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The Christmas Special Day 12: Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey (1977)

nestor-the-long-eared-christmas-donkeyDirectors: Jules Bass & Arthur Rankin Jr.

Writer: Romeo Muller

Cast: Roger Miller, Brenda Vaccaro, Paul Frees, Don Messnick, Linda Gary, Iris Rainer, Shelly Hines, Eric Stern

Plot: As Santa and his reindeer fly out for their Christmas Eve rounds, Santa’s donkey Speiltoe (Roger Miller) prepares for his annual rest, after a long year of pulling work carts and plows. As he observes Santa’s nativity scene, he sadly tells us the donkey doesn’t at all resemble the original, his ancestor. Breaking into song, Speiltoe begins telling us the tale of Nestor, the long-eared Christmas donkey.

Many years ago, a young donkey named Nestor (Shelly Hines) is mocked and dismissed due to his enormously long ears. On the winter solstice, the animals in the barn celebrate with gifts and goodwill, even to Nestor, who is given a pair of stockings to cover his ears. The joyful evening is ruined when a Roman soldier comes into the barn to buy donkeys for the emperor. They snag all of the donkeys except Nestor’s mother (Linda Gary), but when Nestor’s ears are uncovered they throw him into the snow and make off with the donkeys without paying. His mother breaks free and rushes into the winter night, finding her son buried in a snowbank. She covers Nestor with her own body, and perishes in the storm.

Nestor survives the winter, and as spring comes he meets a cherub named Tilly (Brenda Vaccaro), who informs him that his ears will allow him to do wondrous things some day. He is skeptical, but agrees to join Tilly on her way to Bethlehem. Eventually, Tilly has to leave him and he’s taken in by a merchant. A couple named Joseph and Mary try to bargain for him, but when the merchant realizes Mary is great with child, he gives them the donkey for nothing. Nestor, who had been sad and bone-weary, suddenly finds the strength to carry the young woman. When a sandstorm strikes, Tilly’s words ring through Nestor’s memory, and he hears his mother’s voice telling him to follow the singing of angels in the sky. He wraps his ears around Mary and leads them through the sandstorm, coming finally to Bethlehem. He finds a manger for them, and Mary bears a child. Nestor leaves them in safety, finding his way back home, where his friends celebrate him and his magnificent ears.

Thoughts: It’s back to Rankin and Bass land again, friends, for another tale of Biblical times… kind of. It’s also a return to a Gene Autry song as the inspiration, he who gave us both Rudolph and Frosty, and Nestor is the sort of character that would fit in nicely with the other two and their jolly band of misfits… although his story goes to dark places the others didn’t dream of. The threats Rudolph and Frosty face are more of the comical sort – a giant, bumbling snowman, an inept magician. Nestor’s threats are the Roman legion and nature itself. It comes upon us quickly as well, taking a shift from joy to sorrow faster than a Joss Whedon movie. Even as I was typing this paragraph, while watching the special over again, I was halfway through a sentence when I remembered what was going to happen to Nestor’s mother, and it was only through sheer force of will I managed to avoid turning it into an incoherent rant against the legionnaires and the Roman emperor and Rankin and Bass and Godfather’s Pizza. Because I was upset.

The plot itself is an odd one, bringing together elements of the Nativity story and mingling it with a character who, in many ways, apes Rudolph’s story a little too closely. Once again, we see an outcast born with some sort of deformity, driven away from home, forced into a situation where the deformity becomes his greatest advantage, and finally celebrated as special rather than dismissed as a freak. It’s certainly a positive message, but it gets repetitive after a while. If not for the last bit, these two could be X-Men. The story plays fast and loose with the Bible, of course, but not in a way that seems wrong or exploitive. Pretty much every account depicts Mary being carried on a donkey, and expanding that donkey’s story is a perfectly acceptable storytelling avenue.

