Suspiria 1977 directed by Dario Argento
Suspiria 2018 directed by Luca Guadagnino
When you dance a dance of another, you make yourself in the image of its creator.
Sage words of guidance uttered by Madame Blanc to Suzie Bannon, which I hope Luca Guadagnino intentionally included as the perfect tongue-in-cheek nod in his homage to Dario Argento’s (1977) Suspiria. Guadagnino made his stab at the cult horror classic after his Oscar winning triumph; Call Me By Your Name, so not only did he make quite a surprising shift of genre, but he took a risk in his choice of film to “remake”; Argento’s film is synonymous with 1970’s Italian Horror and quickly became a cult classic for any cinephile worth their salt. If someone were to mention to me that they had not seen it, I would gleefully take the chance to scathingly inform said individual that they should of course watch it, while adopting the appropriately patronising tone. But having said that, if you actually haven’t seen the original, cancel tonight’s plans, close the blinds, screw in the red lightbulb, get into that taxi, and prepare for a surreal journey like no other. I give away no spoilers in this review, so it’s safe to read on….
From this point forward, I will avoid the term “remake” when referring to Guadagnino’s Suspiria, for the obvious reason that it clearly isn’t. To enjoy either of these films you probably have to be able to embrace the macabre and the stereotype of witches being, well, really disgusting, because there’s absolutely no avoiding gratuitous grossness in either version, but both directors happen to do it so well, each putting their Italian directorial flair to use in exacting two of the most resonating and sensual horrors to grace the field.
Both directors have a clear skill set in dramatic cinematography, and the two films are based in 1970’s Germany, in the Helena Markos prestigious dance academy. The main skeleton cast are predominantly the same, and we learn very early on in both that the school is a front for an insidious coven of dark witches. Discord, fear, and schizophrenia seep from every facet of the whispering walls. Both are visceral, dark, and hauntingly beautiful. And there, folks, are where the similarities end.
Argento’s original objective was to make a dark Disney film; a more sinister Snow White, and so his original vision was written to be performed by 12 year-old-girls. Instead of employing a heavy plot directive, he relied mostly on visuals and sound to narrate the story. This was actually a stroke of genius adding a dystopian fairytale quality to what is otherwise understandably stunted dialogue. Guadagnino adopted a more structured narrative and his dialogue is considerably more evolved due to the intricacies of the plot, but yet we still feel trapped in the nightmare of Suspiria.
Although set in a dance academy, Argento never actually employed any dance scenes, possibly because it would have added too much structure to the narrative. In comparison, Guadagnino’s plot is cleverly rich in emotive and powerful dance performances, where its implied that they are rooted in the witchcraft that they enable. By doing this, he provides a basis for motive, a glimpse into the strength and hierarchy of the characters, as well as making for captivating viewing. In my opinion, this was the most outstanding narrative difference between both versions, and therefore made Guadagnino’s the more comprehensive experience.
Colour played a massively integral role in Argento’s film; he employed a synaesthetic approach, describing emotions and events predominantly with the use of vivid primary colours. Good thing too, if we were to rely on the narrative I don’t think we would have had a clue what the hell was happening. He clearly adored the overuse of red, making the film intentionally visually uncomfortable from the outset, and presenting a clear warning that something is amiss. Beginning with Suzie in the airport, the doors to the exit and impending future with the dance academy flash red in warning, giving a not-so-subtle indication to the audience that evil awaits. Comparatively, Gudagnino’s version is an homage to the era in which it is set; communist Berlin, still in recovery from the devastating effects of the war. Trauma is present in every facet of the film; protest banners adorn the peripheries, magazines shout TERROR, and in contrast to the feast of colour that Argento provided, Guadagnino starved the viewer, using grey scale with frequent splashes of saturated reds, which were starkly ominous in their context.
