witches from the Dario Argento (1940-) movie Suspiria (1977) and its remake (2018) of the same name… They can invade your mind and give you nightmares, they can visit you as death itself… they are the insidious essence of toxic femininity free to wreak havoc on those who… well, invade their territory! They either seduce or bully and kill… and disappointment with gender doesn’t seem to be an issue for some of them.
“A young dancer named Suzy Bannion…,” is the key to Argento’s first version of this movie.
Director Argento created a trilogy from this original film which was so starkly original both on a visual and aural level – even in terms of its subject matter, Suspiria was a movie which was an assault on the senses, like being assaulted spiritually in the small hours by insidious forces… but I am being esoteric about waking from nightmares, your heart pounding as if you are about to die!
The nasty gore and violence in this movie were trend-setting and remain slightly shocking today… But what is most remarkable about the original Suspiria and the second film in Argento’s trilogy named Inferno (1980) – is the incredible style of the lighting, which at night and in interiors is so often blue and red which sometimes matches or contrasts with the décor and art and set design created for the production.
Essentially, the Suspiria films deal with organised witchcraft and its more malevolent use in today’s society. The original Suspiria remains influential to this day among horror film makers brought up and struck by Argento’s original horror flourishes. We need only look at the use of the Suspiria title with its violin and other strings plucked scarily as it appears on the screen – something which director James Wan (1977-) has used in his Insidious (2010) film series as a direct homage. The two remain related in theme also.
Speaking of music, and those familiar with Argento’s previous masterpiece Deep Red (1975), will be aware of the work of Italian progressive rock band Goblin whose music is also very effective in Suspiria. One of the pieces of harsh electronica has the name ‘witch’ accompany actress Jessica Harper (1949-) as she makes her way to the dance academy in the city of Freiburg in Germany – a city known for a historic belief in witchcraft – and it is in this city where the action takes place.
There is a mythology associated with The Three Mothers within the trilogy and each of Argento’s films are based on the each of these witches and how they are housed in buildings especially built for them and their evil. These ‘houses’ are in Freiburg, Rome and New York and each mother has a different name. More later.
Dario Argento wrote the screenplay for Suspiria with his then wife Daria Nicolodi (1950-2020) and the pair have created a framework which has given birth to modern horror in the wake of The Exorcist (1973) in terms of gushing blood and exploitative themes of fear within the community concerning ‘evil’ women, evil spirits and nightmares. The film also shows how a diligent director can create a triumph of style over content – even if that content is already strong. Certainly, the original Suspiria and Inferno walk hand in hand as the first two movies of the trilogy.
I won’t go too far into the plot of the original movie but Argento has gathered a couple of older stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood to be senior witches of the coven that run the ballet school in the Freiburg building which young and innocent dancer Suzy Bannion arrives for attendance. One of these stars is Italian Alida Valli (1921-2006), who appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s (1899-1980 kidney failure) The Paradine Case (1947). Incidentally, her son Carlo De Mejo (1945-2015) appeared in Lucio Fulci’s (1927-96 in sleep of complications of diabetes) City of the Living Dead (1980) and Manhattan Baby (1982) among others. Valli plays a masculine and we would imagine lesbian dance teacher, while former 1930s and 40s beauty Joan Bennett (1910-90 heart failure) in her final role plays the character of Madame Blanc, possibly the head of the coven which presides over the dance academy as they hold meetings within its hidden bowels. There is also the mysterious director of the academy herself Helena Markos, I think it is Helena, but something is making me draw a blank/blanc!! Tee hee. Must be dementia and, hopefully, it’s not the praecox variety.
Apparently, actress Bennett was totally myopic and since the 1940s used glasses resembling the bottom of coke bottles and had to rely on thick marks on the soundstage floor to guide her as she moved around during a take. If you watch carefully during her first scene, I think you can see her almost self-consciously hit her marks.
There is iconic imagery in the original Suspiria, just as Argento had already become famous for his gory set-pieces since he started with his giallos or Italian thriller/mysteries with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970). It is probably the fact that Argento, like Fulci, felt or both were compelled to come up with something new in terms of set-pieces which led to the dissolution of their talents at the tail end of their careers.
Argento seemed to lose interest in terms of direction after he made Trauma (1993) in the United States which had him film a scene with his daughter Asia Argento (1975-) in which she appeared topless. The actress and director’s follow-up The Stendhal Syndrome (1996) saw the decline continue and Dario seemed to lose interest in the composition of his mise en scene or frame and his work since then has been of an almost television movie type quickly shot variety and not the ‘cinema’ he once conveyed… The nadir being Dracula 3D (2012). However, the final instalment in The Three Mothers’ Trilogy entitled Mother of Tears (2007) is a bright spot.
