SUSPIRIA: Giallo Or No Giallo?

Suspiria  is a masterpiece of a film that has gone on to influence generations of filmmakers and cinephiles throughout the years. Having been made almost four decades ago, it is a cinematic experience that continues to thrive today. As a matter of fact, Synapse Films plans on releasing the most definitive version of the film sometime in the next couple of years on Blu-ray.

Having said all of that...Suspiria  is also a film that is soaking in giallo influence. So much so that it is often lumped into the rest of the genre and is often mistaken as a giallo. Just Google "best giallo film lists" on the internet and you will usually find the film on a list somewhere declaring it as one of the best gialli ever created. it a giallo? I have invited my good friend, the super talented Rachael Nisbet from Hypnotic Crescendos, to discuss this ongoing issue with hopes of finally putting it to rest. 

bryan: How are you, Rachael?

Rachael: Hey Bryan! I'm good thanks! I'm looking forward to this conversation as it's one of the most hotly debated subjects in the Italian horror community. Thinking I may make a few enemies here as I firmly believe that Suspiria  is NOT a giallo and usually when I make this statement the language is a little more colourful.

bryan: Hahaha...I agree. I tend to be really adamant with my arguments. Tell me...all giallo arguments aside...what has Suspiria  meant to you as a lover of fine cinema?

Rachael: Many genre fans that I speak to talk about the horror films they grew up with and I always feel a pang of jealousy as I listen to their tales of sneaking downstairs to watch House by the Cemetery one night or of being finally taken to see a Hammer Horror film at the cinema by their folks. Me? Well I was a teenager back in the 00s and the horror films I remember watching were the likes of Jeepers Creepers, Final Destination  and Saw. I didn't hate horror but I wasn't exactly a fan - it all looked so dirgy and boring, a palette of murky browns and greens peppered with rust coloured blood. It wasn't the gore that bothered me when I watched those films all those years ago, it was the lack of style.

I first watched Suspiria  back when I was 17 years old and my boyfriend of the time begged me to watch it. "You'll love it!" he said "You've never seen anything like this!" I was skeptical and was already sick to death of hearing him bang on about "The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue" which I thought was the most ridiculous film title I've ever heard. Insert joke here about Manchester, its people and the living dead ;) Anyway, being the stubborn Scot that I am, I was determined that I was going to hate Suspiria. Boy was I wrong! Despite my initial grumbling before the film started, from the moment I heard the opening Goblin score playing over those simple titles I was mesmerised. It was like nothing I'd ever seen before. Could horror look like this? Could horror sound like this?!

From Suzy's arrival at the airport, to her red and blue hued taxi journey to Pat fleeing from the Tanz Academy through dark German forests...I was captivated. How could Dario Argento make everything look so beautiful? Wasn't horror supposed to be grim and depressing? Dario made it into an art staging his film like an elaborate opera. The first murder astounded me, it genuinely gave me chills and I still can't believe Dario Argento had such an incredible vision that was executed so perfectly. That final shot of Pat's friend's face with the glass... wow.

bryan: Oh my God, I know! I remember watching the film for the first time, myself...and the killer's hand is what struck me on that first pass. Just the way the scene was lit up in a reddish/purple and the hairy hand! I felt it to be so nightmarish beyond anything that I've ever seen before. My first Argento experience was Phenomena (Creepers  back then), when I first watched Suspiria...I was prepared to be amazed...just not to that extent. It was definitely a life-changing experience...and I'm happy that your boyfriend at the time introduced you to the film. Thank you, wherever you are!

Rachael: Wow, it's so weird you mention the killer's hairy hand because that really struck me when I watched Suspiria  for the first time, as well. There's something really strange about it - despite all of the craziness going on in that scene the hairy hand/arm seems the strangest thing of all. That's why I love Argento, he always has these strange little inconsequential details in his films that somehow manage to be quite unnerving but you have no idea why. It's funny that Phenomena  was your first Argento then Suspiria, maybe you have a thing for Argento films with hairy arms in them.

Despite all the praise I lavished on Suspiria, it wasn't the film that made me fall in love with Argento and Italian horror - that honour goes to Tenebrae, although I love them both dearly.

bryan: Hahaha...perhaps I have a hairy arm/hand fetish that is lurking in my subconscious. Yeah..."Creepers" was my introduction. I just instantly fell in love with the box art depicting a lovely girl with a swarm of demon insects flying into her hand. I was into heavy metal at the, it was akin to some of the album covers that I was familiar with. I brought that film home...and the rest, as they say, is history. I didn't discover Tenebrae  until much later, actually. When I finally went down the giallo road.

