In the iconic opening moments of Dario Argento’s Italian horror classic Suspiria, young American ballet student Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) travels from the Munich airport through a technicolour-embossed rainstorm to arrive at her new dance school, the internationally renowned Freiburg Tanzakedemie. Upon her arrival, however, fellow student Pat Hingle (Eva Axén) leaves the building in a clear state of distress. Screaming back inside the building over the sound of the blasting rain, Suzy hears Pat say two words; “iris” and “secret”. Structurally, these words offer surface-level a way into the mysteries at the heart of the film, but the joke is of course that the secret of the irises was never a secret at all: there is no surprise revelation that the ballet school is run by a coven of witches, because the word “witch!” is repeated mantra-like throughout Goblin’s pounding prog-rock soundtrack that accompanies this famous opening sequence.
But if Suspiria mocks our expectations to locate its mysteries within its plot in its first five minutes, it stores its more profound enigmas far more deeply. Of these, for me at least, is the figure of Olga, a small but significant character played by Barbara Magnolfi. I spent the bulk of 2014 and 2015 writing a monograph about the film, and while Magnolfi’s screen time is less than the film’s bigger names – Harper, Alida Valli and Joan Bennett – something about her performance demands our attention, drawing us to her even above the frenzied audio-visual cacophony that so infamously marks the film.
While Suspiria‘s other characters in large part serve to propel the simple narrative forward—through a series horror vignettes marked by Luciano Tovoli’s Gothic Technicolor netherworld to the sound of Goblin’s throbbing score—Olga stands apart. Sometimes comic relief, and at other times almost cattily hostile to the protagonist Suzy, Olga feels to be as much a part of the Tanzakedemie’s architecture as the Art Nouveau style archways that construct its ribcage-like corridors.
In what is in large part a female ensemble film with only a few minor male characters on the periphery, Magnolfi is a crucial element of Suspiria’s parade of strong female characters. Unlike the college-based slasher films that would become popular in North America later in the 1970s and well into the 1980s, Suspiria featured women characters of different ages, sizes and personalities, and Olga’s vampish little-girl-playing-grown-woman shtick adds in key ways to the film. Snippy and seductive, Olga single-handedly thwarts any suggestion of the female students as solely the victims of the school’s teacher-witches: as Magnolfi herself told me recently, “Dario called me ‘my wichette’, or ‘La mia Streghina ‘ in Italian, and that is because Olga is a witch!”. There was, says Magnolfi, an intended final scene that that would indicate Olga’s survival, but it was never shot “because it was going to take away from the suspense towards the end.”
The suggestion that Olga was a part of the coven – one whose task was to recruit other students – is a tantalising one that opens up an already fascinating film to even newer, fresher interpretations. I was introduced to Magnolfi through a mutual contact after the publication of my recent monograph on the film, and this interview has provided me with new insight into the remarkable character of Olga. It was therefore both a delight and a privilege to speak to Barbara not simply about Suspiria, but her impressive career more broadly.
I’ve read that you took to acting very early, appearing in Antonio Pietrangeli’s 1969 film Come, quando, perché (that also starred the wonderful Horst Buchholz, no less). What do you recall about that experience as a little girl? Was it ‘love at first film’ for you?
I did it at a very young age, twelve going on thirteen. I took to ballet dancing much earlier at four years old – perhaps to escape a difficult childhood – which I actually consider a blessing in disguise since it led me right to my bliss! On the set of Come, quando, perché I felt at home, it was like I had always done this. Pierangeli called me a ‘natural’, so it’s fair to say it was love at first film!
I know that I am not alone in Olga being one of my favourite characters in Suspiria. For a film set in an all-girls school, the movie is never exploitative like a lot of other horror films in that setting, yet Olga is the one character that really brings a rare degree of explicitly feminised sexuality to the film. What I love about your performance is that it almost feels like a little girl ‘playing’ a woman – there’s a lot of fun in your Olga. Can you tell me a bit about your thoughts on the character: how you approached her, how you see her now, and her importance to the strong legacy of Suspiria?
I approached Olga as a wild cat moving in to catch new prey for Madame Blanc. She was quite a complex character: arrogant but seductive, venomous but sexy, childish but wild, attractive but a bitch – all at the same time. Dario wanted us to play the characters as a child would because the movie was originally meant to be shot with twelve or thirteen year old girls.
I was rereading the original script not so long ago and I looked at Olga on the page again and then thought about how I brought her to life, and I think I really nailed it. It was exactly how Olga was described in the script. Of course, I created those moves and mannerisms, and spiced it up in different ways – even her dresses were my dresses! Olga was a lot of fun to play, and the role was right for me, for sure. I see her now as key to the film’s success, because if you take her away it wouldn’t be the same at all, would it? In fact, even when the movie came out the media were talking more about Olga then any other character in the movie!
As Olga, you held your own amongst some very big names: Hollywood star Joan Bennett, the legendary Italian actress Alida Valli (who had starred in Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case and Carol Reed’s The Third Man), and Jessica Harper (who had recently starred in Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise). Were you familiar with your co-stars’ earlier works? Was that intimidating at all? One of the things I love about Suspiria is that it is for the most part a female ensemble film – there is such great energy between the women in this film!
I was familiar with my co-stars earlier work, absolutely! I had recently watched Phantom of Paradise and loved Jessica’s character and her voice. Alida was an amazing actress and person, and she became my mentor on set – we liked each other. Joan Bennett is the one I was most honoured to be in the presence of, a Hollywood legend. Indeed, it was my first day on set when I actually met her and Alida Valli. I could never forget the feeling of that first day, the exhilaration – I was on cloud nine, but at the same time I was terrified. But I held my own – I was prepared as an actress, and all my co-stars were supportive.