The ‘nuts’ screenplay of Suspiria, apart from the obvious, was inspired, at least partially, by the writings of opium addict Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859) whose Suspiria de profundis (meaning in Latin: Sigh from the depths) is where the name the mother of sighs in Suspiria the movie apparently comes from. Part of De Quincey’s writing includes Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow which relates to the ancient Roman goddess of childbirth. De Quincey imagines three companions for this goddess and they are – as explained in the second film instalment Inferno – Mater Lachrymarum being Our Lady of Tears; Mater Suspiriorum is Our Lady of Sighs; and Mater Tenebrarum is Our Lady of Darkness. They reside in Rome, Freiburg and New York in that order in Argento’s movie lore…
“I know them thoroughly, and walked in all their kingdoms,” wrote De Quincey about these ‘sisters’ or ‘mothers’ under the influence of hallucinogens. “They conspired together…”
The movie Suspiria saw Argento and NIcolodi conspire to make this movie shortly after the birth of their daughter Asia in 1975. Asia seems to have been conceived after the shoot of Deep Red which starred Nicolodi. It is probably the ultimate dark collaboration by the couple to create something strangely beautiful but at times deeply disturbing.
I have read that De Quincey, under the influence of opium, or as a result of having been brain damaged, was extremely sensitive and could hear voices speaking at the far end of a gallery as they whispered… Couple this with ‘psychic’ or ‘demonic’ voices and you have a cauldron for evil to be performed or conjured – to use a film title – in terms of witches and ‘magic’. Some may know De Quincey’s book Confessions of an Opium Eater which was made into an unmemorable movie starring Vincent Price (1911-93 lung cancer) in 1962. I have also read snatches of Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow which is good and celebrated prose if you like that kind of wallow.
“Bad luck isn’t brought by broken mirrors but by broken minds,” says one of Suzy Bannion’s friends about the link between malignant witchcraft and mental illness. Certainly, broken minds figure in Argento’s giallos and other horrors from such titles as The Cat O’Nine Tails (1970) through to Tenebrae (1982) aka Unsane, the latter being a red herring in terms of being the third in the trilogy. It is an unrelated revenge tale.
Magic maybe everywhere, but the happy magic of say The Lord of the Rings trilogy which triumphs in the end after a dark struggle is no match for the basic modern ‘reality’ of ‘black magic’ being used in everyday life by evil or mentally ill people to bring about the suffering, trauma and death to others ‘sensitive’ to such magic like Suzy Bannion. She is chosen or fixated on as a result by the witches. This is developed further in the remake of Suspiria which perhaps has an inferior climax due to the fact that Helena Markos is revealed to be little more than a figure dressed in ancient and wrinkled naked prosthesis… As a result, the epic quality is lost in the remake, but I’ll look at that one a little later.
Argento would produce his second film of the trilogy Inferno (1980) where the concept of The Three Mothers is cemented through an unread book in Latin entitled just that by the architect who built the buildings in the three cities who is named E. Varelli. His book is read by an unfortunate girl who learns that Varelli may have to pay for breaking what the alchemists called ‘silentium’ – Or telling all about the evil secret covens which exist, this time in New York…
It’s a disturbing opening for the movie as we are told these evil mothers cannot give birth but they are evil step-mothers – certainly without a maternal bone in their bodies.
The music this time is by Keith Emerson (1944-2016 suicide by gunshot) rather than the band Goblin. The same care is taken by Argento to use the blue and red light-filters to great effect as it is photographed by Romano Albani (1945-) who would also do Argento’s fascinating Phenomena (1985) aka Creepers which stars Jennifer Connolly (1970-).
“It is only a book written by an alchemist…,” says a wrong-looking book seller bitterly to the innocent girl who perhaps should have stuck to Louisa May Alcott’s (1832-88 stroke) Little Women. This bookseller adds: “Our very lives are governed by dead people” which is possibly true in terms of the worship of Christ as well as the negative influence of people in our lives who have since died like the Peter Quint character from Henry James’s (1843-1916 pneumonia) The Turn of the Screw novel and its related movies. It also relates to art and those who produced it that have since died. Thus, they help govern our character, or you could look at it in terms of death itself and the horror of beyond!
What follows in Inferno are some great set-pieces such as the girl who reads the book later diving into a flooded abandoned basement room. Any departure from Emerson’s music is with the use of Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco and the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves – otherwise known as Va, persiero, sull’ali dorate – which heralds the Va of the witches vagina and the power of a black witch to bully, seduce or kill with their influence in the spiritual realm or Id.
