Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria (2018) would be better characterized as a re-imagining, as opposed to a remake, of Dario Argento’s 1977 horror masterpiece. To the relief of the Argento’s fans, it not only refrains from replicating the original film, but also adds new layers to the mythology. Although the new twists unravel quite clumsily, Guadagnino’s diversion from the original plot made for an apt way to modernize of one of horror’s most beloved staples.
The original Suspiria (1977) is one of the rare cases in film where ‘style over substance’ worked. Argento subverted the conventions of horror cinematography by infusing the film’s visuals with a bright palette of primary colours. This, combined with a soundtrack of devious lullabies from the prog-rock band Goblin, made Suspiria one of the greatest cult classics of the horror genre.
However, the main criticism of the original was its simplistic plot. It told the story of a young woman confronting a coven of witches that run a dance academy, but nothing much beyond. Guadagnino was wise to avoid emulating Argento’s cinematographic signature, but plot-wise, he had plenty to work with. The 2018 feature’s runtime was raised to 152 minutes, which allowed for more space to contextualize the lore of Suspiria.
The plot follows Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), an American woman who joins a dance academy in cold war-era Germany. Her natural talents catch the eye of the lead instructor, Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) with whom she develops a maternal dynamic. Blanc leads a group of elder witches that run the dance company, but she is second-in-command to the company’s headmaster, the elusive Helena Markos (also played by Swinton). Markos claims to be the manifestation of Mother Suspiriorum, also known as the Mother of Sighs—an omnipotent being that predates the beginning of life. They train their students to perform dance rituals that cultivate power to sustain Markos’ prowess. When certain students suspect the faculty’s sinister activities, they disappear. But not before the film shows gore-heavy scenes of their bodies getting brutally debauched.
Furthermore, Guadagnino makes an effort to politicize the story. He uses the political backdrop of post-World War II Germany to liken to the horrors taking place in the academy. This is especially represented in a new subplot involving the character of Dr. Josef Klemperer (Swinton again, under elderly-man prosthetics)—a holocaust survivor who investigates the missing dance students
Guadagnino interweaved wartime politics with the coven’s abuses of power, which came across as forced. However, he succeeded in rectifying the original’s shortcomings. For instance, Argento’s original screenplay initially meant to depict a company of ten year-old dancers, which is why we see the then-27 year-old Jessica Harper exhibit premature survival instincts as the original heroine. Harper’s Susie had a sharper screen presence than Johnson’s, but the latter shed away with her predecessor’s childlike demeanor.
Otherwise, it’s safe to say that Guadagnino’s version will never reach the same level of iconicity as Argento’s. It does, however, offer something new different, which at least makes it a worthwhile watch.