With a splash of high concept art, director Luca Guadagnino updates this Italian horror classic in spectacular style.
In 1977, Italian filmmaker Dario Argento launched a 98 minute long kaleidoscopic art-horror trip upon unsuspecting cinemagoers. “Suspiria” was quite unlike the genre counterparts of its time: Brian De Palma’s “Carrie” (1976), William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” (1973), or Richard Donner’s “The Omen” (1976). Among the many differences: while those films all had their roots planted firmly in “our world”, Argento’s film transported its viewers to a place confusingly colourful yet oddly terrifying. Officially, it’s the German city of Freiburg, but the visual cues tell us we’re “somewhere else”.
Dripping with art nouveau set pieces and a colour palette that could have been taken from the swatches of Marilyn Monroe’s Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend, the first “Suspiria” was a visual spectacle without the slightest hint of a plot.
Remakes are a tricky business. Regardless of how adamantly a filmmaker might signal that their version stands independent of its predecessor, comparisons are inevitable – even if the similarities are largely limited to a shared title. In 2001, Alejandro Amenábar avoided such fuss by opting for a new title: “The Others”, which is a very good ghost story, is a remake of “The Innocents”, a 1961 masterpiece from director Jack Clayton. There are clear differences between the two – indeed, the remake takes several major plot deviations – but Amenábar’s film was as much a remake as this new version of “Suspiria”. We demand originality from cinema but, when it comes wrapped in the packaging of a remake, originality can be easy to overlook.
Luca Guadagnino’s take on “Suspiria” begins in the bleak rain-soaked Berlin of 1977 (the year Argento’s film was released) as Patricia, an apparently hysterical young woman, rushes to her therapist’s office for an emergency session. She’s convinced that a coven of witches are haunting her, watching her, through the eyes of every face she sees. Her therapist is, naturally, unconvinced by her ramblings.
Meanwhile, Susie, a young American woman from Ohio, is the freshest arrival at the Markos Dance Academy. The students and teachers are still feeling the absence of Patricia, a former student who recently fled the school and has vanished without a trace. The highly respected (and feared) dance instructor, Madame Blanc, dismisses concern among students for Patricia’s wellbeing. She had strong political beliefs, they’re told, and if she wants to spend her days filling petrol bottles in a basement, that’s her choice.
The real events of the “German Autumn” in 1977 make intermittent appearances via news reports: glimpses of a kidnapping and the hijacking of a plane occasionally interrupt rising tensions. Shortly after a bomb explodes a few steps from the academy, a fellow student accuses the young American Susie of having little grasp of what’s really happening in Berlin. Later, during a particularly frightening exchange, another character is scolded for refusing to believe women when they report that something terrible is taking place. The events of this “Suspiria” might be from another world but they’re happening here – whether we choose to notice the clues that reality gives us is of no consequence to the terrifying truth.
Guadagnino is an audacious filmmaker. “Call Me By Your Name” is, by its very existence, an audacious film – who else would dare treat a gay love story with a considerable age gap at its core with such emotional honesty? His approach to “Suspiria” is, while less controversial, similarly audacious with its scattering of real life politics and institutional abuse as the seeds (or at least a symptom) of modern ignorance and complacency.
His credentials as a designer also prove their worth; the film effortlessly blends scenes of grey bleakness with eye-popping eccentricity without ever jarring the senses. Plenty of filmmakers make entertainment. Guadagnino creates art – the kind destined to provoke eyerolls from some of the more cynically minded in the audience. But his grasp of cinema as a language gives him auteur status. His visuals, blending fact and fiction, are never there for the wow. Colours, textures, movements – everything is telling us something. Whether we pay attention to what we see is the choice we make.