There are several ways of remembering a nightmare. Interpreting a classic work always requires a true sense of daring. When literature has become canon or a film a cultural staple, updating a story for a new age will bring with it the baggage of decades. For our new era of ghouls and menacing shadows, director Luca Guadagnino has decided to conjure his own interpretation of Dario Argento’s 1977 Suspiria. This new version (2018), nearly 3 hours in length, is not worthy of the label “remake.” Guadagnino has taken Argento’s pulpy, color-strewn cult object and transformed it into a work of an almost occult power. It is a film set in the very decade of the original, but it seems to be channeling our own, present sense that dark forces at work in the world. To compare the two versions is to compare two eras and mindsets, two interpretations of the extreme and satanic.
The 1977 original work by Argento is an immersive, effective form of pop gothic art where the style is what matters. He was one of the filmmakers who belonged to the “giallo” movement. In this trend Italian cinema would combine an arthouse sensibility with elements of noir, slasher movies, murder mysteries and supernatural thrillers. Suspiria is the defining work of giallo. It is a work of visual sensuousness and a plot that would find itself at home in a B-movie. An American ballet student named Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper) arrives in a rain-drenched Munich to the sounds of Goblin’s evocative music. She sees a woman named Patricia running through the woods and learns she was a student at the prestigious dance school she is here to dance for. As Suzy arrives at the school she hopes to train in, the setting becomes even more ominous. The school itself is an immense estate with stairways and framed paintings from some other century. Miss Tanner (Angela Winkler), the overseer of the school, walks with a refined, yet ominous air about her. Suzy will discover a coven is at work here, snuffing out enemies while cursing others. The school is like a conduit for the witches’ séances and will to power.
The opening to Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977)
To say there is a “plot” to Argento’s opus is to simplify its pure, visceral force. It is a film purely of tones. Blues, reds and blacks blend in the cinematography and set design, setting the precedent for future films where genre mixes with photographic exuberance. What stands out in the memory are the set pieces — a bloody hanging over an abysmal hallway, maggots dropping from the school’s ceiling, concealing a horrible, rotting secret. The final, apocalyptic crescendo in which Suzy finds the source of the school’s evil before the whole place erupts in flames. All of it of course driven by that entrancing score by Goblin with its melodic bells and tribal drum.
Because horror is transcendental, it lends itself to endless re-imaginings. What Guadagnino has done with Suspiria is similar to Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake of F.W. Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu, which was itself an interpretation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel (before the rights were made available for Hollywood’s grander commercial mill). Herzog took Murnau’s ghoulish, silent work of German Expressionism, with its sickly and perfect performance by Max Schreck as Count Orlock (Dracula) and transforms it into a hypnotic tone poem of subdued color and shadow. Actor Klaus Kinski, he of the mad hair and eyes, is turned into a bald, lonely apparition, a Dracula consumed by loneliness more than malevolence.
Similarly, Guadagnino has taken the concept of Suspiria and transformed it into a long, howling lament for the downfall of civilization and its possible (upcoming) rebirth through violence. The setting is rain-drenched Berlin in the 1970s- the Cold War is a presence everywhere. An American named Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) arrives to attend a prestigious dance school located near the Berlin Wall. Susie hails from Ohio where she was raised amongst the Amish. Through flashbacks we are given glimpses of her sad childhood during which she loses her mother to illness. Now in Berlin she seeks to hone her craft with Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), head of the school, who seems to float in her long dresses and controlled stares. Earlier we meet a student named Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz), who grows manic as she tells a psychiatrist named Dr. Josef Klemperer (played by Swinton to a degree where she ceases to exist) about her suspicions that the dance school is run by a witches’ coven. By the time Susie arrives, Patricia has disappeared, suspected of having joined up with the radical militant groups carrying out attacks in West Germany. It is the era of the Red Army Faction and the Baader-Meinhof Gang. Patricia is of course not wrong, the school is run by a group of witches of which Madame Blanc is a key figure. As Susie begins to perform for Blanc she will be drawn into the school’s underworld, discovering dark powers of her own.
Argento’s original film is a fully apolitical work, dripping in atmosphere and the shock of sudden violence. Guadagnino is a director of patient observances of the heart’s impulses. His 2017 Call Me by Your Name was a portrait of love as an exhilarating, immersive experienced followed by a sudden, crushing end. There is no love in Suspiria, only dread, the dread of a world where we sense terrible truths are being hidden. Argento’s bursting colors are replaced here by somber, cold greys and browns. Dr. Klemperer will cross over into East Berlin, where the Stalinist architecture is even more lonely and pale. Guadagnino and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom achieve a vintage look that evokes the zooms and cuts of the 1970s, but with a tone that is unsettling in nearly every instant. The music score by Radiohead’s is a mournful, immersive soundscape fit for a black Sabbath. It will shift from an elegant piano melody to ominous waves of crashing dread.
