Remakes and reboots are endemic to the horror genre, but Suspiria is an unusual sort of remake. Rather than take too many pains to imitate the 1977 Dario Argento film, director Luca Guadagnino has said that he made his version as an “homage to the incredible, powerful emotion [he] felt” when he saw the original. As a result, while both movies feature the same essential plot skeleton of an American girl joining a German dance company secretly run by a coven of witches, they’re extremely different in form, feeling, and theme.
1977’s Suspiria is a cult classic, beloved for its gonzo atmosphere, vivid imagery, and incredible prog-rock soundtrack by the band Goblin. With that bombastic music, bold primary colors (it was one of the last films shot and processed in Technicolor), and purposefully showy framing and editing, it plays out like a hyper-stylized nightmare. The story is an elemental cat-and-mouse game in which protagonist Suzy (Jessica Harper) gradually awakens to the danger around her at the school. In a manner similar to old fairy tales, the food is not to be trusted, there are witches about, and anyone without their wits about them meets a nasty end. Those deaths are operatic, with over-the-top blood effects, a cacophonous soundscape, and dramatic camera flourishes. Ultimately, Suzy triumphs through violence and escapes into the night, a giallo version of Little Red Riding Hood carving her own way out of the wolf’s stomach.
The new Suspiria is more in line with modern sensibilities of “elevated” horror. That label is contentious, to say the least, but it works in lieu of a better term for a trend in recent prestige horror movies. Like The Witch or Hereditary or It Follows, the film works in a muted color palette and with highly controlled editing. Even when frantic violence occurs, the movie never loses its sense of precision. Whereas Argento’s film is shorter than 100 minutes, the remake comes in at two and a half hours. It feels free to stretch out, letting shots, conversations, and sequences run long. There’s even a languid feeling to the scary scenes, which seek to terrorize through vicious imagery and effects rather than confrontational cutting or cinematography. Thom Yorke’s score is ethereal, alternately wistful, mysterious, and sinister.
The result is a film with some interesting ideas left adrift, like dancers on a stage that’s far too large for them to move across efficiently. One of the movie’s many odder moves is that it takes the original’s dance company setting — a purely functional backdrop than anything else — and puts it front and center. This is actually more about dance than witches. In fact, it’s about many things before it’s about witches. Another throwaway element of the original that’s brought to the fore here is the time and place. Argento’s Suspiria was set in Germany but could have been anywhere, whereas this one incorporates events of the German Autumn of 1977 into its story and themes. Political violence is frequently in the background of various scenes, and references are also made to the residual effects of the Third Reich on German society. Dance company director Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) asserts that such times have shown that in art, “We must break the nose of every beautiful thing,” and incorporates this sensibility into the company’s (literally) ritualistic performance Volk.
That connection between societal violence and the violence of art and performance, embodied by the sinister matrons pulling the strings of the dancers, is the movie’s strongest idea. Others are underdeveloped, and don’t tie into that idea well at all. Guadagnino also looked to the ’70s for artistic inspiration, incorporating homages to feminist art, as in a sequence in which Susie (Dakota Johnson) experiences all the nightmares of the academy’s denizens at once. Originally, this montage included overt references to the work of Ana Mendieta, but some of them have been removed at the request of her estate (though it claims more references remain in the film and last month filed a lawsuit). The nightmare is a collage of sinister images (a girl hovering against a doorjamb, breaking objects, etc.) that vaguely allude to anxieties over rape and violence. That the movie seeks to “honor” artists by appropriating their highly specific works into a more general, nebulous form for the sake of some “spooky” imagery is troublesome.
There are other elements in the new Suspiria that don’t really cohere. Why is Swinton also playing an old man? Guadagnino says it’s because that character is consumed by the death of his wife, while the actress has suggested it’s “for the sheer sake of fun above all.” Either way, the old man could be easily cut without affecting the story much.
But more importantly, what exactly is the movie trying to say about history, ’70s Germany, dance, feminism, motherhood, and other things like religion or art? There are legitimate readings one could concoct, but the film itself whiffs of simple overindulgence.
Suspiria by Luca Guadagnino opens in limited release October 26 and in wide release November 2.