Of all the Rankin and Bass specials I’ve covered, this one is probably the weakest from a musical standpoint. Roger Miller makes for a fine narrator and his voice is perfectly suited for the songs that accompany the special. The problem is that none of the songs are particularly catchy or memorable. After Rudolph and Frosty’s respective specials, you’re left singing their anthems. Nestor, not so much. If anything, it makes me want to sift through my iPod to find “Dominic the Christmas Donkey,” which I’m realizing now I haven’t actually heard yet this Christmas season, and I’d better rectify that.

My favorite bit in the special, however, comes at the end, when Santa and his reindeer return to the North Pole and join Speiltoe in celebrating the legendary Nestor. Again, the song itself is no great shakes, but the Rankin and Bass guys fill the scene with their all-stars. In the Biblical flashback scene we see the Magi and several other characters from Little Drummer Boy. When we come back to the present we see Santa, Mrs. Claus, Jingle and Jangle from Year Without a Santa Claus, and even Rudolph himself (who makes a rare appearance outside of one of his own specials). Again, this is the nerd in me, but it reminds me of when every Marvel superhero turned up for Reed and Sue Richards’ wedding in Fantastic Four, when all of the Tenth Doctor’s companions showed up together in Doctor Who, when Urkel did that guest appearance on Full House. There are certain characters you know all belong in the same family, even though you don’t usually see them together, and there’s an inexplicable sort of satisfaction that comes when you finally get them all in the same place. This is by no means a bad special, but it probably tells you something that the most memorable part is when all of the characters whose names are not in the title get together at the end.

The Christmas Special Day 11: A Flintstones Christmas (1977)

flintstone-christmas-collectionDirector: Charles A. Nichols

Writers: Duane Poole & Dick Robbins

Cast: Henry Corden, Jean Vander Pyl, Mel Blanc, Gay Hartwig, Lucille Bills, Virginia Gregg, Hal Smith,  John Stephenson

Plot: It’s Christmas Eve in Bedrock and the Flintstones and Rubbles are finishing up their preparations. Wilma (Jean Vander Pyl) and Betty (Gay Hartwig) try to persuade Fred (Henry Corden, taking over the role seamlessly from the late Alan Reed) to play Santa at the orphanage’s Christmas party that night, but Fred refuses and heads to work. When he arrives his boss, Mr. Slate (John Stephenson) informs him that his wife wants Fred to play Santa for the same party. This time, to protect his job, Fred agrees. At home, Fred and Barney (Mel Blanc) prepare for the party, but hear a thumping from the roof. They find Santa Claus (great voice actor Hal Smith, who played Santa in no less than five different cartoon series over the years) in the snow. Although Fred is skeptical at first, Barney finds the sleigh and reindeer, proving they’ve got the real Santa in the Flintstone house.  Santa sprained his ankle on Fred’s roof, and Barney suggests Fred as a substitute while he heals. Santa gives them a dose of magic and sends them on their way.

Things go relatively smoothly for Fred and Barney’s first few deliveries, but some turbulence knocks the sack of presents out of the sleigh. Barney calls Santa on the sleigh’s CB radio (it was the 70s, people), and Santa tells them to go back to the North Pole for another load. As they wait for the sleigh to be reloaded, Fred and Barney take a tour of Santa’s high-tech operation and pitch in making some toys. They get back in the air and speed up their deliveries, realizing Fred is still scheduled to play Santa for the orphans. Back in Bedrock, the children are starting to get upset – almost as upset as Mr. Slate. Fortunately, Fred and Barney finally arrive, spilling in through the chimney with such a spectacular entrance Mr. Slate forgives their tardiness… until Fred realizes they’ve given out all the presents already. With a little of Santa’s Christmas magic, Fred produces more, and the children are overjoyed. As they open their gifts, the boys return home to send Santa on his way. Wilma and Betty return home, angry at their husbands for rushing out of the party, and Santa ducks out before they see him. Although the girls don’t believe Fred and Barney’s story about filling in for Santa, they forgive them and begin trading gifts. Fred is horrified to realize, in all the commotion, he didn’t get Wilma a present, but Santa saves the day one last time, slipping one down the chimney. Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm spot Santa flying away, and their fathers join them at the window, waving goodbye, while the girls just chuckle at the four kids looking up at the skies over Bedrock.