I’d love to hear how you got involved in the project, and about the audition process in particular as Dario Argento has quite a reputation for sometimes unusual approaches!
I stared ballet at four, so by ten I was the lead ballerina. I believe this had something to do with my getting the role in Suspiria, because Olga was supposed to dance in a scene that was never shot – she was meant to be a student in her last year at the academy, and was therefore meant to be a better dancer than the newer students.
I trained for a month or more before we started shooting. The approach the audition – if we could call it that – took was certainly unusual (as is Dario!), but I enjoyed it. I met Dario in his production office and he sat me in a chair. He was sitting on another chair in front of me, and gave me this big thick script that was labelled “Suspiria”. He then asked me to take a look at the character Olga, and asked me how I would play her and what I thought about her, so I did. He never asked me to read dialogue, but instead told me to stand in the middle of the half empty room, and move a certain way. He circled around me till he saw what he wanted to see I guess because he became very exited and sent me off shortly after: I was soon given the role! Dario and I became instant friends and throughout the process of production and post production, editing and the creation of the music score of the film, we were often together.
You’ve often called Suspiria a dark fairy tale, which I think is a much better description of it than just as a straightforward horror movie. When you were working on the film, what was the feeling on set? I am guessing that the reputation of Argento’s earlier work made it all very exciting, but did you all sense that this was somehow something very different?
I see it as a dark fairy tale, as some children’s fairy tales are also really dark if you think about them: even Little Red Riding Hood could be made into a horror movie. The feeling on set was quite incredible: the set design – that Art Deco style – was all very grand, and the atmosphere was almost mystic. I guess you could sense that we were in the making of something special: at least I did!
Cinematographer Luciano Tovoli has said similar things, and he had all sorts of amazing stories about how he filmed you poor girls under very hot lights, reflected into mirrors and shone through large frames with velvets and tissue papers to get the intense colours. Did the environment in which you were filming influence performances much?
I remember the sets were quite elaborate and took a long time to build, but Dario wouldn’t settle until he got exactly what he wanted. He knew what his vision was, and this went for every little detail, he is a real perfectionist. I believe that enhanced the performance. You had to give it your best.
You have very rightfully been celebrated as a key part of what has made this movie so special, especially in horror fan communities. What are your feelings about the film’s legacy more broadly? Did you expect it to be this loved for this long?
It has been quite amazing indeed. This film has been a jewel passed from generation to generation, and it keeps going and will keep going because is like a great song – it is timeless, it doesn’t age, and you don’t get tired of watching it. It has become a cult classic: I was so overwhelmed when I attended my first convention in the USA! My most memorable tribute from a fan was an amazing poem that brought me right to tears. Someone else told me I was their inspiration to become an actor, and I am honoured to have inspired someone like this, to have made people laugh or to help someone in some way through my performance and work.
Aside from Argento, you worked with two other very big names in Italian genre film: Sergio Martino and Ruggero Deodato. Can you tell me a little about your experiences working with these legendary figures? Did they work in similar ways?
They both marked achievements in my career, but in different ways. Martino’s Suspicious Death of a Minor (1975) was my first official role in a film and I worked with amazing actors like Mel Ferrer and Claudio Cassinelli. Sergio Martino was such a gentlemen and made me feel at ease. I worked with Deodato after [Magnolfi’s late husband and actor] Marc Porel’s death. Deodato had worked with Marc before, and he reached out to me to give me work at a time when I really needed it to boost my morale. He had me read for a lead role, however my English at the time wasn’t perfect so he gave me other one. This gave me the opportunity to work in the USA where we shot my scenes in Miami, and I never forgot how impressed I was and promised myself I would be back to the US one day. And now here I am, residing here!
I am a great admirer of both your work and that of Marc Porel, so am heartbroken that I have yet been able to see Umberto Silva’s 1977 film Difficile Morire, which you both appear in. I have, of course, seen Enzo Milioni’s giallo La Sorella di Ursula that I am assuming is a very different film from Silva’s movie! I understand you were unimpressed with the final released version of La Sorella di Ursula?
Difficile Morire is my favourite of my films, along with Suspiria and another one I shot with Marc called Blazing Flowers (Gianni Martucci, 1978), which also stars Al Cleaver and George Hilton. Difficile Morire is a costume historical film, set in 1911. It is also the film where Marc and I met. La sorella di Ursula a was originally a psychological thriller and quite a good story till in the middle of shooting the producer and director decided to add sex to it to make more money: they did this without my consent and I was the star in the movie! Of course I was not pleased with the result!
Can you tell me more about your current work, both in front of and behind the camera? In particular I’m fascinated by your interest in directing: films like The Babadook brought much needed attention to women filmmakers in horror, and I believe you are also interested in producing and writing?
I just finished a film with Luigi Cozzi in Rome: Dario Argento, Lamberto Bava, and Antonio Tentori were also involved with it. I did one episode of the My Haunted House TV show for Lifetime last July, and I am currently writing my autobiography and hoping to get that published this year. I continue to audition – I of course would love to book something in a TV show – and I have a couple of film scripts I am reading. More and more I am turning towards production, and even directing: I have a documentary I am looking at producing, in fact. Last but not least, I am looking forward to do more conventions here in US and meet more of my fans. This has been a lot of fun!
You can purchase Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ book on Suspiria here and find out more about Barbara Magnolfi at her website.