To paraphrase the insane ravings of Chloe Grace Moretz (1997-) in the 2018 remake of Suspiria: “They will hollow me out and serve my c*#t on a plate” or something horrible like that about the way she was treated by the witches who took a dislike to her and the possible end results. It makes me feel afraid for “my twinkling c*#t” as singer Nick Cave (1957-) once described the male equivalent on this album The Boatman’s Call (1997) … All due to a well-developed feminine side caused by the fact I am left-handed! Please forgive me but I can’t help it.
The failure of Inferno to find an audience in the United States, possibly due to a change of management at distributor 20th Century Fox saw the third mother movie delayed or possibly abandoned for a number of years. It is reported that Daria Nicolodi devised the original story for Inferno but she received no credit. Argento and Nicolodi divorced in 1985 but she would make a final screen appearance in Mother of Tears (2007) as a ghost. She also appears in Inferno and director Mario Bava’s (1914-80 heart attack) final theatrical feature Shock (1977). She is a legend along with Dario Argento’s producer brother Claudio (1943-) and their father Salvatore Argento (1914-87) who died during the production of Dario’s film Opera (1987) which featured William Shakespeare’s (1564-1616 fever) Scottish Play often associated with bad luck… And not necessarily broken minds in terms of its writing!
The damned building in Inferno, while set in New York, was filmed in Rome and it is said that Dario Argento wrote the script in New York in a room with a view of Central Park using his wife’s notes. It is also said that Argento doesn’t like this movie because he was so ill with hepatitis during filming. Whatever happened saw grace under pressure prevail to create a striking masterpiece.
The coven of witches in this movie are evil women who laugh evilly and their motive sees their supposedly happy faces, which do not necessarily accompany this laughter, melt away into something nasty… it is not joy which is celebrated in Argento’s movies about the core of black witchery.
Inferno has the highlight of the presence of Death itself in the climax, something which possibly couldn’t be topped in a third instalment… Or so you would think!
“Come nearer… I can’t hear you,” says the living figure of Varelli who is now wheelchair bound and an accomplice as he wields a needle containing poison to possibly sedate star Leigh McCloskey (1955-) for a date with death itself within his evil building.
It is interesting to note the cast is relatively unknown in Inferno with McCloskey supported by Irene Miracle (no info) who also doesn’t ring a bell in my mind. Alida Valli also appears.
McCloskey is now an artist famed for his esoteric art work related to alchemy and religion and mythology among many other subjects which perhaps shows just how much his appearance in Inferno had an effect on him. Nicolodi plays a woman in Inferno who, like De Quincey, can hear voices from other rooms in Varelli’s building through a series of vents… and she is not under the influence of mental illness or drugs or so it would seem.
The Third Mother movie, Mother of Tears (2007) was made when Argento was in decline but we are lucky the trilogy was even completed. Opening with The Omen-like (1976) music and depictions of the Day of Judgement and of vistas in hell through classical paintings, this movie is a slight disappointment when compared to the first two films… However, the screenplay is engaging enough to keep us intrigued.
“You know more about magic and esoteric sciences than I do…,” is the reaction to a letter which accompanies an urn buried in a grave outside a cemetery way back in 1815. This film is set in Italy and so there is a more Catholic sense of history along with the city of Rome itself with its ghosts and architecture. But few scenes are harnessed fully in terms of striking imagery except for a handful. There is also no use of blue and red filters in this movie and the lower budget is possibly why it is not of the calibre of Suspiria and Inferno.
“You don’t think that there are forces out there that we don’t understand?,” asks star Asia Argento’s boyfriend to her about witches and the occult. She knows there is.
The black witches in Mother of Tears are modern day and they speak Latin, wear sexy lingerie and have breast implants… You otherwise wouldn’t know they were unnatural in terms of the average person… But they cackle together despite their looks and use their powers to make mother’s kill their babies and cause fatal attacks of road rage throughout Rome.
“God’s plans for us are a mystery for everyone but him,” says Asia’s grounded boyfriend whose idea of predestination and fate are at odds with the witches who kidnap his son and tell him to keep silent…
“Some kind of black magic… darkness… gathering around… it’s happening…. An epidemic of suicide… a wave of violence throughout the city…” All linked to the toxic bullying femininity of the witches! Mother of Tears falls back on the Catholic church as a possible solution as a parade of over-zealous young women who wear too much eye make-up and laugh maniacally gather together in Rome for what could be the end of civilisation itself… Which I guess really does top the appearance of Death in Inferno!