Thoughts: Like Fat Albert, this 1977 special takes characters from a popular cartoon show and gives them a Christmas adventure, although unlike Fat Albert, by 1977 the original run of The Flintstones had been over for several years. Fortunately, with animation, it’s easier to do a reunion special without worrying about actors getting older or passing away or refusing to reprise their role – in almost every case, a new voice artist is always a possibility. This special managed to get most of the original voices back, but one wonders if Mel Blanc felt a little confused that he was remaking a cartoon he’d done 13 years prior.

A Flintstones Christmas borrows much of its plot from the 1964 episode of the TV show, “Christmas Flintstone” (brilliantly clever with titles, these Hanna-Barbera folks), specifically the story of Fred filling in for Santa Claus after he injures himself. This special adds in more and different music and ages the children – Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm are elementary school age, whereas they were still babies in the original. They also trade out B-plots – in the original, Fred was working as a department store Santa for extra money, whereas here he’s dealing with Mr. Slate and playing Santa for orphans. The B-plot is used to give urgency to the A-plot as well, while in the original Fred was pretty much done with his gig when he stumbles into the real Santa and is called upon to fill in. Still, if one were to sit down for a marathon of the assorted Flintstones Christmas specials and episodes throughout the years (something a guy like me is honestly very likely to do), you’d be a bit shocked when you essentially saw the same show twice.

Having dealt with that particular elephant in the room (I’m going to ignore the one about characters celebrating Christmas before the birth of Christ), let’s talk about the story for what it is. The notion of Fred filling in for Santa is a wonderfully natural one – the heart of the character is that of a sort of good-natured lummox. For all the times throughout the years where Fred gets short-tempered or angry, at the core of the character is a deep, abiding love for his wife and friends, the sort of thing that lends itself perfectly to playing Santa. The actual mechanism for getting him into the suit was pretty clever for the time, although it seems that Disney picked at this cartoon when they made Tim Allen’s more morbid The Santa Clause.

Although there was music in the original version of this, this version has much more of it, almost making it into a full-blown musical as both Fred and Barney break into song about how much they love Christmas at assorted points in the show. While none of the music has broken out and become of particular note, it’s perfectly passable and a nice addition to the cartoon. The animation style is really indicative of the sort of thing we got from Hanna-Barbera, up to and including a nice little Rube Goldberg-style montage sequence in Santa’s workshop, where Fred and Barney spill out onto the conveyer belts and get temporarily caught up in the mechanisms of the toymaking machines. We saw this sort of thing a lot in the old Hanna-Barbera cartons, second only to the “hall of doors” chase scenes they did so often, particularly in Scooby Doo.

In terms of sheer volume, the good folks at Hanna-Barbera may have been second only to Rankin and Bass for producing great Christmas cartoons. However, there aren’t a lot of ‘em I could use for this project, as so many of them are feature film length, regular episodes of assorted TV shows or, saddest of all, not available on DVD. Maybe next year. But for now we’re not quite done with the Hanna-Barbera characters… not yet.

The Christmas Special Day 10: The Fat Albert Christmas Special (1977)

fat-albert-christmas-specialDirector: Hal Sutherland

Writer: Bill Danch & Jim Ryan

Cast: Bill Cosby, Jan Crawford, Gerald Edward, Eric Suter, Marshall Franklin, Eric Greene, Kim Hamiton, Julius Harris, Ty Henderson

Plot: Fat Albert (Bill Cosby, who did about 75 percent of the voices) and his gang are preparing for their Christmas pageant, when old “Tightwad” Tyrone – owner of the junkyard where they’ve built their clubhouse – shows up and declares he’s tearing down the clubhouse. While the gang tries to think of a way out of their predicament, they’re approached by a boy named Marshall (Marshall Franklin). His father is out of a job and their car broke down right outside. To make matters worse, his mother is about to have a baby. Fat Albert invites them in to warm up, and sends Bill to help Marshall’s father find a hospital. Fat Albert chases down Tyrone to try to convince him to leave the clubhouse alone, fearing it’ll be torn down with Mrs. Franklin inside. Tyrone agrees to leave the clubhouse standing if Fat Albert plays Santa Claus outside of his secondhand store to try to draw in customers. Bill and Mr. Franklin return, unable to get help at the local hospital without insurance. Mrs. Franklin stands up to go to the distant city charity hospital, but can’t go any farther. Bill and his brother, Russell, rush off to find help.

