Interview with 'Suspiria' Author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Dario Argento’s Suspiria needs little introduction. A nightmarish, hallucinatory carousel of a film, it is known to admirers of horror cinema for its exquisite cinematography, ear-shattering score, opulent production design and fiendish violence. Any sense of conventional narrative or characterisation takes a back seat to a full-on assault on the senses as the viewer is plunged head-first into a neon-Gothic nightmare of light, colour, sound and shadow.

Regarded (and rightly so) as a horror classic, Suspiria is the subject of a new book by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, a film critic from Melbourne, Australia. No stranger to extreme cinema, Alexandra is the author 'Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study' (2011), and 'Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality' (2014). She is also co-editor of the film journal Senses of Cinema, and a critic on Radio Triple R’s film programme, Plato's Cave.

Alexandra very kindly agreed to a quick chat about her new book on Suspiria.

What influenced your decision to write a monograph on Suspiria?

This sounds like such a straightforward question, but it oddly demands quite a complex answer. I am sure it's not just me, but as a critic I often find it hard work to draw a line between the films I find interesting from an objective, professional perspective, and those I love on a deep, instinctive, personal level. Sometimes these of course overlap - we often love an interesting film precisely for the unique ways it finds to hold our interest. But there are other films that for me personally at least I never wanted to think about or attempt to unpack on that kind of critical level: I love them for what they are, and almost dread the idea of opening the intellectual Pandora's Box in case it metaphorically 'kills' the mystique.

If you had asked me even a few years ago where Suspiria fitted into this picture, I would have comfortably answered that it was - along, perhaps, with Andrzej Żuławski's Possession - exactly the kind of film I meant. But over time it was the precise slipperiness of Suspiria that kept drawing me to it as a potential large-scale writing project. As many have argued - including myself - there is something about this film on a molecular level that demands we engage with it in different, and sometimes quite challenging new ways, approaches strikingly different from how we've been culturally 'trained' to understand cinema, particularly in terms of things like the dominance of narrative and character. In this sense, then, to answer your question I guess that writing at length about Suspiria was for me in many ways almost inevitable for precisely these very reasons.  

You said that with this book you really wanted to take a step away from the more academic style of your first two books: Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study and Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality. How did you approach writing it and how much did your method of approach differ from your earlier projects? 

In practical terms regarding the basic research mechanics, both of my previous books were surveys of categories or subgenres. This involved a lot of work on the hunter-gatherer front - sourcing primary and secondary material and, more time consumingly, watching literally hundreds and hundreds of films. The Suspiria project was quite the opposite, focused as it was on a single film. My previous books were about not only just looking for patterns but - more interestingly for me from a critical perspective - finding the glitches, and exploring where patterns deviated and what that might mean in a broader context. These formations form historical narratives, and it is from these that the 'stories' I tell in those books found their shape.

But aside from focusing on one film as opposed to hundreds of them, Suspiria itself is a film that warns us about over-investing in narrative, and a dizzying, intoxicating reminder of the supremacy of our senses. It wasn't simply a case of changing the focus of my critical gaze from a broader category of film to a specific one, but more significantly, about finding new ways to write, watch, think and feel.  

You mentioned to me a while ago that you had built your monograph around something Argento once said: “When you watch a movie, you understand your truth.” What truth does Suspiria hold for you and why is it a film you hold so close to your heart?

I believe on a fundamental level that Suspiria demands a kind of intense subjectivity from us as viewers: it is an unrelenting incitement for us to let go of the previous way we have been taught to watch and understand cinema. These "truths" that Argento talks about here are to me vital not just to our relationship with culture, but to the experience of being human: that deep, indefinable sense of personal sensory experience is something so unique to our own individual lived experiences that language often struggles to capture it.  

Suspiria boasts a largely female cast of characters which, as you point out, is built on 'robust personalities rather than cup size and age'. How do you think Argento’s difficult reputation has maybe over-clouded this, and do you think it’s fair to say that he doesn't get as much recognition or attention for his strong female characters as he does for the way in which he murders them? Where would you rank Suspiria in terms of feminist horror?

I have a pretty major bugbear with the broader tendency in cultural discourse to draw binary distinctions between categories of "progressive" and "regressive": I honestly feel that these ideas are too complex and important to allow a successful and productive simplification. Take, for example, Brian De Palma, who has long been on the receiving end of accusations of misogyny: while I absolutely would not be prepared to go on record as stating that this particular director is 100% ideologically progressive in terms of gender representation especially, for me he's a hugely important filmmaker. Carrie might be for many a textbook case of the problematic 'monstrous feminine' category, but for me it was the first film I ever saw where a woman menstruated: this was - and still is - radical cinema for me, and it made me really sit up and think well beyond notions of positive or negative representation. The question for me then, as it is now, is "this is such an ubiquitous, everyday thing: why don't I see this more in cinema?"

So back to Dario Argento. I argue quite forcefully in the book that this same tendency to define an artist in terms of a clear-cut binary distinction between "progressive" and "regressive" is just a dead-end when it comes to Argento. Absolutely he has said some pretty ghastly things about the representation of women in his films, but he has also said some remarkably insightful, profound and important things, too. As I discuss in the book at length, what I think is perhaps just as important - and is often ignored - is how important Argento and a film like Suspiria has been to female audiences. Famous fans of the film like Japanese author Banana Yoshimoto, who I interviewed for the book, and feminist icon, writer Kathy Acker are not alone in their love of Suspiria: Argento has said himself that most of his fans are women, and I can back this up just anecdotally. A large percentage of women I know who are really into horror got into it through Argento and Suspiria in particular.

