Dario Argento’s technicolor nightmares-upon-nightmares has enthralled us for 43 years. It took me numerous viewings to become fully enamored with the urban-folk-horror phantasmagoria of Suspiria 1977. For a while, the oddness, the dubbed acting, the loose abrupt storytelling were all barriers, but I eventually came to appreciate its storybook macabre. The stained glass and spellbinding neon, the sequences unraveling like terrifying dreams witnessed in real-time, that music-box Goblin score howling and haunting.
However, more than time and repeat viewings, what I think finally allowed me to embrace Argento’s lurid classic was having Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 film as a narrative-focused complement. I adore that with Suspiria’s bewitching madness, one can enjoy the version overflowing with unreal nightmare mood or this bold reimagining that roots the nightmare in naturalism and subtle lore and stark grisliness.
In hindsight, the presence of ballet and witches in Suspiria was practically incidental: the former confining its cast in a singular unusual location, the latter contextualizing otherworldly happenings. The existence of a coven was maintained as a mystery until the end. Guadagnino’s chilly reimagining of Suspiria does not play coy with such elements. Instead he embraces their narrative power to craft a tale of sinister rebirth amidst Cold War tension. Where Argento was excessive and stylistically surreal, Guadagnino is cold, brutalist, unnerving. In every way that the original was bombastic and unmoored, this is subdued and tangible. What was clunky exposition in 1977, becomes its own sad organic subplot tied to the Tanz academy and the period. What once felt like a setting drawn at random, is the provocative core of the plot: the dancer’s expressive performance given power as ritualistic contortions. The shocking giallo-hex killings of ‘70s Italian horror is reenvisioned as skin-crawling defilement and gory cruelty. Then, a dream-like surge of weird imagery, discordant music, and swaths of color. Now, a slow-burn swell of dread and unease (well, at least until the finale where, with a monstrous shriek, Guadagnino unleashes a finale erupting with viscera and beautifully deranged imagery).
There’s a heavy purposeful momentum to Suspiria 2018. As every dance movement has its purpose, every scene has its intent. Ancient rites and coven hierarchy camouflaged among modernity as a dance academy’s artistic ambitions. The mother-mentor bonding between American newcomer Susie Bannon and Tilda Swinton’s keen instructor Madam Blanc, both fiercely passionate in their ambitions. Occult grounded in meticulous process; the search for a vessel and for truth grounded among the grey volatile streets of 1970s Berlin.
There’s a humanity to its characters that makes the disturbing and the arcane so very real. Its troupe truly feels like an amicable sisterhood, appreciative of their protected haven and autonomy among the city’s instability. In that regard, what greatly elevates this version over the original in my eyes is its portrayal of the coven. Far from a nebulous evil scheming unseen, Blanc, Tanner, and the rest are quickly established as survivors, a community, a family, a functional cabal of distinct personalities and steeped in tradition. They govern, they laugh, they gleefully bewitch, they bicker and clash. While the world seethes with political violence and oppression, the coven endures. When outside authorities enter their domain, the moment is one of fearless amusement. These witches are characters, not just a lurking menace, and their improved depiction fundamentally transforms the dynamic of the academy compared to Argento’s film. Rather than a ballet school where weird occurrences happen, the Tanz comes across as a facade, a masquerading sanctum intended to groom its inhabitants for dark fates.
While the original’s inclusion of ballet seemed like a convenience, 2018’s version thrusts choreography to the forefront of the story, as hypnotic rituals in motion. Within these halls, to dance is to surrender one’s self to instinct and energy…and other forces. The gracefully-distressing contortions of Susie and others bring to mind the puppeteered bodies of the possessed. There’s power in their exotic prostration: bodies broken, unworldly attention drawn, unhallowed ceremony performed, all through serpentine movement.
Themes of motherhood weave through Suspiria’s multi-act nightmare: Blanc’s maternal guidance of Susie, the hushed whispers of the Three Mothers’ antediluvian existence, memories of home and “death to any other mother”. But with the role of a parent comes the responsibility to reward and punish, and Suspiria’s final judgment is a display of rapturous crimson-drenched excess that would make Argento proud.