The rest of the gang finds Fat Albert outside Tyrone’s store and begin snatching his free samples, and an angry Tyrone fires Albert and promises to demolish the clubhouse. Old Mudfoot Brown arrives and snaps at Tyrone that he’s become a miserable old man since his wife died. Embarrassed, Tyrone asks how he can redeem himself, but Mudfoot simply tells him he wouldn’t know how to do a good deed. At the clubhouse, Marshall overhears his father say he’s afraid he can’t even afford to feed his first child, let alone the second, and Marshall decides to run away. When the gang returns with the promise of a doctor, they realize Marshall is missing and set out to look for him just as Mrs. Franklin begins to deliver. They find Marshall down at the docks, and the boy is trapped on an ice floe when he tries to flee. Fat Albert and the others manage to save him, but he slips away again. When they return to the clubhouse the baby has arrived. Mr. Franklin asks where Marshall is, but before Fat Albert can answer, Mr. Tyrone arrives – with Marshall. Hearing the Franklins’ story, he offers Mr. Franklin a job and says he can no longer tear down the clubhouse, since it’s a “landmark.” The gang and Tyrone give the Franklins a merry Christmas, and Tyrone looks to the sky to ask his wife how he’s doing now.

Thoughts: By 1977, we had reached the point where a Christmas episode of a popular cartoon wasn’t enough. We needed a full-blown Christmas special, and Bill Cosby and company delivered here. Although Tyrone definitely has a dash of Scrooge about him, the story isn’t just another Dickens rehash. If anything, the plot is more intent on echoing the nativity story, with a pregnant woman who has nowhere to go.

The plot is nicely layered, with the story of the Franklin family colliding with the Cosby Kids’ problem with Mr. Franklin. Not too many children’s cartoons today would have the wherewithal to take two entirely unrelated problems and intertwine them this way. The kids’ problem, furthermore, makes the Franklins’ dilemma even more dire. Sure, Mrs. Franklin is safe from the cold, but the viewer legitimately wonders if Mr. Tyrone will get over his anger long enough to realize there’s a pregnant woman inside the clubhouse, or if that would even matter to him before he demolishes it. Marshall has a pretty standard waif reaction to the situation – he’s causing a problem for his parents, so he decides to run away. Rather than one huge, overriding issue like a lot of these cartoons deal with, The Fat Albert Christmas Special deals with a lot of little things, and is the better for it.

Mr. Tyrone is an interesting villain. Like I said, he has elements of Scrooge, but not all of his actions make as much logical sense as Ebenezer’s. Evidently, the presence of a clubhouse somehow decreases the value of a junkyard. I know. I don’t get it either.

Like many of the half-hour Christmas specials, especially the ones that have a real villain, the climax seems to come a little too easily. It’s a bit more forgivable in this case, though… I’m not really sure where else they could have taken Mr. Tyrone’s story without dovetailing into a straight-up Dickens parody. As it is, Mudfoot plays the role of Jacob Marley and all three ghosts, delivering in 30 seconds the sort of realization that takes most films 90 minutes to do. I think it actually helps that we don’t see a traditional “moment of redemption” here. Tyrone’s change of heart happens largely off-camera, helping to drive in the idea that he isn’t really a bad man, just one who’s sad and angry, and who tries to make amends when he’s called on being sad and angry.