Argento goes back to heads being slammed in doors and cut in half by meat cleavers as he is determined to deliver what the viewer wants in terms of gore in this movie. It is actor Udo Kier (1944-) who utters the neo-classic line about “a world you hardly know” and “a young dancer named Suzy Bannion” who had helped to end the reign of the evil witches all those years ago in the first movie set in Germany.
The world has gone loopy on the streets in this movie as it is “The second age of witches. There’s nothing wrong with your mind Sara… it’s the world that’s gone crazy,” is the dialogue told to Asia which underlines the prevalence of evil. Anyway, Udo Keir gets his face splattered for talking such heresy and for possibly being politically incorrect. Otherwise, the film isn’t very remarkable as poor Asia is told that “with your gifts you can see what others can’t” as face powder blown into the air reveals the ghosts of two millennium which haunt the homes of Rome as a sub-plot with her ghostly mother.
The name of Varellli is brought up again and his breaking of silentium in revealing that witches exist.
“What you see doesn’t exist… what you can’t see is truth,” is the riddle to be pondered as the cool and sexy witches gather to walk an underground cat-walk in Varelli’s Rome building like some modern day supermodels in their witches lair posing vainly for one another.
Asia’s mother is a victim of these black witches, killed for fighting against their black magic and it is her mother, as Asia’s character builder, who from beyond the grave helps lead the witches collective facing their ultimate mortal downfall. Mmm…
As it turns out, there are some designer clothes influenced by Satan which when removed from a witch on the cat-walk by Asia helps lead to the coven being crushed by falling masonry… and I guess the world was no longer the insane place it was as a result!?
Sorry to sound cynical about this movie but Argento gives us gore without much style.
The remake of Suspiria (2018) is set in 1977 and once again in Germany where there is an opening shot of an underground Metro station named Suspiria. Once more it is a ballet school and there is a coven which rules it… Little did they know about the chosen one in the form of Suzy Bannion who is played by Dakota Johnson (1989-) once again not being of their choosing…
“I know who I am,” says Suzy somewhere in the script as her confidence in herself is eroded when she stays in the dormitory of the evil building with the rest of the dancing troupe. She has a horrendous nightmare of hairballs and toilets which one of the girls says is a “Markos company speciality… I’m surprised it took so long… Let me know if she needs a Valium!” … And the girls run off laughing conspiratorially.
Yes, there is a possibility that those with the gift of witchcraft can premeditate nightmares into susceptible individuals. Even I had one about diarrhoea going everywhere the other night… Very unpleasant but not the worst I’ve had – I reached for the Valium! I guess A Nightmare on Elm Street is another male relation to such a situation. Meanwhile the heart of Suzy Bannion is being messed with as a friend played by Mia Goth (1993-) jumps into bed with her and snuggles up tight and says: “We’re sisters now.” If boys did such things, they would be called names! Men or boys must suffer alone or find the right partner!!
The witch at the centre of Suspiria is played by Tilda Swinton (1960-) and she sends her dreams to the girl on the second floor which includes worms and other unpleasant material which may relate to the death of Suzy’s mother from cancer during her strict religious upbringing. It is something which drove another dancer played by Chloe Grace Moretz totally mad as I mentioned earlier. The focus of evil or a negative fixation on individuals can be devastating for some both in terms of physical and mental health or so it would seem.
“Every arrow that flies, feels the pull of the Earth,” says Swinton about the philosophy of dance and the mortality of witches and even she doubts that Helena Markos, who is hidden away in the building, is really one of The Three Mothers – that she is not immortal.
The men in this version of Suspiria are either old or impotent or they fall prey to the spells and illusions of the witches in their realm which is the building in which they dwell. Perhaps it even happens at local department stores where black witches shop.
“Delusions… They are lies which tell the truth,” says the central male character, an old psychiatrist named Dr. Klemperer to the dancer played by Mia Goth and we are shown the divide between young and old and male and female – the possibly innocent and the experienced being interchangeable in terms of witchcraft and life experiences.
Goth is soon led to the bed chamber of Markos as Dr. Klemperer has already told her: “I do know that we are living with dangerous people” as poor Mia Goth faces isolation and being stalked by witches alone. As a psychiatrist, he sucks.
The setting of the movie is made far more important in this version of Suspiria. It is filled with middle-aged and older witches who were young Nazi women during the Second World War and the present-day situation of 1977 has the Lufthansa Flight 181 hijacking which ended with counter terrorism groups storming the plane and killing the terrorists. This era is known as the German Autumn which was a season of evil acts in that country and concerns the evil that men do on the world stage rather than the intimate evil of witches. It is a perfect snapshot in terms of time and place.