Thom Yorke’s “Suspirium”
If Argento keeps us in the dark about the true identity of the coven, Guadagnino reveals it early on. Blanc and the other witches, some much older, with names like Miss Vendegast (Ingrid Caven) and Miss Griffith (Sylvie Testud), cackle and meet in their living space, following the news of a plane hijacking by the Red Army guerrillas. They seem detached from these happenings, but not from history. They survived the Nazi years, and they feel the presence of their memories of fascism. This was a time when the German youth, still carrying the baggage of their parents’ and grandparents’ blood-soaked legacy, turned to radical, revolutionary politics as an answer to the fact that old Nazi party members were still in government. For these women, independent and full of dark passions, vengeance goes beyond worldly ideologies.
But these witches are not heroines, they are the spirit of fascism itself lurking beneath the surface of a civilization. Loyalty to the coven is strictly observed, dissenters are to be brutally punished. In the film’s most grotesque moment, a dancer named Olga (Elena Fokina), openly protests and criticizes Madame Blanc during rehearsals as Susie looks on. Olga is convinced Blanc and the others know what has happened to the missing Patricia. She is soon trapped alone in a rehearsal space, her body contorts, bones crack, fluids leak as Guadagnino cuts back to Susie performing for Blanc, who presides over everything with a subdued but penetrative charisma. The other witches soon collect Olga with silvery hooks that almost look like sickles, but have the appearance of macabre, ritualistic instruments. Medievalism in the modern world, as Trotsky described fascism in the 1930s. Dr. Klemperer is himself dealing with his own memories of life during the war, and choices he made for which he must answer. As he investigates what is happening in the school is dialogue becomes less scientific, and more mystical. He absorbs Patricia’s diaries, which are a mixture of mad scribblings and lucid thoughts. He comes to the conclusion that the coven is specifically composed of, “Three Mothers. Three gods. Three devils. Mother Tenebrarum, Mother Lachrymarum, and Mother Suspiriorum. Darkness, tears, and sighs.” Susie herself tells Blanc she wants to feel sex while dancing, but “I was thinking of an animal.” Granted in Argento’s film there was no romance, only the heroine’s bid to escape the school.
Susie has stepped into a Berlin of stinging memories leftover from an era of horrific bloodshed. Her dreams are soon hallucinatory montages of charging animals, bodies crawling on walls, bloodied bodies, grasping fingers. Beneath the beauty of the dancer’s façade lurk feral impulses. It is no surprise that the name of the major dance number the school is preparing is named “Volk,” a word associated with that most central idea of German fascism- race, and the creation of a supreme racial species. But such ideals go beyond rational science, which is why books like Unholy Alliance: A History of Nazi Involvement with the Occult, by Peter Levenda, chronicle fascism’s links to occult practices to attempt an irrational rationalization of its ethos and war cries. Susie soon finds herself sitting at dinner with the witches in a local café, and the camera closes in on faces as if they were the cabinet from hell. She is becoming part of the coven, but she is also a new flowering. Unlike Argento, Guadagnino includes an extended dance number near the end which does not feel like artsy, stage performing. It has the tone of a cultured séance, of a ritual, as if the dancers were being prepared for sacrifice.
The crescendo of the film is its wildest gesture. A final ritual takes place, so striking and vivid, with chants, naked, withering bodies and a coven mother that looks like an inhuman mass of skin, with dark glasses, chattering her teeth like a beast from some other dimension. The witches become history’s reminders of unsettling truths, the nightmare of history, now coming to claim Dr. Klemperer for revenge and Susie for her youth. It would be a sin to spoil, but the conclusion ends this tale in the only way possible, in the only crescendo history knows- an eruption of anarchic violence, with the floor soon a sea of red and gore. The violent birth of a new order closes this film. What the Red Army Faction cannot achieve, the dark arts will. Yorke’s music takes on a livelier feel, as if the violence onscreen is a sort of new, terrifying spring.
The new Suspiria reaches back into the era of the Argento original, but only keeps the barest outline of its story. What it achieves more as a work on its own than as a remake is that it speaks so directly to the feeling of the age. At the moment history feels as if it is in the grip of dark passions. In the book Devil’s Bargain, Joshua Green records Steve Bannon telling the soon to be blonde emperor during the 2016 campaign, “Darkness is good.” Like the witches in Suspiria, Bannon, himself a filmmaker, now travels the world advising other practitioners of his dangerous trade. In Brazil the fascists are about to claim the presidency, in Europe the far right emerges again in Italy and in the very country where Suspiria takes place. The witches have always been lurking beneath the surface, even when everyone was dancing. We are traveling through the middle passage of history, in the point where Antonio Gramsci warned, “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to come forth. Now is the time of monsters.”
Dario Argento’s Suspiria is a masterpiece of style and sumptuousness, fit for its time when the cinema was open to the vivacious experimentation of subgenres. Luca Guadagnino has made his own Suspiria as a requiem for a world both dying and hurtling towards a new and terrible birth. It is a long film, devoid of fast shocks, proceeding with a dread-filled patience. But is this not how we feel in these times? Racing forward yet trapped in time. Guadagnino has made a film that comprehends when history feels like black magic.
Alci Rengifo is Cinematics Editor at Riot Material and a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Mr. Rengifo frequently contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Entertainment Voice, and the East LA monthly Brooklyn & Boyle.