It’s hard to believe this cartoon is as old as I am. The story ages very well, the ideas are timeless and the backdrop is sadly relevant to modern times. Really, the only point that’s not completely current is the notion of kids playing in a clubhouse they made themselves, rather than sitting around with X-Box controllers. One can only hope, were the Franklins to break down today, they could still find a Fat Albert to bring them a little hope.

The Christmas Special Day 9: Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas (1977)

emmett-otterDirector: Jim Henson

Writer: Jerry Juhl, based on the book by Russell & Lillian Hoban

Cast: Jerry Nelson, Frank Oz, Marilyn Sokol, Dave Goelz, Richard Hunt, Eren Ozker, Jim Henson

Plot: With three days to Christmas,Alice Otter (Marilyn Sokol) is having trouble getting together the money to give her son Emmet (Jerry Nelson) a happy holiday. Emmet sets his heart on a $40 guitar in a music store window, but their shopping afternoon is disrupted by the appearance of a group of rough animals calling themselves the Riverbottom Boys. As the Otters return home, Alice tries to discourage Emmet from getting too hopeful about Christmas, but the boy continues to dream about the days when his father was alive and money went farther. Alice is practically down to using her washtub as their only means of support, while Emmet uses his father’s tools to do odd jobs. Both Alice and Emmet learn the town’s upcoming Talent Competition has a grand prize of $50. Emmet’s friends form a jug band and ask him to borrow his mother’s washtub to make a bass, but Emmet refuses, knowing you can’t make a washtub base without putting a hole in the washtub. Alice is reluctant to enter either, knowing her only way of having a dress for the competition would be to hock her late husband’s tools. Later, as Emmet and Alice play on the frozen lake, they share memories of Pa Otter, and each becomes convinced that he would have made the sacrifice for the other’s sake. Alice wants to buy her son the guitar he admired, while Emmet wants to use his share of the prize money to put a down payment on a piano to replace the one she sold some time ago. Emmet makes his washtub bass, while Alice sells the tools and buys fabric for a dress.

As Emmet’s band practices, the Riverbottom Boys mock their efforts to win the talent contest. Their nerves are shaken even worse when they arrive at the contest to find the opening act is performing the same song they’ve rehearsed. They rush off to learn a new song, but the stage manager forces them back into the theater, afraid they’ll miss their cue. Alice performs “Our World” to a thunderous round of applause, and Emmet’s Jug Band follows up with “Brothers.” The competition is supposed to be over, but the Riverbottom Boys come on and perform a harsh, angry rock number, “Riverbottom Nightmare Band.” The Nightmare Band wins the competition, and the Otters are despondent. Outside they’re told the judges liked both of their acts, but felt like they were missing a little something extra. Alice realizes what their songs were missing was each other. She begins singing and the jug band joins in, resulting in a beautiful combination of the two pieces, “Brothers in Our World.” As they sing, the townspeople come out to listen. Doc Bullfrog, one of the judges, offers them a job performing at his restaurant – free meals included. As they walk home, Alice and the boys sing Pa Otter’s favorite song in his memory.

Thoughts: The great Jim Henson makes his first (but most assuredly not last) appearance in our countdown with this 1977 TV special, adapting a folksy little tale with a hint of O. Henry and a lot of Henson-style sweetness. Although Henson was a veteran puppeteer at this point, and Sesame Street had been on the air for eight years, this special still shows some of the marks of early work and low budgets. The establishing shot is very obviously a model, control rods and seams are often all too visible, and the car the Riverbottom Boys ride through town looks like a wind-up toy. Amazingly all of these things actually contribute to the charm of the special. It gives it a homey, old-fashioned feeling that suits the characters and the world Henson and company created.

The plot has an interesting dash of “Gift of the Magi” in it, but with a clever twist. Rather than trading their own possessions for gifts (which turn out to be useless, thanks to their partner doing the same thing), in this special both Otters trade something important to the other in the hopes of getting the money for a decent present. I’m not quite sure what the message here is… “If you take away your family’s only means of support, make sure you can use it to get them a musical instrument” seems like kind of a bizarre theme for the Christmas season. What makes it work, however, is how the movie uses the focus of the absent Pa Otter – Henson convinces us that both Otters are doing what they believe their late husband/father would do, which is what makes it not only acceptable, but admirable. It helps, I think, that they don’t actually accomplish their goal. Losing the contest makes for a slightly less sugary climax, and the way they get their happy ending anyway feels more natural, more emotionally honest.

