Suspiria, giallo cinema & the lure of the sensory: An interview with Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Suspiria 3Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a Melbourne-based film critic and academic, specialising in cult, exploitation and horror film. Her books include Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study, Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality, and most recently Suspiria, on Italian director Dario Agento’s 1976 film of the same. Alex kindly agreed to talk to me about her new book, the phenomena of witches in film and the ongoing fascination with giallo cinema. And a warning, unless your film collection is as good as hers, it will be hard for you to get through the following interview without making a lengthy list of films you’ll want to locate and purchase.

Drink-&-CameraAlex, You open the book with a playful but terrific quote from US film critic Joe Bob Briggs, that Suspiria is ‘the Gone With the Wind of Eyetalian horror’. You call it ‘one of the most breathtaking instances of the modern horror film’. Why is Suspiria such an important movie, not just in the context of Italian film cinema but horror cinema, generally?

If you forgive my turn to the colloquial, Suspiria is at its very core a film that sincerely does not give a fuck about what a film is ‘supposed’ to be: this manifests in a spirit of true experimentalism, a genuine love of ‘art’ both as a general concept and the very materiality of cinema itself. The choice of supernatural subject matter and the overt fairy tale qualities of the film’s narrative for me speak in profound ways about the ‘magic’ of film form: Suspiria is a film about witchcraft that is intrinsically bewitching. I can’t speak for the legions of fans that this film has – I’d argue they’re far too diverse to allow such generalisations – but for me at least, the enduring legacy of Suspiria and what makes it stand apart is its unwavering respect for and attention to our sensory experiences as much as our intellectual or emotional ones. Or, to be me precise, it both identifies and acknowledges that these overlap: it is a film that courts an intelligence that is more sensory than logical.

Re-watching Suspiria in preparation for this interview I was certainly struck by how disorientating the film is, and I mean that in the best way possible. Suzy arrives at the airport and there’s a few minutes calm before she steps out of sliding doors into a hell of storm, literally and metaphorically, and it just keeps going. Argento makes no real effort to explain much about the context or the narrative, the film just washes over you for 92 minutes. It’s an incredibly liminal film. Every curtain, pane of glass, shadow and space seems to operate as a division between two worlds, the world we think we know (or we think we know) and the realm of the supernatural and evil. Not only does it look amazing but it just continually emphasises the feeling of chaos and lack of control, both for Suzy and the viewer.

I never cease to be be amazed how densely packed the first ten minutes or so Suspiria is: the more I watch it, the more I’m astounded by new things that suddenly manifest in my field of vision, regardless of how many times I’ve seen it. That moment you describe of Suzy walking through the sliding doors at the Munich airport is – as many other critics have noted – absolutely crucial, acting as a portal of sorts between two dimensions. Yet the lines between the ‘realistic’ world of the airport and the ‘fantastic’ space beyond those sliding doors are surprisingly hazy ambiguous at times: one of my favourite discoveries is of a McDonald’s right near where Suzy catches her taxi to the Tanzakademie for the first time, a row of golden arches indicating that the world she has entered is perhaps not as different from the world we know as we might think. One of the most famous scenes in the film – where Udo Kier gives his famous “bad luck is not caused by broken mirrors, but broken minds” speech – is filmed outside the BMW Headquarters in Munich (which was also used in Norman Jewison’s 1975 film Rollerball): these are small details but important ones. The film almost encourages us to forget that in the face of all the sound and fury of the witches murderous, glorious rampage that wealth is one of their driving motivations. It’s fascinating to me to articulate these more ‘worldly’ aspects in a movie that is – as you say – so determinedly liminal in so many overt ways, from dealing with adolescence itself (as Suzy movement from girlhood to womanhood), to the status of the Tanzakademie as a kind of threshold between moral order and total, unholy chaos.

It would not surprise me at all to discover that there are McDonald’s and BMWs in hell. I have been trying to think of the last horror film I saw that left me in the same state of disorientation as Suspiria. It may not sound strange, but I kept coming back to Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (2011). It is nowhere near as good a film visually, but the complete lack of context for the story, the paper thin crack between reality and hell, felt very similar.

