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-[Film Reviews]-, European Cinema

‘Suspiria’ (1977, 2018): Nightmares of Witchcraft Past & Present

Directed by: Dario Argento [1], Luca Guadagnino [2] || Produced by: Claudio Argento [1], Marco Morabito, Brad Fischer, Luca Guadagnino, David Kajganich, Silvia Venturini Fendi, Francesco Melzi d’Eril, William Sherak, Gabriele Moratti [2]

Screenplay by: Dario Argento, Daria Nicolodi [1], David Kajganich [2] || Starring: Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci, Miguel Bose, Barbara Magnolfi, Susanna Javicoli, Eva Axen, Alida Valli, Joan Bennett [1], Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth, Angela Winkler, Ingrid Caven, Elena Fokina, Sylvie Testud, Renee Soutendijk, Christine LeBoutte, Fabrizia Sacchi, Malgosia Bela, Chloe Grace Moretz [2], Jessica Harper [1, 2]

Music by: Goblin, Dario Argento [1], Thom Yorke [2] || Cinematography: Luciano Tovoli [1], Sayombhu Mukdeeprom [2] || Edited by: Franco Fraticelli [1], Walter Fasano [2] || Country: Italy || Language: Italian [1], German [2], English [1, 2]

Running Time: 99 minutes [1], 152 minutes [2] || 1 = Suspiria (1977), 2 = Suspiria (2018)

Dario Argento’s Suspiria was the first film by the venerable Italian writer-director I ever saw, but I only saw it for the first time a few years ago in 2019 (i.e. the “pre-COVID-19 era”) not long after the release of its controversial 2018 remake. One of the most influential horror films ever made, as well as one of the most visually striking, the original Suspiria is often discussed with the same renown as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1974), and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) in terms of its technical innovation, stylized execution, and the number of wannabe copycats it spawned in the years since its release. The 2018 remake by fellow Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino is a different beast altogether, more of a rhythmic homage than a traditional remake, which I argue is how the best intellectual property remakes, reboots, and re-imaginings operate. Where Argento’s original is a nightmarish, primary color-dominated fever dream that focuses on audiovisual sensory overload atop a minimalist 99-minute narrative outline, Guadagnino’s multilingual 152-minute period epic emphasizes detailed characterizations, deliberate plot progression, and choreography of physical movement over mise-en-scène.

Suspiria (1977) features murder, suicide, Jessica Harper, and most terrifying of all… colors!

Starting with the 1977 Suspiria, Argento’s first true, purebred horror film was only his second foray outside of the Italian giallo movement (his first was the comedy-drama The Five Days [1973], a minor work in his early canon) and his first work using an overwhelming female perspective. Argento and cowriter Daria Nicolodi, who starred in many of his films (e.g. Deep Red [1975]) and later gave birth to their two children, sketch a broad, surrealist narrative of an American ballerina (Jessica Harper) who travels to Germany to train at a prestigious dance academy, only to discover the school is run by a coven of witches. Besides that and the all female cast (see also The Descent [2005]), various screenplay details like character development and overall narrative structure are complete afterthoughts next to Argento and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli’s overwhelming visuals.

The look of Suspiria, which takes advantage of its Technicolor colorization process to emphasize vivid, extreme hues, is the true star of the film, rather than the story, diegetic setting, photographic setting (the film was shot in Munich and various Roman sound stages), or even its characters. You’ll have to handwave many narrative inconsistencies and nonsensical character actions throughout the film to best appreciate its nightmarish set-pieces, which flaunt not only terrific lighting arrangements but also magnetic, foreboding set-design. The highest compliment I can pay Suspiria (1977) is how much its various kills, jump-scares, and psychedelic imagery hold up after all these years; the major asterisk I have to put beside that compliment is how much I don’t give a crap about most all the characters who suffer that colorful, dreamlike violence, save for *maybe* lead Jessica Harper in the film’s climax.

