Suspiria

Suspiria ★★★★½

What better film to watch on a bitterly cold night as frost forms on your windows?

I wrote the essay below last semester, comparing both this one and Argento's original work. Hope you enjoy!

When you dance the dance of another, you make yourself in the image of its creator”, the icy Madam Blanc (Tilda Swinton) tells Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), a newcomer to the Markos Dance Academy in a scene from the new version of Suspiria. It’s this one single line of dialogue that is the heart of the relationship between the two versions of this tale of witches and ballet. Forty one years separate the Luca Guadagnino-helmed film from its older sibling, which was directed by horror maestro Dario Argento, and the difference is shown by the influences that both films take from. Guadagnino may have veered as far away from Argento’s image as possible, to the point where the new Suspiria is more of a reimagining than a remake, but his image still haunts the story.

First, a look at how the original Suspiria, considered one of the greatest works of horror in existence, came to be. Back in the 1970s, noted Italian film director Dario Argento was on a hot streak. Several years of writing spaghetti westerns (including the iconic Once Upon a Time in the West) had landed him his first directing job with the giallo The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. A commercial and critical success, Argento followed it with two more giallos to create his so-called “Animal Trilogy”, and in 1975, he directed Deep Red, which is widely considered by horror buffs and film critics to be the greatest giallo in history. By this time, Argento was looking to break away from what had made him internationally renowned, when he read a poetic essay by Thomas De Quincey named "Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow". One passage in particular stuck with the director:

“These ladies," said I softly to myself, on seeing the ministers with whom Levana was conversing, "these are the Sorrows; and they are three in number, as the Graces are three, who dress man`s life with beauty; the Parcoe are three, who weave the dark arras of man`s life in their mysterious loom, always with colours sad in part, sometimes angry with tragic crimson and black; the Furies are three, who visit with retribution called from the other side of the grave offences that walk upon this; and once even the Muses were but three, who fit the harp, the trumpet, or the lute, to the great burdens of man`s impassioned creations. These are the Sorrows, all three of whom I know."

De Quincey goes on to describe the three Sorrows in detail, and names them: Mother Lachrymarum, Mother Tenebrarum, and Mother Suspiriorum. In the original Latin, the mothers of Tears, Darkness, and Sighs. These three sister witches rule the world and cause all pain and suffering, according to De Quincey’s poetry. Argento wrote the script in collaboration with his partner Daria Nicolodi keeping this poem in mind. Additional details came from Nicolodi’s dreams, from a nightmare she had while staying in Los Angeles.

The director of the new Suspiria, Luca Guadagnino, had a much different career trajectory. A fellow native Italian like Argento, he directed his debut feature The Protagonists in 1999, the first of several collaborations with actress Tilda Swinton. After a decade of directing documentaries and other films, 2009’s I Am Love became a cult hit, earning Guadagnino closer attention from film critics. His break-out moment? 2017’s Call Me By Your Name, the story of a summer romance in 1983 Italy between two men. The film received rapturous critical praise, box office success, and was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It ended up winning Best Adapted Screenplay.

So why a reimagining of Suspiria as his follow-up work to a highly praised love story? For a director of passionate romances, a horror film feels wildly out of character. Turns out, it’s a passion project. “I think the process of how that movie influenced my psyche probably has yet to stop, which is something that happens often when you bump into a serious work of art like Suspiria. I think the movie I made, in a way, [represents] some of the layers of [my] upbringing, watching the movie for the first time and thinking of it and being obsessed by it”, Guadagnino said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter.

The story presented in both versions of Suspiria use the same basic beginning: an American ballet student goes to a dance academy in Germany to study, only to find out that the place is run by a coven of witches with malevolent intentions for her. What makes them unique and separate from each other is how the story plays out. While the original runs with the concept and builds endless tension and fear from the viewer, the new uses it as a launching pad to study national guilt, motherhood, matriarchy, and the abuse of power.

The original Suspiria drew its influences from films decades older than itself, including one that doesn’t have any major horror credentials to it. Luciano Tovoli, the DoP hired by Argento, was tasked with watching Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) in order to create the color palate Argento was looking for. “To immediately make Suspiria a total abstraction from what we call ‘everyday reality,’ I used the usually reassuring primary colors only in their purest essence, making them immediately, surprisingly violent and provocative”, Tovoli said in an interview with American Cinematographer. The original Suspiria is bathed in bright, candy-like reds, deep and searing blues, and sickly, ill-looking greens. Printed using the Technicolor process, it comes across as a violent, deranged fairy tale.

Guadagnino’s Suspiria takes inspiration in its cinematography from very different influences. One major source is the British horror classic Don’t Look Now, directed by Nicolas Roeg. A harrowing tale about parents dealing with the loss of their child, it weaves a story of doom, as if there was no other ending possible than what’s to come. The film is dreary and damp in its cinematography, and the film is set in Venice, the most waterlogged city in the world (and how tragic that the parents of a drowning victim head to a city of canals). The color red is crucial to the film, as the rain coat worn by the child - and the coat worn by a serial killer stalking Venice - are both red, and are the only obviously red items in the film. According to The Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw, Roeg “...created a shape-shifting garment in that sinister red item. In its two guises, the child's mac and the serial killer's coat, it exemplifies Joyce's two faces of tragedy, pity and terror, the one showing us the effects of our unhappy condition, the other showing its source”.