SuspiriaWheatley is such a great point of comparison precisely because although (as you say) his work isn’t immediately an obvious parallel with Suspiria, I think what he does best (and particularly in Kill List) is creates worlds that leave you completely untethered – not just narratively, but (more importantly, for me at least) sensorially as well. Even Wheatley’s (kind of) non-horror films do this – A Field in England and High-Rise most obviously I guess, but I’m immediately also drawn to Sightseers in particular, although in many ways it’s his most straight-forward or traditional film from a formal perspective. The last shot of Sightseers (the exquisite close up of Alice Lowe’s hand) reminds me a lot of Vivian Sobchack’s work on film phenomenology, especially her beautiful article ‘What My Fingers Knew: The Cinesthetic Subject, or Vision in the Flesh. Sobchack talks so wonderfully about this kind of sensory knowledge, and that last shot of Sightseers speaks volumes. It’s such a powerful, poignant moment because through the tactility of Lowe’s skin  I “feel” the meaning more than “know” it, if that makes sense. Suspiria works in a similar same way, and there’s a gorgeous story where the film’s cinematographer Luciano Tovoli talks of Dario Argento seeing his preliminary colour tests and experiments that he did for Suspiria for the first time, where the director walked up and literally touched the screen, so tactile and alluring were the images Tovoli created.

You write in the book about the Argento’s influences in making Suspiria. These include the lengthy lineage of witches in European cinema and folklore, but also, fascinatingly, Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and The Wizard of Oz. A major part of what makes Suspiria so disorienting and unnerving is how Argento depicts the witches.  It is not just the violence the witches are capable that makes them so frightening, it the sense of mystery and unknowing around them. They are not really explained or rationalised. We don’t even see the leader of the coven until the end and then, only fleetingly. It is like watching a traditional fairy tale put on the screen and, let’s face it, they were as creepy as hell. It is the same sensation I got watching Robert Egger’s 2015 film, The Witch.

Stating the obvious perhaps, but the witch is such a potent figure to enter the dicey terrain of gender politics in particular, and I was – like you – really shaken to my core by Eggers’ The Witch (I wrote about the relationship between witches, feminism and both Suspiria and The Witch at Overland recently). But you raise such an important point here, which reminds me of how unapologetic Suspiria is in its relating of power to monstrosity. I find it a very funny film in many ways: firstly it’s a movie set in a ballet school that shows virtually no dancing, but even moreso, despite the “oooh I wonder what the secret of the irises is?” plot enigma we are of course told the answer explicitly  in the opening scenes as the Goblin soundtrack repeats the word “Witch!” ad nauseum. Argento’s idea of doing a live-action fairy tale really gives these folkloric traditions their bite back, which is precisely what The Witch does too.  

The WitchOne I of the things I found interesting about your book was the background you provide to the body of Italian mystery/horror cinema known as giallo, which originated in the 1960s and peaked in the 1970s, and of which Suspiria is one of the best known examples. Sixties/seventies cult cinema is big at the moment, but it seems to me giallo is particularly in favour right now amongst genre cinephiles. Do you agree and, if so, I am interested in your thoughts about why you think this is.

Suspiria is an interesting film to talk about in relation to giallo. I’ve seen a lot of film nerds get really uppity about the classification of Suspiria as a giallo, as the word itself – translating literally to “yellow” – refers to films whose origins were in the yellow-covered pulp paperbacks of Milan-based publisher Mondadori, who began in the 1920s publishing translations of crime stories by people like Edgar Wallace and Agatha Christie. Transposed to cinema, giallo films are predominantly crime thrillers based around highly stylized sex-and-violence drenched vignettes, and its iconography includes of course most famously the black leather gloves of the killer and overblown, poetic titles like Short Night of Glass Dolls (Aldo Lado, 1971),Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (Sergio Martino, 1972) and What Are Those Strange Drops of Blood on Jennifer’s Body? (Guiliano Carnimeo, 1971), primarily in homage to Dario Argento’s hugely successful ‘animal trilogy’: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) and Cat O’ Nine Tails (1971) (although its origins go back at least to Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) and Blood and Black Lace (1964) and – arguably – Luchino Visconti’s 1943 film Ossessione) . On the back of this trilogy Argento made the film that preceded Suspiria, the legendary Profondo Rosso (Deep Red, 1975), probably one of the most famous gialli ever made.

So is Suspiria a giallo? Well, it has the black leather gloved killer for starters, and most importantly I think it’s worth pointing out that Argento himself is ambivalent about the distinction: as he said once, “I think that’s an artificial distinction; I don’t see a great difference between them.  The realistic pictures are not very realistic, even though they’re about psychopaths rather than witches”.