The relationship of 2018’s Suspiria to its classic original is most comparable to the recent Apes films’ (2011, 2014, 2017) reboot of their respective original series from the 1960s-1970s. Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 film is more of a total reimagining of the Argento experience than it is a traditional retread of the fabled source material (for the latter style, see the Conan the Barbian [2011], Total Recall [2012], and Robocop [2014] remakes), though the mountain Suspiria’s reimagining has to climb is how respected the 1977 film is, unlike the original Planet of the Apes installments. So untouchable is the reputation of Argento’s most famous piece that its 2018 remake polarized not only audiences, but cinephiles and critics alike no matter how different in style the latter was from the former.

Epic and detailed where the original was concise and vague, Suspiria (2018) reimagines the concept of a Cold War era-West German dance academy controlled by witchcraft in the style of contemporary streaming features and limited series, where concise runtimes are of secondary importance relative to intimate character study, humanized villainy, and morbid, introspective social commentary. This dynamic is no doubt a function of screenwriter David Kajganich, who also collaborated with Guadagnino on the earlier A Bigger Splash (2015) and the later Bones and All (2022), a self-professed non-fan of Argento’s classic and the horror genre in general. The 2.5 hour film takes its time with all characters, minor and major, heroic to malevolent, to describe their motivations, backstories, and development in ways that feel relatable no matter their historical context. Here, unlike the 1977 original, characterization matters and is front and center of the filmic experience.

At the same time, Kajganich’s most notable contribution to the 2018 remake may be his conception of dance as the medium through which the film’s witch antagonist’s conduct spells, which in hindsight makes the 1977 movie’s complete disinterest in dance choreography feel like a major oversight. The musical rhythm, ultrasharp editing, and tonal power of its dance sequences feel on par with a dynamite Hindi or South Indian production, despite the remake’s use of dull, muted winter colors to fit its German Autumn setting. The diversity of dance choreography, how the dances visually explore the characters, and their critical function in progressing the story from Point A to B puts so many melodramatic, showy, loud, annoying, fruity, verbose contemporary Hollywood musicals (e.g. Moulin Rouge! [2001], Chicago [2002], Mamma Mia! [2008, 2018], In the Heights [2021]) to shame.

Suspiria’s (2018) cast includes several mainstream Hollywood starlets not typically known for this sort of niche, grungy material (e.g. 50 Shades of Grey [2015, 2017, 2018] alum Dakota Johnson at top center), as well as actors born for this sort of material (e.g. Tilda Swinton at top right, a pre-X/Pearl [2022] Mia Goth at bottom right).

Sacrilegious though this may sound, I prefer Luca Guadagnino’s dour, somber, and epic reimagining of Dario Argento’s Suspiria to the original film. The latter is a charismatic, colorful, and memorable nightmare of a movie, and most all horror aficionados would consider it on par with the greats of the genre. What prevents me from joining that bandwagon is (1) I don’t connect with the characters or the story at all, even if those features are of secondary importance to the dreamlike cinematography, and (2) the complete disinterest Suspiria ’77 has in its dance academy setting. The remake makes such genius use of dance as a plot-device I feel the original wasted a considerable part of its screenplay, which is a primary reason I have never revisited the original but made a point to rewatch its 2018 descendant. I’ll credit Argento’s most famous piece for its innovative, beautiful mise-en-scène and use of color, but I’ll always prefer the version — even if it’s ballooned to over two and a half hours in length — that uses color, camerawork, and editing to emphasize characterization over vague ambiance.

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SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: In terms of visuals, the original Suspiria is hard to beat even if you’re not a horror fan, building from a creepy, unassuming Munich airport into a crescendo of psychedelic witchcraft. The 2018 remake, meanwhile, packs a subtler punch that uses historical backdrops, realistic characterizations and dialogue, and creative musical choreography to tell the same narrative outline in a completely different way.

However… Suspiria ’77 has little story progression despite its three-act structure, and its characters fare almost as poorly. Guadagnino’s redux takes its sweet time to reveal its core themes over 152 minutes.

—> I remain ON THE FENCE with respect to Suspiria (1977), but on the other hand, RECOMEND Suspiria (2018) with no apologies.

? We need guilt, Doctor, and shame, but not yours.

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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