Rachael: Aww...this makes me insanely jealous! I wish that I was able to rent Phenomena  from the video store when I was a teenager - that artwork would have definitely enticed me! Argento films always had exceptional artwork and I can see why a metal fan would be so drawn to the VHS covers for the likes of Argento and Fulci. So you started with more of the supernatural Italian horrors before arriving at giallo? So when you first started to discover giallo did you think back to Suspiria  and Phenomena  and categorise them as such or did you see them as two different types of films? Strangely Suspiria  always seems to be regarded as a giallo whilst Inferno  and Phenomena  never are. Arguably, they have more giallo elements!

bryan: I did start with the supernatural stuff first...and worked my way back around to giallo. I think I have a soft spot in my heart for Phenomena  because of that. The 80's was a grand time to grow up in...and I'm very thankful for that. Honestly, I've always considered Phenomena  to be giallo. Even tho I didn't really know what "giallo" was back then. But, I certainly look at is as giallo now. That is...a giallo with supernatural elements...whereas...Suspiria, if one were to argue...would be the other way around.

Rachael: I couldn't agree more about Phenomena  being a giallo with supernatural elements.The film feels very much like a classic giallo and has a lot of the associated tropes like the black coated killer, fucked up family relationships, psychosis, a mysterious killer, an animal theme etc etc.

Phenomena  is such a polarizing film - it really seems to divide Argento fans. I'm also a huge fan but, I guess that's a conversation for another time right?

bryan: Indeed! Please let me know when you have time for that conversation because I can talk about Phenomena  all day long. Absolutely love that film! However, we have business to attend to right now, my dear. The business of Suspiria!

Rachael: Haha...yes enough about Phenomena  before I get distracted. Whereas Phenomena  is mainly a giallo with a little bit of insect related supernatural madness, to me Suspiria  feels like a classic supernatural horror story that has very little in common with the giallo.

bryan: I could play Devil's advocate and insist that there is quite a bit of giallo in Suspiria. From the music to the rich look of it. There's even a killer's hand with a knife stabbing a heart in graphic detail. Hell...I'll even throw in the style and the lighting as major giallo influences.

Rachael: But to me, a lot of these so called giallo elements aren't really giallo elements. They are a continuation of ideas used in Argento's Profondo Rosso, which was made in 1975 - it was very much the exception rather than the norm. Yes Suspiria  has prog rock music and yes, Profondo Rosso  does but I'm not really convinced that counts as a giallo element, it's more Argento's changing style.

I wouldn't call heavy metal a classic giallo element because Dario used it in Opera  and Phenomena. Whereas Ennio Morricone's work was used in countless gialli and his musical style was very much the blueprint for countless films in the genre.

bryan: That is very true. I also appreciate that you identify Suspiria  as a classic supernatural horror story...because, I feel like a lot of horror fans categorize it as an art film...and while I do get is a horror film, first and foremost. There's some genuinely scary moments in that film. However, I could throw in that if you watch Suspiria  with the sound sort of calls back the rich colors and textures of Bava's Blood and Black Lace. Very saturated and alluring. Sexy, if you will.

Rachael: I knew you were going to cite Blood and Black Lace! Yes, Argento's lighting is undoubtedly inspired by Mario Bava but, again, I would point you towards Bava's third film as part of Black Sabbath - The Drop of Water. A film that also shares a similar lighting scheme but isn't a giallo! I think a giallo is defined by more than music and lighting and I think it's fair to say that the lighting and music used in Suspiria  isn't indicative of the classic giallo film.

I think some regard it as an art film because there's such a stigma about horror - it's often regarded as crass and a lesser form of cinema. Of course I don't agree with that sentiment but I think that's why people don't want to categorise it as such. Calling it an art film makes you sound more refined and intelligent 

bryan: Maybe I would argue that Suspiria  has more in common with art films than horror films...and while I'm at it...say that giallo has quite a bit to do with art and style. Therefore...Suspiria  is giallo!

Rachael: No! It's not a giallo! Style is a crucial element of the giallo but it's a very certain type of style that's indicative of the time period and culture. Giallo is 1970s Italy, it's ridiculous 1970s fashion, titillation, sleek cars and swinging discoteques. Giallo films have a heavy injection of style but they are still grounded in reality and revolve around a fairly straight forward murder mystery narrative. Suspiria  doesn't have that classic giallo narrative. Where are the red herrings? The big reveal? The police work? The comedy?

Perhaps Suspiria  is more of a horror whereas your typical giallo is more of a thriller?

bryan: I would certainly agree with that sentiment. However...there is one specific matter that would should discuss before burying this argument. If I were to insert a detective into Suspiria  who had Suzy Bannion as the prime suspect for the murders that occurred in the beginning...would it then be considered giallo? Technically, Suzy is an American student who is thrust into this world of murder and evil...and she pretty much solves everything by the climax. Would you then agree that Suspiria  is, indeed...giallo??

Rachael: It certainly would give the argument more weight but I still think tonally the film doesn't feel much like a giallo and I doubt Suzy could be considered a suspect for the first murders considering they took place somewhere Suzy had never been. I think fundamental changes would have to be made to the film's story in order to make Suzy a suspect. I don't think she's ever regarded as one - she's very much the nosy student who gets in the way of the witches/teachers who run the academy. Its more of a classic good vs evil story - we know the players but we don't know how the action is going to unfold. We want Suzy to succeed and we want to see how she manages to overcome the evil in the academy. I think when we watch a giallo we're more interested in the mystery of who the villian is and other subplots like the romance.

bryan: Yeah...I realize that...I was just trying to be cheeky haha.