Is Suspiria feminist then? Again, I hesitate with a simple "yes" or "no" answer, because I don't believe feminism is a singular, stable concept: there are absolutely no doubt women out there who self-identify as feminists who would find the depiction of violence against women in this film offensive, and I don't want to dismiss their right to those opinions. But what I will say is this: Suspiria is almost solely a female ensemble film, with only a few very minor male characters. Women are shown to be weak and strong, good and evil, old and young. As an early example of Carol J. Clover's so-called "final girl" figure, Jessica Harper's Suzy doesn't end the film shaking, traumatised and distraught like later examples, such as Laurie Strode in Halloween or Sally Hardesty in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Suzy doesn't merely just survive, she is victorious: the last shot of the film is her leaving the burning school in the rain, grinning. Suzy's story is one of strength, determination and triumph.  

"Suspiria exists in a sphere beyond mere language" - Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Was there a common thread of any kind that ran through all the things you’ve read about Suspiria and all the things people have said to you about it?

Absolutely: its intangibility. There's a real hunger I've seen manifest in almost all my conversations about the film and my book project. People really share my almost obsessive drive to try and put their finger on precisely what it is that makes Suspiria so special. This book is at its core I guess a declaration of the fact that we can never fully articulate this in words, because Suspiria exists in a sphere beyond mere language. I often return to this incredible quote from the remarkable film theorist and academic Patricia MacCormack, who articulated this idea so beautifully on the 2010 Cine-Excess DVD release of the film: "Suspiria is one of the most radical horror films that has ever been made, and the precise reason for this is that it is unapologetic in the way it expresses horror and the way it demands the opening up of the viewer to take pleasure in things that they cannot describe".

What is it about horror cinema, and, given your prior book titles, other forms of 'extreme' genre cinema, that appeals to you so much? 

Initially I guess at first it was that this was the kind of stuff that was forbidden for me as a kid: I remember seeing these movies on the shelves of the video store near the house where I grew up, and they had a kind of mystical aura to them, extending from their taboo status as 'dangerous' movies. From a research perspective, in many ways I am still unpacking this precise idea: what precisely makes these films so dangerous, why are they considered such volatile cultural artefacts? What do they do that is so threatening, and how do they do it in a mechanical, formal sense? What are the legacies of this volatility, what are their histories? These are the kinds of questions that I find reveal a lot about the broader workings of the cultural imagination well beyond cinema. In terms of pure subjective taste, however, I also find that the kind of low-budget aesthetic these films tend to adopt is just beautiful: when people are strapped for cash, they can often find breathtaking alternatives to create their impact. I find a lot of exploitation and b-grade film comes as close to the idea of pure cinema as anything more highbrow or canonical.  

In your conversation with Luciano Tovoli you reference the absolutely beautiful moment when Argento went up and physically touched the screen upon which Tovoli was projecting some tests he’d filmed. How much do you feel Suspiria owes its groundbreaking reputation to Tovoli’s cinematography?

I cannot speak more highly of Luciano Tovoli, both in terms of his impressive career*, and as a person. He took a lot of time to speak to me when I was writing this book, and his insight opened up new ways into this film for me.

One of the most striking things about Sig. Tovoli was that unlike a lot of cinematographers I have spoken with, he used a language less technical than it was poetic. That moment you describe is one I first read about in an interview with renowned Argento expert Alan Jones, and it devastated me - this idea of Argento walking up and touching the screen when seeing Tovoli's initial colour tests is to me still one of the most poignant descriptions of what it 'feels' like to watch Suspiria, this immersive, bodily attraction through the senses.

That being said, I was very moved by Sig. Tovoli's unrelenting praise of Argento in our correspondence: his acknowledgement of Argento as the driving creative force behind the film was a constant drumbeat, and he continually voiced gratitude to Argento for allowing him an opportunity to experiment the way he did on the project. I have no hesitation at all to suggest that Sig. Tovoli was a key creative force in this project and in part responsible for its remarkable legacy, yet I would emphasise, as he himself did so many times, that his achievements were the result of constant positive encouragement from Argento himself, the true visionary of the project. This might also be an important place to flag the huge importance of Daria Nicolodi to the project, also, who co-wrote the film and played a major part in its development - her important work on Suspiria sometimes unfairly gets lost in discussion about her well-publicised personal relationship with the director.  

What’s next for you?  

Something similar yet different! I'm currently finalising my first draft on a monograph about Abel Ferrara's 1981 cult film Ms. 45 for Columbia University Press' Cultographies series. A very different film than Suspiria, it is one that I hold a similar affection for, particularly in terms of its gender politics. In 2011 I wrote a book about rape-revenge films and of course talked about Ms. 45 there; Zoe Lund's character Thana is even on the cover. But a few pages wasn't enough to get this film out of my system, and writing an entire book about it is an extraordinary privilege.

'Suspiria' by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is available now and can be purchased here. It is published by Auteur, a leading independent Film and Media Studies publisher, and part of the Devil's Advocates series devoted to exploring the classics of horror cinema. 

Contributors to Devil's Advocates come from the worlds of academia, journalism and fiction, but all have one thing in common: a passion for the horror film and for sharing that passion. 

*Read Alexandra's in-depth essay on Tovoli's career here


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