And then there’s the unforgettable music; Italian band Goblin’s soundtrack is arguably one of more horrifying elements of the 1977 film. Ominous, incessant, and keeping us constantly on edge, it is a barrage to our senses and there has yet to be a comparable soundtrack. It has a distinctly 70’s electronic tone, adding whispers of “witch” and foreboding drum beats to ground us in the veracity of the situation. Yet it has an undeniably beguiling beauty that adds yet another layer to the Art Nouveau masterpiece that is Argento’s Suspiria. I’ve also not been able to stop doing impressions of the eerie goblin singing on the track since I re-watched it. I’m almost as good.
On the other hand, Thom Yorke overtures Guadagnino’s Suspiria, and much like the visuals, it is in quite stark contrast to Goblin’s interpretation. Whereas both soundtracks invoke unease and a sense of the unnatural, Yorke takes a less invasive manner of approach. His lyrics are lilting and haunting, fitting the initially more subtly pervasive theme of this version, but when necessary it increases to a screaming crescendo, instilling a feeling of sinister panic in the audience, only to switch to heart wrenchingly hopeful notes, and even at times adopting a mothering, nurturing tone, befitting the relationship between Madame Blanc and Suzie.
The cinematography was equally stunning in both versions, Argento at times employed first person perspective to lend a sense of involvement to the audience. He foreshadowed many of the events to come, such as the forest at the start and the curtain in the chambers; in which we are transported to the dreamscape that he cultivated, and therefore we are left wondering in the end whether there is a cyclical nature to the nightmare, and if there is ever a true escape. This reiterates the sense of style that he pushed, but we are still left wanting the plot of the nightmare. Guadagnino regularly adopted the use of mirroring and symmetry, possibly in the aim of paralleling the relationship between witchcraft and nature, as well as creating a sense of an alternate level of functioning within the academy. There is an inescapable ferocious sense of horror here; the dream visuals are darkly sexual and disturbing, but it could be argued that they are unnecessary overload given the nature of the content.
Argento’s characters have linear relationships and a clear hierarchy of command, helping to create a definite light versus dark split. However, the key strength of Guadagnino’s version is that he introduces the politics of the academy, creating nuanced shades of grey between members, resulting in a considerably more engaging storyline. Both films are empowering to women; Argento placed women in positions of power, while the men are in servitude, or else reduced to humerous folly. In Guadagnino’s version the cast is entirely female, including the role of Dr. Josef Klemperer, a psychiatrist with emotional ties to the holocaust. This is an admirable move, but I was left wondering if it were in the best interests of the film, as the heavy makeup made it difficult to fully appreciate the emotional nuances of his character.
Both versions are divisive in general; either you hate both, love the original and hate the second version, prefer one over the other, or else you’re an oddity like me and love them both. However, one scene that seems to divide opinion more than any other is Guadagnino’s final action scene. Without divulging much, you will likely either find it incredibly over the top, or else a dramatically appropriate culmination of all the set up provided. I can entirely understand the former opinion, but I’m of the latter and found it fitting of all the sinister build up. What can I say except that I have a flair for the dramatic?
Argento’s version of Suspiria was an Art Nouveau sensual smorgasbord playing out like a nightmare from which one cannot wake. It’s easy to see the impact that it has had visually on its descendent horror films, such as Halloween, The Shining, The Lost Boy’s, and more. Given this level of influence, it would be a clear mistake for any other director to attempt a direct remake of this version. You can’t recapture that flash of lightening in a bottle and I’m so glad that Guadagnino didn’t attempt to. His Suspiria is more of a reinterpretation, based on the “feeling” he derived from watching the first. Prolonged and torturous at times, there are whispers of the original without trying to knock you over the head with them; laboured breathing; flashes of red; scenes which look like film negatives; and inappropriate outbursts of cackling laughter. In comparison to the confined setting of the original, he rooted the plot more in the bleak environment in which it is set, but without sacrificing his particular brand of style. This may not be to every viewers taste, as it considerably lengthens the film, but it added a richness of narrative, which grounded many of the main characters, as well as adding an extra layer of viciousness when desired. Guadagnino’s Suspiria is a beguiling, brash, and disturbing masterpiece of art house cinema, and even though my preference lies with this version, I celebrate the fact that I live in a time where the two films exist.