As for the current excitement around giallo, much of this I believe has to do simply with access: films that were once only available without subtitles on clapped out VHS have in recent years been given the red carpet treatment by boutique home entertainment companies like Arrow and Blue Underground, whose work on restoring these films and creating accompanying material on these releases can only be described as astonishing. This is real archival work, if it wasn’t for companies such as these this stuff would risk being lost forever.

Suspiria Bed

I get how important access is and the role of the Internet. There is a similar dynamic at work in film noir, whereby all sorts of wonderful films, virtually unknown for decades, are suddenly turning up on DVD restorations with features to die for. I also take your point about the artificial nature of classifying films into particular schools of cinema. That said, I do wonder whether there is more behind the popularity of giallo than accessibility. Their themes, particularly how they depict gender fluidity, sex and mental illness, for want of a better way of putting it, seem very ‘now’. Then again, maybe people just really get off on the cool seventies/eighties European interior design which features in so many of these films?

Suspiria’s just a treasure trove for film noir fans, isn’t it?! It’s so delightful seeing Joan Bennett in full throttle bitch flight, every time I see it I can’t help but think of Madam Blanc as a latter day, supernatural version of Kitty from Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street. Alida Valli of course is also a familiar face, having starred in both Reed’s The Third Man and Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case – while maybe not technically film noir, I’d argue Valli was channeling the femme fatale very strongly in those two roles in particular.

As for the broader influence of giallo, this is a really excellent point, and most obviously I think links to the really fascinating work that has been done by people like Mikel Koven on what a huge influence giallo was on the North American slasher film in particular: he talks at length about the influence of giallo on US slasher in his book La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film (2006). Obviously there are other influences – from Herschell Gordon Lewis to Psycho to the grindhouse ‘roughies’ of filmmakers like Michael and Roberta Findlay – but giallo was undeniably a strong influence on 1970s and 1980s slasher directors in particular (one need only look at Carpenter’s Halloween or Thompson’s Happy Birthday to Me for proof!). And I think this created in American cinema at least an openness to that particular kind of Italian genre film ‘language’, for want of a better word, and it’s one that I still see as very much active, especially in independent horror. A film like Jason Bognacki’s remarkable Another (2014) is Exhibit A for me about how strong the legacy of Italian horror (and Suspiria in particular)  is on contemporary film that is fresh and innovative, and never falls into the depressing terrain of  derivative cliche.

And of course, more explicitly is the rise of neo-giallo: their work certainly isn’t for everyone, but the films of Belgian directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani (especially their 2013 film The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears) and Peter Strickand’s Berberian Sound Studio (2012) offer what I find quite intoxicating instances of how giallo can be used as the kind of ‘raw material’ for more contemporary, conceptual cinema, both engaging with and bouncing off those original films from the ‘classic’ giallo period of the 1960s and 1970s.

So apart from Argento’s incredibly influential films, what are Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ five must-watch giallo films and (briefly) why?

Tough call! This can only ever be subjective, but I do really stand by these as some of my personal favourites. These for me are instances that stand apart, either conceptually, aesthetically or both:

The House With Laughing Windows (1976) which I’ve written about here.

The Psychic, (Lucio Fulci, 1977) which I’ve written about here.

The Perfume of the Lady in Black (Francesco Barilli, 1974), which I’ve written about here.

The Laughing Woman (Piero Schivazappa, 1969).

The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh (Sergio Martino, 1971).

Kills Baby KillAnd for what it’s worth, my top five essential (non-Argento!) Italian horror films beyond giallo would be:

Cemetery Man (Michele Soavi, 1994).

The Beyond (Lucio Fulci, 1981).

Kill Baby Kill (Mario Bava, 1966).

The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (Riccardo Freda, 1962).

Road to L (Federico Greco and Roberto Leggio, 2005).

Finally, fans of Italian witch movies are urged to chase down the remarkable portmanteau film The Witches (1967), produced by Dino De Laurentiis, starring Silvana Mangano and consisting of five short films directed by no less than Pier Paolo Pasolini, Luchino Visconti, Franco Rossi, Mauro Bolognini and Vittorio De Sica!