The DoP for the new Suspiria, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, similarly avoids reds in his color scheme. When red pops up (in the dancer’s outfits for the climatic Volk number, or in the bloody climax), it’s striking, compared to the greys, browns, and greens that dominate the film. The ballet school and the city of Berlin itself are cold, unfeeling locations, giving the sense as if an aura of death hung over the characters, and that the divisive, blood-gushing finale was in fact the only way the story could have reasonably ended. The filter on the camera lens even turns red to deal with the frenzy, a tidal wave of crimson that could rival The Shining’s famous elevator sequence for greatest amount of stage blood on a studio set. As heads explode from the touch of Death herself, we are meant to be soothed by the filter, to ease the shock of it all. So while Argento lived for color, Guadagnino tactically avoids color.

Argento’s film also takes inspiration from a prolific German director’s work: Robert Wiene’s silent classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). “For Suspiria I was inspired by everything that German Expressionism means; dreams, provocations, unreality, and psychoanalysis”, Argento said in an documentary for the 25th anniversary of the film. Dr. Caligari’s exceedingly obvious artificiality, dramatic shadows (some of which were painted directly onto the sets), and dreamlike atmosphere were essential in crafting the vision Argento had for Suspiria. This made the extravagant murder sequences shot for the film even more disorienting, even more terrifying. Both films are so far removed from any sense of reality that feel like nightmares printed on celluloid.

In contrast, Guadagnino took influence from a just as important, yet vastly different, German director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Despite working as a director for just 13 years (from 1969 until his cocaine overdose in 1982), he managed to make an astonishing 44 films for the screen and for television. Many of his works involved the state of Germany in the post-World War II era, and many offered complex roles for women to play. His films shared a similar color palette with Don’t Look Now, one of dull wintery shades and decay. Guadagnino said in an interview with Variety that “...Fassbinder was this gigantic filmmaker of cruelty who goes so deep into character. I have always loved the cinema of extremes.”

Fassbinder’s cruel women (such as the lesbian lovers of The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant and the money-driven lead of The Marriage of Maria Braun) would fit perfectly into the world of the Markos Dance Academy. They’re mean, catty, and vicious, but do have a soft side to them. The dancers and matrons of the school feel as if they’ve been transplanted into the world of Suspiria from a long-lost script of Fassbinder’s, ignored until now. Dakota Johnson even watched a majority of his films, in order “...to get the essential vibe of Berlin at that time,” she said in an interview with IndieWire. Both Argento and Guadagnino took inspiration from German film, but the forty year difference between them meant that the noted German film “classics” changed over the decades.

The biggest departure from the original story in Guadagnino’s film is the heavy political subplot that has been added. During the 1970s, Germany’s attempt to wrestle with the sins committed by the nation during Hitler’s regime had lead to violence from leftist militia factions, including the RAF (Red Army Faction) in particular. The RAF lead a campaign of bombings, kidnappings, and the dramatic hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181, which peaked during the autumn of 1977, and the RAF’S activity was mainly restricted to Berlin. No surprise that Guadagnino specifically set his version of Suspiria during this timeframe, and that the dance academy is across the street from the Berlin wall. This reckoning of national guilt is known as vergangenheitsbewältigung in German. In English, it can be roughly translated to “struggle to overcome the negatives of the past”.

This attempt to grapple with guilt makes itself most obvious with the largest addition to the story: that of Dr. Josef Klemperer, a Jewish psychiatrist who lost his wife in the war and has never gotten over it. He tries to help out one of the students after she has a nervous breakdown, but even then he writes off her pleas as a delusion. The film ends with him in bed, visited by Susie (who turned out to be Mother Suspiriorum all along). She bluntly tells him that his wife died in a concentration camp, and she wipes his memory of both the events of the film, and of her existence. The tragedy comes from that he has been given a pass, and thus cannot learn from the past. There will be no reckoning of guilt for him.

Argento’s Suspiria, meanwhile, did not take influences from culture or the political leanings of the time in which it was made. It is a pure exercise dedicated to fear, aiming to disorient the audience, to frighten them with the loud, prog-rock score composed by Goblin and the vivid imagery on the screen. What makes it so brilliant is that it is a pure nightmare, distressing the viewer and pushing them to the limit. Adam Rayman noted in an article for The Ringer that once the film ended with Suzy Bannion smiling in the rain as she leaves the school behind, that “...what lingers is not a sense of evil but exhilaration in how far Argento and his fellow filmmakers were willing to go to shock and delight; the movie’s sheer exuberance is the cinematic equivalent of a blood transfusion.” It’s all about twisting the mind and filling the viewer with fear, with every aspect of the film working hard to achieve that goal.

These two very different tales of horror come from the same material, but their influences made them extreme contrasts to each other. One is an adrenaline rush of fear, the other is a heady study of guilt and power. Yet when all is said and done, and the audience leaves the theater, what is remembered? The influences, the directorial vision? For those who don’t know (or don’t care to know), their minds are wiped clean like Dr. Klemperer’s by the closing credits. For those who can see what inspired these films, they may draw from the past and be influenced by these two works and their influencers when creating their own art. Keep dancing, like the students of the Markos Dance Academy - but it’s important to remember who created the steps in the first place.

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