If there is a lesson for your average black witch to learn, it is not to forsake the evil of her coven for the men who commit terrorism… as is shown in one case. Or is it? Certainly, German neo-Nazism and Russian neo-Marxism appear to have been equal evils during this period of time beyond the end of the war… And their influences are still evident today. The girl who abandons the coven ends up a twisted heap on the floor thanks to the anointing of Suzy Bannion’t feet by head dance teacher Swinton who then pushes her to unknowingly perform some dance of death. Dance is used as a metaphor in this movie and even the performance of dance is done inside a kind of pentacle which represents the power of the coven and perhaps the swastika.
David Kajganick (1969-), who also wrote the Nazi themed Blood Creek (2008), has formed a believably creepy update of Argento and Nicolodi’s original script. The film itself was directed by Luca Guadagnino (1971-) as it suggests that dancing can be deadlier than boxing, at least as a metaphor for torture and death, both for the performer and those who are ‘performed’ to death as they are more or less ripped to shreds or bent into pretzels through a type of violence which manifests itself upon the victims… Others just have heart attacks! Swinton’s fixation on Bannion with her powers is not necessarily negative but it is perhaps sexual … but ultimately immoral and evil.
Let me mention that the music is by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke (1968-) and it is the only featured soundtrack that he has produced so far.
Suspiria suggests that witches once more can be spotted together on streets where they cackle or laugh salaciously or obscenely and they eat and drink all they want as they appear to be the aging Nazi hausfraus they really are. Suzy joins them but does not drink or smoke… The evil witches are the strong women who closed their minds and opened their uteruses to produce sons for the Fatherland before Adolf Hitler’s Fascist dictatorship led the nation to its ultimate demise as a possible superpower… But the evil of Mother Suspiriorum is just as evil as the men and women who haunted Germany back in the mid-1970s as hooks are used by the witches to capture and string up the flesh of the living and the dead who are not one of them… Lure and hook being sexual metaphors in terms of the lithe bodies used to capture and possibly kill like spiders.
There is also an argument about the purity of dance as a medium which can be read as a part of Hitler’s concept of the Aryan race being pure and this is reflected in the arch and superior attitude of the black witches as a result.
This film has what is possibly a good Christian girl in Suzy Bannion caught up in a world of misplaced love and hate, the folly of believing you are bad or actually being bad when there is always the possibility of something far worse which could engulf those who dabble in witchcraft… all to a beautiful Thom Yorke score! I wish they would leave me alone despite my often disturbing and impure thoughts!! I mean Jeez. Or is it just imagination?
“Sweet girl… What do you ask?,” says Suzy in the climax of the movie as she deals each witch in the coven their fate while they dance themselves to death at her whim.
That possible Nazi collaborator Dr. Klemperer may have been humiliated by being stripped naked in front of the coven and may have even been driven insane before being sent almost drunkenly on his way… Talk about a new reality and being told to rest in peace by Suzy forever as he is told by her: “I believe you deserve to know the truth.” Party! Party!
Suzy also tells this psychiatrist that we don’t need his guilt and shame forced upon us both as a man and as a professional… He is no salve or balm for those affected by mental illness or the tortures of those evil witches who bully and kill all in the name of a good cackle. Or the toxic masculinity of men – including him – upon such affected women as well for that matter.
“This is the walls thinking…,” sings Thom Yorke in conclusion and I write these words in an equally empty room as he probably wrote his song. And I feel disease in my heart as I write which has been provoked by hate of the individual known as myself and too many past cigarettes and glasses of red wine. Please let it go away…
Sadly, Suzy Bannion tells us that for those girls who liked the song Rhiannon by Stevie Nicks (a great White Witch in American Horror Story) but went too far in their use of their power… they too are also transient like a dream or a thought or a song… Their permanency doesn’t exist and instead they face an empty and mortal existence whose malignancy will lead to death and in their passing good will flourish in the name of others equally forgotten. Like the underground train at Suspiria station at the beginning of the movie, they leave the station and nothing is left but the vessel of the passenger who has missed the chance to do good works… Empty, Suspiria the Mother of Sighs, witch without child, or train of good thought… This mother of repeated evil, gives way to the sighs of her name which come and go like another metro train… a habit of evil for those so-called sisters. And like De Quincey and Argento I am acquainted with them… Cue the Looney Tunes theme! Or go back to the clip of Elvis singing Edge of Reality!!