You saved it until last, but The Witches sounds particularly interesting. I saw Fulci’s The Beyond for the first time recently. Apart from being the most ‘eyebally’ movie I have ever seen (it included eyeballs being torn out, impaled on nails and eaten by tarantulas), I was impressed by how seamlessly the film moves from American southern gothic horror to all out zombie apocalypse. I was reading that all the extras in the final scene – the lying bodies covered in mud –  where all homeless people living on the street who the directly paid in alcohol. Stay classy, Lucio.

I love a good bit of eyeball violence, from Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel’s collaboration on Un Chien Andalou in 1929 through to Bo Arne Vibenius’s 1974 rape-revenge film  They Call Her One Eye or Thriller: A Cruel Picture.  I’m so glad you liked The Beyond – there’s something so haunting about Fulci’s Gates of Hell trilogy, and both City of the Living Dead and The House By the Cemetery too have that Americana aspect going on. The ending of Michele Soavi’s Dellamorte Dellamore (easily in my Top Five films of all-time, horror or otherwise) owes a great debt tonally to Fulci’s zombie movies, and I’d also flag Spanish filmmaker Amando de Ossorio’s Blind Dead series, especially Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971). They too get stuck into the visceral muck of the sub-genre but the endings finish with a sense of something almost quite ethereal, dark and sometimes even oddly very sad. There was also a whole spate of Spanish giallo that often gets forgotten with the focus on Italy, but so many of the Italian films were international co-productions it’s tricky to lock them down as a specifically “Italian” in terms of a national cinema framework. If you’re curious about Spanish giallo, starting points would definitely be A Dragonfly for Each Corpse (León Klimovsky, 1974) and Carlos Aured’s Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll  (1974) – if only for the names alone!

As for The Witches, it’s just astonishing.  I’m a real fan of horror anthologies and this for my money is one of the more interesting ones – the big auteur names make it a nice double bill with Histoires extraordinaires (Spirits of the Dead, 1968), an anthology of Poe adaptations by Roger Vadim, Louis Malle and Federico Fellini. But in terms of Italian witch movies, it’s vital of course to also give a shout out to horror royalty Barbara Steele and her unparalleled performance in Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960). Released the same year as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, for some bewildering reason with critics at least it doesn’t have the same reputation, which it thoroughly deserves. The series that published my Suspiria book Devil’s Advocates also has a terrific monograph about Black Sunday by Martyn Conterio.  

Ms. 45I am a big fan of Amando de Ossorio’s Blind Dead series. Italy during the so-called ‘Years of Lead’, Spain under the Franco dictatorship in the sixties and seventies, the spate of exploitation films that came out of the Philippines, it is interesting to look at the role of political repression in helping to incubate good horror cinema. But that is whole another interview. Before we end, tell us a little about your next book project.

Ha! Yep, I think you’re right – if we follow that particular line of thought, we’ll need a lot more room! Although I guess my next project feeds into this all a little anyway: it’s a book on Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 that’s part of Wallflower/Columbia University Press’s Cultographies series. My first book was dedicated to the subject of rape-revenge film, and in there I have a whole section on global manifestations of the trope, from Argentina to Canada, Germany to Turkey, Australia to Hong Kong and beyond: rape-revenge is so typically thought of as specific to the US during the 1970s and 1980s, but it really has a much longer history and broader cultural scope than it’s usually given credit for. I used an image of Zoe Tamerlis Lund from Ms. 45 on the cover of my first  book, but honestly didn’t even really feel I touched the surface of what I consider to be one of the most significant feminist cult films ever made. So it’s been a very welcome opportunity to really get into the nitty gritty of what makes that particular film so important, not only in the context of Ferrara’s own remarkable career, but in regards to the legacy of the late Tamerlis Lund herself, who for me is one of the most fascinating figures of the late 20th century.

It’s strange, I was finalising the manuscript for the Ms. 45 book while I was promoting my Suspiria one so it was a curious overlap as these two films (on the surface at least) have very little in common. But, ultimately, they have both left an indelible mark on me ,so I guess from my perspective at least that’s enough to unite them? Thanks for the lovely chat, Andrew – always a pleasure!  

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ book, Suspiria, published by Auteur, can be purchased from Amazon here.

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  1. Pingback: Feminist vigilantes, vampires & the forgotten exploitation film career of Bob Kelljan | Pulp Curry

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