Rachael: Don't ever joke about these things, it's a contentious issue!

bryan: Hahaha...I was getting a little heated there for a moment. But, I think you have given us enough argument to finally lay to rest the fact that NOT...a giallo.

Rachael: YES!!!! Although my horrible reasoning is sure to get some backlash from the yes camp.

bryan: this point, they don't have much of a leg to stand on. I think you've proven the fact quite nicely. Incidentally, what would you consider a true giallo? Like, if you were to show a first-timer a perfect example of what a giallo is...which one film would you screen for the poor fellow?

Rachael: Strange vice of Mrs Wardh  for me! How about you?

bryan: Oooh...good one! Well...this one's a tough one for me. I kind of had an opportunity to actually do that recently. I showed a friend of mine who has never seen a giallo film...The Bird with the Crystal Plumage...and he LOVED it! He instantly wanted more. So, I kind've got all excited and showed him a personal favorite of mine...Strip Nude for Your Killer, which I've always thought was super fun...and he hated it. So, I think gialli are kind of a tricky experience for everyone. It all comes down to personal taste at some point. Hopefully, I didn't turn my friend off from gialli hahaha.

Rachael: Oh that's a great one, I actually thought about Bird with the Crystal Plumage  as a perfect giallo so I'm glad your friend liked it! I can see why Strip Nude may have had a negative effect though! I showed my fiancé Tenebrae  and he didn't really have much of an opinion - it broke my heart! I drunkenly told my friend the next day I wasn't marrying him over it.

bryan: Hahaha...I can totally understand your sentiment! I think that might've been a deal-breaker for me, as well! could anyone not be into Tenebrae?? That's just craziness!

Rachael: I think it was the indifference that upset me! That ending is amazing, the reveal of the killer is up there in my favourite film moments!

bryan: I know! Peter Neal behind Detective Giermani is pure genius! It is proof that Argento was working on a different level than your average filmmaker/storyteller! I'm in the mood to watch that one again!

Well...I think that about wraps up our detailed dissection of the Suspiria  giallo argument. Do you have any final thoughts that you would like to add?

Rachael: I think that's covered it! I'm sure I will think of more points after this discussion. Anything else you'd like to add?

bryan: know I was playing Devil's advocate during this discussion and that I'm in complete agreement with all of your points. I would only add that I feel like one of the main reasons that Suspiria  always gets categorized as giallo is because of Argento's popularity and how he's always been strongly associated with giallo. I think that casual fans of the genre just view the film in a general sense and fail to look past the basic elements of the film and therefore associate the film as giallo. It's easy to do that with Suspiria  as it is Argento's most well-known one. Especially since gialli is one of the lesser-known genres of film.

Rachael: That's a great point! I can't believe I overlooked it. Whereas Fulci or Bava are perhaps regarded as directors of a few different types of films and sub genres of horror I definitely think Argento has always been associated with the giallo which definitely doesn't help when it comes to categorising Suspiria. Maybe some (not genre fans but more causal fans of horror) regard Suspiria  as giallo as they see it as another word for Italian horror? Who knows?!

bryan: Exactly. I've always thought that was a weird way of look at cinema...not that I'm into labeling everything, necessarily. But, just find it weird that a film fan would just lump everything in like that and not bother exploring it further. God, I felt so alive when I first discovered Italian horror and all of the seemingly endless supply of films and sub-genres that were available to watch!

Rachael: The best thing about discovering Italian horror films is that there's so many out there to find! It's like a life long passion especially when you throw in all the other genres. I'm on a Poliziotteschi binge at the minute.

bryan: I agree. I'm only a casual fan of Poliziotteschi, myself. Maybe one day I will fully immerse myself. Rachael...thanks so much for joining me on this quest to finally put to rest whether Suspiria  is giallo or not. Always love talking with you. You are always so insightful and intelligent and look forward to reading more of your stuff over at Hypnotic Crescendos! Maybe even right here on Film Deviant haha!

Rachael: Thank you that's far too kind considering what a mess I made of this conversation! It's been a pleasure talking to you and hearing you play devils advocate. I hope to contribute some stuff to Film Deviant very soon!

Again...many thanks to Rachael Nisbet for joining me on this "little" chat regarding one of the greatest films of all time...Dario Argento's...Suspiria. It is one of those debates that just keeps going for reasons beyond my understanding. But, I do feel that Rachael and I stuck a fork in the debate. What say you? Do you feel that Suspiria  is an honest to goodness giallo film? Or do you believe it to be a masterful supernatural horror film? Whichever the case...let us know in the comments below.

In the sure to get more of your giallo fix HERE and HERE. Oh...and...


Thanks for reading,