Before the advent of highly self-aware examples like Scream or A Cabin in the Woods, Italian director Dario Argento directed horror flicks more deeply invested in their genre – more knowing and playful – than the self-congratulatory irony of those later films could ever be. His masterpiece, 1977’s wildly expressive Suspiria, was a box office success both in his native Italy and internationally. Like the films of many directors tainted by the Video Nasties scare of the early 1980s, Suspiria suffered from a critical eclipse and a variety of censored prints, and was largely cherished in its original form by aficionados of the field. A reassessment has been building since the 1990s, something sure to be aided by the forthcoming publication of Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ perceptive and elegantly written monograph on the film this December.
Suspiria begins with a young American dancer, Suzy (played by Jessica Harper) arriving at an airport and then catching a taxi to the German ballet school where she is to board. But don’t be fooled by this simple set-up: this film leaves the viewer as unsettled as a swing on skates. A brake-light red unnaturally bathes people and buildings bloody, the weather hisses and scolds at an empty taxi rank, indifference, confusion and finally terror are the film’s reigning reactions. As much in love with unstoried suspense as it is body horror, Suspiria is a film of strange and inexpressible power.
I spoke to Heller-Nicholas about the film as the Melbourne weather crowded its changes through the CBD streets, adding a nicely unsettled atmosphere to our conversation.
James Tierney: Let me start with the most basic of questions: why horror?
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas: (laughs) There are a thousand ways to answer that but let me start with the personal. I’m both a biological and recovering Catholic and I wasn’t allowed to watch horror as a kid. So of course it was instantly the thing I was most obsessed with watching as soon as I could.
I was besotted with it for the very reason that it was forbidden. The more grown-up critical answer to ‘why horror’ is that it allows us space to explicitly talk about things we don’t have a cultural language for, specifically about bodies. Not just the physical differences between genders but the physical fact of bodies. What do they ‘do’? How do they break? There’s a song by the American garage rock band The Cramps ‘What’s Inside a Girl?’ (‘Ain’t no hotter question in a so-called civilised world’) that could almost be a war-cry for the kinds of horror films I’m interested in and enjoy. And aside from the gender politics, which are indeed there to be picked at, there’s also an infantile fascination with viscera and guts!
JT: That sounds different from the concept beloved of recovering Julia Kristeva readers everywhere, the abject.
AHN: I think it is less complicated that pure abjection. For myself, at least, it’s best described as a fascination. When children cut themselves, there’s often simultaneous horror and attraction. Horror cinema allows teenagers and adults to experience that in a way that is often non-lingual. Horror isn’t the only genre to do that of course – pornography, and some action films, musicals and gross-out comedies often deal with exposed bodies in crisis, frenzy or flight, fascinating bodies we can’t look away from.
JT: Is this simply a visual experience or something more?
AHN: It’s more sensory than just visual. Sound in horror is as important as the images. Cinema academic Laura Marks talks about the affective qualities of film, especially in this beautiful concept she calls haptic visuality. This is the idea that film can provide such a textured experience that it almost akin to touching as much as looking.
JT: There’s certainly something visceral and granulated about Suspiria, something that to my eye is helped by its determination to keep Suzy, and through her the viewer, always off balance. In any film that disrupts norms, there’s usually a safe place that is used to kick-start the narrative. The closest we get here is the airport, which a liminal space at best. There’s no real safe place in Suspiria.
AHN: I love the opening sequence, it’s old-fashioned portal stuff. As Suzy goes through the Munich Airport doors, they open and close with a scissoring action that prefigures some of the violence ahead. She is leaving one world and entering another and from that point, it’s game on.
The film also begins with a documentary-like voice over, which in the Italian language version is spoken by Argento himself:
‘Suzy Bannion decided to perfect her ballet studies in the most famous school of dance in Europe: she chose the celebrated dance academy of Freiburg. One day, at nine in the morning, she left Kennedy Airport in New York and arrived in Germany at 10:40 P.M. local time’
Both the tone and content of this voice-over are so out of keeping with the rest of the film that it exposes what is being left behind – time, dates and places are now irrelevant. This male voice is only heard once and marks the edge of a masculine world and the transition into a feminised one.
JT: It’s fascinating how all the elements of Suspiria are working together to create its unique effect. Even the simple decision to cast Jessica Harper as a ballet dancer when she doesn’t appear to know how to dance…
AHN: I think that is hilarious and one of the sly jokes of the film, but in a different way than you suggest. This is a film set in a ballet school where you barely see any dancing, but Harper was in fact a trained dancer. The one time Suzy attempts to dance, she passes out and gets a nosebleed.
JT: Ah! So here I was thinking that it was a device to hide a lack of skill but it’s entirely the opposite – and yet somehow weirder.
AHN: But it raises an interesting point and opens up what I hope is not too poetic a direction…
JT: Go for it!