Emmet and Alice themselves are sweet, old-fashioned characters. There’s a bit of saccharine to them, but just a bit – enough for the obnoxiously cynical among us to cling to in an attempt to deride this special, unfortunately. For the rest of us, the Otters are simply a hard-luck family in need of a break at Christmas.

The star of this special, I’d argue, isn’t any of the Otters or even Henson, but songwriter Paul Williams. Williams would go on to have a great history with Henson and the Muppets, and the songs he composed for this special (“There Ain’t No Hole in the Washtub,” and “Bar-B-Que,” for instance) have transcended Christmas and become folksy classics. There’s an interesting phenomenon when you rewatch the special, though… having heard the “Our World”/”Brothers” mashup at the end, when you listen to each song performed on its own it feels oddly incomplete. “Brothers” especially sounds like a backing track, with odd pauses and harmonic notes that don’t seem like a proper melody. It’s been far too long since I first saw the special to remember if I would have noticed such a thing upon first viewing, but it stands out to me now. Also amusing, to a Muppet fan like me at least, is “Riverbottom Nightmare Band,” which has some riffs and beats that seem to echo Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem in musical energy, if not in actual tone or message.

A few years ago, Williams wrote a few extra songs to expand the special into a full-length stage play, which ran for two Christmas seasons in Connecticut. Would that I could have seen that one – I’ll bet it was magnificent.

For those of you wondering if the inclusion of this special means you won’t be seeing any other Muppets in the countdown thanks to the “one-per-franchise” rule, the answer is heck no. Using the same logic that allows me to include multiple Rankin and Bass specials, I consider each “family” of Muppets a different franchise. Since this one doesn’t include any of the Muppet Show or Sesame Street Muppets, except Kermit in an intro that is no longer included on the DVD, I hereby declare this a standalone film. You’ll definitely see the Henson company again.

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 21: Susperia (1977)

suspiriaDirector: Dario Argento

Writers: Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi

Cast: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci, Miguel Bosé, Alida Valli, Joan Bennett

Plot: Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), an American ballet student, is attempting to enroll in a prestigious dancing academy in Freiburg, Germany. When her flight in from Munich arrives late on a terribly stormy night, though, she is unable to enter the school, and must spend the night around town. As she searches, a student who has been expelled from the academy, Pat Hingle (played by Eva Axén, although I find it hysterical that the character has the same name as the actor who played Commissioner Gordon in the Tim Burton Batman movies), takes refuge with a friend, but both girls are brutally murdered by a strange, largely unseen creature. The next morning, Suzy returns to the academy and meets Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) and Miss Tanner (Alida Valli), as the school is buzzing about Pat’s death. Suzy is sent off-campus to live with another student , Olga (Barbara Magnolfi. When a dormitory room is made available, she declines the offer. In her first dancing class, Suzy suffers a fainting spell, and wakes up to find that she’s been moved into the dorm room anyway, and the doctor wants her to eat bland foods with a glass of red wine at every meal for a week. When maggots suddenly fall from the ceiling, supposedly due to a box of spoiled food in the attic, the girls are forced to sleep in the academy’s practice hall. There, Suzy’s friend Sarah (Stefania Casini) recognizes a whistling sound as the snore of the school director, who is supposedly out-of-town. Suzy and Sarah search Pat’s room for notes, but Suzy falls asleep, leaving Sarah to be lured, alone, into a trap of razor wires, where the unseen creature returns and slits her throat.

