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"Argento's Baroque Nightmare": Alexandra Heller-Nicholas' Descent Into Suspiria

"...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."

As writer and film critic, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas discussing Dario Argento's high profile work, Suspiria in an interview (quoted above) prompted my own investigation into understanding why this film drew me as a viewer and never left my consciousness. No matter how many times you see Suspiria, it registers as a sensational, shattered jigsaw puzzle that your mind desperately wants to put together, even if some pieces don't logically connect with another.That is where the excitement lies; in a horror classic that makes its own rules.

Heller-Nicholas is now one of the authors from Devil's Advocates, "a series of books devoted to exploring the classics of horror cinema" with a meticulous examination of the 1977 picture. Taking an accessible cultural studies approach, Heller-Nicholas examines how production, analysis, and audience response of Suspiria offers firm foundation as to why it is so successful with fans, critics, and film industry players. Her exposed and impassioned details of each milestone that led to the making of this dark fairy tale is translated as a sincere kiss to Suspiria fans, as if to say I share this love with you and will labor for it. 

Heller-Nicholas profoundly seeks Suspiria's symbolism in such a way that sparks visceral epiphanies. If the central setting of the action, the Tanzakademie dance school is "alive and pulsing", an astute representation of "the human body," then seemingly innocuous foreshadows in the marketing of the film become extraordinary.

Its disorienting nature of unnatural, animated tissue mocking the science of human anatomy to form the words in which we know the film by is just one thread upon the dozens that Heller Nicholas expertly weaves. And it is this triumph where the strength of this book lies. She wants our thirst of what Suspiria means to us to be quenched; as she constructs the frame, we paint the picture.

A film critic/screenwriter turned director for maximum execution of vision, Argento's genius is in his unwillingness to be bound to convention. Influences from Edgar Allan Poe to Snow White along with long time partner/writer Daria Nicolodi and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli are critical agents in what Suspiria finally became. Heller-Nicholas spares no detail, even addressing the conundrum of Argento's depiction of women and the critical commentary that circles his politically loaded comments in regards to gender.

There's no doubt of Suspiria's impact on horror fans and those who are fans of the film. It challenges and dares an audience to step outside of rigid, narrative coherence, and Heller-Nicholas argues refreshingly to embrace this aspect. She insists that the film's strength is found in its lack of traditional coherence, disregarding the 'rules of cinema' to produce meaning beyond structure but confined to the subjective imagination. Suspiria is a beautiful marriage of unpacking the unpackable, allowing you to purely indulge in your free association. Your nightmare.

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is also the author of Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality and Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study. Based in Australia with a cinematic IQ begging for emulation, she's a film critic, radio host and a visiting fellow at The Institute of Social Research in Melbourne. Her fourth book on the cult classic, Ms. 45 is available now!

Purchase Suspiria here!

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