Coincidence is a brilliant thing. During a phone conversation with Dario Argento, Bizarre’s reliable Dictaphone froze, the line kept conking out while we were discussing witches and, towards the end, we started bleeding from the neck.
No surprises, then, that the exact time our interview finished was 3:33 – which is half of 666, as any hexakosioihexekontahexaphobiac (gulp!) will shakily confess.
Were we spooked? When talking to a man behind bloody classics such as 1977 witchcraft slasher Suspiria (set to be released in a newly restored cut this month), who was recently lauded with the Cine-Excess Lifetime Achievement Award for cinematic gloom, we expected nothing less…
Have you ever had strange things happen during filming?
With Suspiria there was a series of bizarre events. When we arrived in Munich, all the city’s churches were draped in black flags because the Archbishop had died, so there was a mournful mood across the city. And on the first day of shooting, everyone’s watches stopped at the same time.
That’s pretty freaky…
There were people with Rolexes, good watches, and they all stopped! I’ve never seen supernatural forces, but coincidences like this make you think.
So you’re not convinced about the existence of the supernatural?
No, but I’m desperate to meet a ghost. I’ve stayed in old houses, which people insist are haunted, but nothing happens. It’s such a shame!
Have you tried a Ouija board?
I’ve tried, but I think the medium controls everything. I covered séances in Trauma (daughter Asia’s first movie in 1993) and the characters in the film don’t believe in them, either.
Is it true that Suspiria was inspired by your then-girlfriend, actress Daria Nicolodi, whose grandmother discovered her ballet school was a front for black magic?
No, that story was made up. But my supernatural films do follow real beliefs and legends.
So you had to research witchcraft for Suspiria and its second sequel, Mother Of Tears, quite intensively?
I went all round Europe trying to find witches and sorceresses, but they’re not so easy to find. A lot of people claimed to possess incredible powers, and could do many things, but they never did any experiments in front of me. One lady in Switzerland was disclosing all her habits to me when her husband, who was sitting on the sofa next to her, fell asleep – like he’d dropped dead! And she whispered, “Don’t worry, now we can talk in peace, I made him fall asleep.”
And then she tried to show you lots of crazy miracles?
No, she just told me about what witches eat, how they dress, what they do. It was all theory. Was I disappointed? Not really.
You’ve shot a lot of films in Turin. Isn’t the city celebrated as a magical place, even boasting a gateway to Hell?
It has a mysterious aura, and there’s a myth that beneath the Piazza Statuto there’s the so-called gateway to Hell. We went to check – it’s sort of a flight of stairs, which lead to underground caves. It’s a bizarre part of the city, but no entrance to Hell!
Did the city’s spirit play a part in your decisions to shoot there?
Maybe, yes. There’s something deep beneath that city, and that’s why I like it. You can feel its soul.
How has your daughter Asia influenced your work?
Asia understands my work very well, and it’s great to work with her – it’s unusual for a father and daughter to work together in a film. I appreciate her. She’s also a good director.
Has it been uncomfortable casting her in sexual and violent roles?
Yes, but these scenes are important so you have to be professional. Sometimes Asia cried afterwards. She asked me, “Why are you making me do this?” But she accepts it now. I remember her first naked scene – she was very, very nervous, she was sweating lots!
Asia has been quoted as saying, “Sometimes I think my father only gave me life so he had a lead actress for his films.” Is this true?
Ha ha. Maybe it’s partly true!
Your films have been labelled misogynistic, and it’s been reported that you said, “I’d rather watch a beautiful woman be killed than a not so beautiful one”…
Yes, but the criticism isn’t justified. I love women and you need to take into account the spirit of the films. Both women and men are killed, and if the women are beautiful, fine, but the men are sometimes handsome, too. This criticism was years ago. Now people understand it’s just a show. I love to work with women. Actresses are more ready to follow your creation; it’s a beautiful working relationship. When I discovered this, I discovered new ways to do films.
And the women in your films are often the far stronger characters…
Yes. Take Suspiria, there are only three men in it: one is blind, one can’t speak and the other is gay. It’s the women who have the power.
You famously use your own hands to perform the murder scenes in your films. Do you like killing?
This started on my first film. We didn’t have enough money to hire extras, so I said “OK, I’ll do it!” I tried it and it’s good! And after this, I became a pro at killing, so I do it all the time!
So you enjoy it?
It’s actually very difficult. It’s a big responsibility. You have to get the technique just right and make it convincing. It’s not so easy…