The next morning, finding Sarah missing, Suzy seeks out a psychologist (Udo Kier) who tells her that the academy was actually founded by a Greek woman believed to be a witch, and that her coven cannot survive without their queen. Suzy returns to the school and finds that all of the students are missing, having gone to the theater. She follows a mysterious set of footprints to Blanc’s office, where she finds the staff plotting her death in a horrible ritual. She flees, encountering the school’s director – the original witch who founded the school . The witch sends Sarah’s reanimated corpse to kill Suzy. Suzy fights her way out, and the building burns to the ground with the witches inside, Suzy barely escaping the horror.

Thoughts: This is one of those times where I really must stress the importance of taking care of and pride in your work. Susperia has a place in the hallowed ranks of horror, but its effectiveness was seriously damaged for me by the shoddy presentation. The DVD release available through Netflix was absolutely terrible, with picture and sound that both appeared to have been ripped directly from some ancient VHS tape that had long since begun to degrade. If a movie like this doesn’t deserve a quality restoration, why even release it on DVD?

This isn’t the fault of the film, of course, but it does detract from one’s enjoyment. Trying to get past that, we look at the strong points of the film. Sadly, considering how poor the video quality of my copy was, this is a movie that is largely remarkable for its visual style. Dario Argento sets the film in bright, primary colors –red hallways that have an almost velvety texture to them, blue walls in the main hall, and ubiquitous use of yellow in the dance studio and other places. When the deaths happen, the precise shade of red is so bright and eye-popping as to be almost unrealistic, while at the same time giving the film a very different look that most of the other films we’ve discussed on this list. The blood in, for example, Last House on the Left probably looks more realistic, but the blood in this film is more memorable.

The makeup is also impressive towards the end of the film. Sarah’s corpse, done up in a horror mask for her terrible attack on Suzy, is in fact the stuff of nightmares. Although Sarah isn’t really referred to as a zombie, she’s not far off from the original Haitian concept of the creature: a deceased person brought back to a semblance of life to serve the bidding of a master. In this case, it also plays on the most evocative fears of the zombie trope, the idea of taking something familiar and safe and transforming it into something horrible and deadly.

One of the weaknesses, though, is that the movie often tries too hard to inject fright in mundane scenes. Suzy’s constant encounters with creepy members of the staff at the ballet academy are often punctuated with loud, hypnotic music that succeeds in creating the desired mood. When combined with the looks of the characters, though, it starts to feel a bit much, like we the audience are being beaten over the head with the fact that something EEEEEEEVIL is going on around here, consarn it, and we’re gonna take notice whether we like it or not. Back to the music for a moment – it’s really very good. It’s scary and evocative, and I could imagine it being a Halloween standard like the themes to Psycho and Jaws if not for the fact that the main theme is played approximately 18,921 times throughout the course of the 92-minute film, robbing it largely of its effectiveness.

What’s more, the story isn’t particularly strong. Go back and read my synopsis again. Does it seem like a kind of bizarre, disjointed story here things happen for no reason and nothing really seems to make sense in the context of anything else? Excellent: I have successfully conveyed the feeling of watching Suspiria.

Contextually, I find it interesting that 1977’s great Italian horror film goes back to witches, a topic which had largely lapsed in the United States at this point. Perhaps I’m projecting – I’m an English teacher, remember, and at the time I write this particular analysis my 11-grade class is deep in study of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible – but it’s difficult to think of an American audience of the late 70s putting this much stock into the concept of witchcraft. In Italy, who knows? Maybe it was different.

The marketing certainly was different – look at the tagline on the movie poster. “The only thing more terrifying than the last 12 minutes of this film are the first 92.” Maybe I’m splitting hairs here, but isn’t that essentially saying the end of this film isn’t as good as the rest of it? If that’s the case, it’s true. Except for the creepy attack by the ex-Sarah, the ending is horribly anticlimactic, with a weak appearance by the head witch and Suzy pretty much just waltzing out of the academy just before it bursts into flames for no apparent reason.

Except for the visuals, honestly, I’ve got nothing to recommend this movie. Thank goodness tomorrow’s film is, for me, a proven commodity: John Carpenter’s classic Halloween.