Book Review: Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ SUSPIRIA

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SHOCK looks at this intelligent, almost academic investigation into Argento’s classic.

“Academia is the death of cinema. It is the very opposite of passion. Film is not the art of scholars, but of illiterates.”

-Werner Herzog

Leave it to Werner, that brat Prince instigator, to say something like the above; but really, I cannot say I disagree, especially with regards to the horror genre.

As someone who has eaten, slept and breathed entertainments that are most easily categorized as “horror”, I can say with conviction that academia’s intrusion into that most base art can borderline on being obnoxious. The best horror films bypass the mind and strike hard at the senses. They deal in impulses and anxieties that unite us all; the mysteries and perversions of human sexuality and thus, birth and then, of course, the end of our own microcosmic universes, our own deaths. When we overthink and politicize the essence of horror, we effectively smother its purity. I mean, sometimes a moron in a mask is simply slaughtering to give us a body rush of revulsion; sometimes people fucking is just a reflection of our collective and common-as-dirt ability to get subconsciously aroused.

And with Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA, a movie that really only works on a primordial, sensorial level, academia should steer clear, lest they get their throats inexplicably ripped out by a seeing eye dog.

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This blabbity blab intro serves to usher us into this little review of a little book that packs a huge punch, that of writer Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ salute to SUSPIRIA, an entry in Auteur’s ongoing “Devil’s Advocates” series of high minded examinations of horror films both masterful and misunderstood.

Now, SUSPIRIA is sort of “Italian Horror 101”, the “hit” of the sub-sub-genre that even casual fans are aware of and can discuss with a modicum of authority. It’s easy enough to break down why the movie works: great, loud Goblin score, beautiful, dream-like photography by Luciano Tovoli, graphic, stylish murders and pretty women in peril. But in this breezy and brainy tome, Heller-Nicholas doesn’t just discuss these essential elements, she writes about them in the context of Italian film history, of Italian culture, of mythology and of Argento’s own self-contained universe.

In fact, the book can be seen as not just a mini-masterclass in the mechanics of SUSPIRIA, but of a deft psychoanalysis of Argento himself, even going as far to studying his passionate, personal and professional relationship with his “baby momma”, muse and SUSPIRIA co-writer Daria Nicolodi. In her asides on their tumultuous relationship, she finds out much about how Dario sees women, the obsession with the female never more prominent or fetishized then it is here, in this film.

And SUSPIRIA isn’t the only picture she touches on here. In the pre-history chapter, Heller-Nicholas gives us a lively and accurate summation of the films, personal triumphs and tragedies and commercial ups and downs that led to the genesis of SUSPIRIA, the enfant terrible desire he had to collapse the very idea of the giallo, a sub-genre he helped invent and one he felt commercially shackled to. SUSPIRIA wasn’t just a horror movie, it was a bold artistic statement.

Also of interest, bubbling in the background, is the author’s passionate defense and admiration of Argento’s controversial film THE STENDHAL SYNDROME, in which he and Nicolodi’s actress daughter Asia Argento is repeatedly raped and terrorized for the duration of the picture. She makes clear cases for this unfairly maligned movie as being Argento’s most misunderstood film, not the wallow in brutality and weird, icky daughter-sploitation romp it seems like on the surface. Heller-Nicholas also wrote the MacFarland book RAPE-REVENGE FILMS: A CRITICAL STUDY and you can feel the pull she has to really get deeper into that subject matter here.

And yet she always finds her way back to SUSPIRIA.

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The book climaxes with a lengthy interview with Tovoli and it is, as expected, a respectful, intelligent and serious-minded chat. You can tell that the legendary DP appreciates the author’s sophisticated questions, ones that allow the artist to fully break down his own philosophies on cinema and the creative process.

Although teetering on being a textbook, Heller-Nicholas’ SUSPIRIA is anything but dry or antiseptic. It’s a passionate investigation into a time, a place and distinct sensibilities and how they colluded to sculpt a genuine work of dark art whose influence on popular culture still resonates.

Maybe Werner was wrong after all…