ANH: I think that horror is, at its best, a kind of choreography about moving bodies and about what limits bodies can be taken to. Argento’s in-joke is that this is a dance film without dancing, but its very intensity – its weirdness, sound, and look – relies upon bodies in motion, but not the kind ballet slippers traditionally imply.
JT: Is that the choreography of its formal construction?
AHN: Yes, absolutely.
JT: Fascinating. It is difficult for me to think of too many films more exquisitely put together that this one so I find your argument there very seductive. Hollywood blockbusters tend to feel pieced together for maximal energy rather than for coherence. As a counterpoint to this, Suspiria achieves its sensory overload while maintaining its coherence, an attentiveness to physical action and consequence, that is never less than impressive.
AHN: This is a film that maintains at least part of that coherence by being deeply aware of its cinematic inheritances. When I’ve taught this film, students are sometimes initially uncertain how to approach it, how it sits in the grand scheme of cinema. To help, I place it in reference to silent films and especially Tom Gunning’s concept of the cinema of attractions. Cinema is very much considered a narrative form, where originally it was (and, Gunning argues, still is) a form that prized spectacle above storytelling. Now, in the case of this film, ironically Argento considers himself a storyteller. There is interesting writing in Suspiria and I don’t want to dismiss that part of it. But this is a film about spectacle, about display before sense. It also engages with earlier traditions of flickering entertainment: just after Suzy leaves the airport and is travelling to the school, she sees a woman running through a forest in a scene that is reminiscent of a zoetrope. There’s also a good touch of German Expressionism as well. Everything about this film is unrelenting, including its determination to make us privilege spectacle over narrative.
JT: (laughs) I remember first seeing Suspiria twenty years ago thanks to a late night showing on SBS and at this distance all I can really recall is being thoroughly repelled.
AHN: Repelled is a good word for it.
JT: But I wasn’t just repelled by the horror; I was repelled by its deliberate artificiality. Something that didn’t work for an overly-earnest twenty something definitely now works for a hopefully more open forty-something. The music is wild and calls attention to itself, the set design is sometimes weirdly flimsy and never less than odd, and the voice acting is dubbed and un-synched. Does this film have any relationship to realism at all?
AHN: Quite the opposite, which is intriguing when you consider that Suspiria’s cinematographer Luciano Tovoli shot Antonioni’s The Passenger; a film that, while different from his earlier works, still contained strong elements of that director’s neorealist style. Argento invited Tovoli to undo that, and he achieved it in ways unthinkable now. To get the particular look of the film, dark but sharp, Tovoli crafted these huge frames and then hung from them velvets and tissue papers and shone bright lights through them. This filtered light was naturally darker, so lights had to be placed very close to the actors. Tovoli half-joked that some of the film’s most terrified acting came simply from the actors’ fears they would catch fire under the heat of the lights.
JT: Although I’m now sorry to hear about the effects of those conditions on the actors, I can’t help but admire how beautiful the film is, and how knowing it is. How did it get to be so knowing?
AHN: Argento started off as a film critic, and his father before that worked in the Italian film industry. Argento has said one of his earliest memories is sitting in the lap of Sophia Loren. He grew up with movies so none of his cine-literateness is accidental.
JT: One of the great traditions in cinema that this film has no relation to is the erotic. I tried to think of another film set in an all-female school that wasn’t at least a little bit pervy but couldn’t. Argento himself has attracted justified criticism for his sexist statements in the past but I found the restraint of the film, perhaps only in this respect, really interesting.
AHN: At least some of that is explained by the fact that Argento originally wanted the film to feature girls aged eight or nine. Even though the producers quickly talked him out of that idea, its residue remains. Door handles are fixed higher than they normally would be so that Suzy has to reach up to open a door, just as a child would have to. Even the vaguely sexualised figure of Olga has a comical aspect of role-playing about her, a little girl pretending to be an adult.
This doesn’t mean that I’ll defend any of the problematic things that Argento has undoubtedly said over the years. But these comments aren’t black and white, nor do they demand only a condemnatory response. The same person can sometimes have contradictory opinions and, more importantly for me as a critic, make contradictory representations.
Like fellow Argento fan Kathy Acker, I argue that Suspiria is fundamentally a feminist film. I’m sceptical about aspects of the Bechdel test, but this film passes with flying colours.
JT: Suspiria is a film I struggle to describe satisfactorily to anyone that hasn’t seen it. Do you think that this is, perversely, part of its success?
AHN: Yes. So much of what this film does is beyond language. Its impact is so sensory that it bypasses logic. This is a film about a girl who is sucked into a vortex of strange things, which neatly summarises my own experience writing the book. While Suzy’s character is strong – she’s an important character in the history of the Nancy Drew/final girl figure – this isn’t a film that dwells on complex characterisations. Suspiria says ‘I have something to show you’, not ‘I have something to tell you’.