When the news of an homage to Suspiria hit the horror community in 2008, most people winced. It was difficult to imagine a modern director, especially David Gordon Green Pineapple Express, handling Dario Argento’s arthouse cult hit delicately. To make matters worse, the project was being pitched as a TV series. Many genre fans balked the way they would if Amazon Studios had announced a remake of Rosemary’s Baby, The Shining, or Eyes Without a Face. There are some pieces of art, many agreed, that are so timeless and influential that a second attempt to capture the magic might dismantle their legacies completely.
Of course, we’re living in the age of the reboot, so the argument for posterity is often ignored by studios. Not to mention, many critics adore Suspiria, though most are smart enough to regale 2018’s remake film without deeming the original dated or lame.
It’s worth noting that Guillermo del Toro has urged horror fans to try and watch the original if they haven’t already, especially before they get carried away with affection for 2018’s remake. In 2017, he begged audiences to see Suspiria “as the work of pure madness and cinematic joy it is.”
So, can you love the new Suspiria while still appreciating Dario Argento’s film? It depends on how much you know about both.
The path to remaking Suspiria
The 2008 attempt at a remake died in pre-production, but director Green went on to succeed with a different horror remake, 2018’s Halloween. But in 2015, director Luca Guadagnino announced that he had so loved working with the cast of A Bigger Splash that he had cast them in an homage to Suspiria. The new film starred Tilda Swinton and Dakota Johnson (Fifty Shades of Grey), and no one knew what to think. Guadagnino filmed Suspiria the same year he filmed Call Me By Your Name, and when the latter rode joyous critical acclaim all the way to the 2018 Oscars, suddenly Guadagnino’s take on Suspiria seemed a little more intriguing. Could he do something interesting with the material?
Even Argento himself was angry, telling Indiewire, “Either you do it exactly the same way — in which case, it’s not a remake, it’s a copy, which is pointless — or, you change things and make another movie. In that case, why call it Suspiria?” It’s a good question, one that Guadagnino never really answered.
Regardless of ruffling Argento’s feathers, in September 2018, Guadagnino’s film premiered at 75th Venice International Film Festival, and reviewers exclaimed what every horror fan hopes to hear about an early screening. They were “traumatized” by “fucked up” footage of a young woman being crushed from the inside out. “Spitting, urinating, bleeding,” commented The Los Angeles Times’ Amy Kaufman. “It’s…A lot.”
Overall, critics seem to be split between gushing over Guadagnino’s vision or, like The New York Times Manohla Dargis, they point out that 2018’s version removes the visual opulence of the original and attempts to replace it with commentary on motherhood that just never materializes. Where Argento’s movie is lush, Dargis argues, Guadagnino’s is gaudy, and instead than playing with light and technique as Argento did, Dargi says Guadagnino “seems more interested in making you recoil while also saying Something.”
So, if Guadagnino’s version is all sound and fury over nothing, was the original Suspiria more than the sum of its parts? When you think about the movie in a historical context, then yes, it was.
What the original ‘Suspiria’ did for horror
From the first tinkling notes of the original Suspiria’s soundtrack — recorded in full by prog rock band Goblin — it’s clear that Dario Argento was at the top of his game in 1977. Argento is credited as one of the most prominent artists who worked in the giallo all’italiana sub-genre of films. These Italian thrillers are steamy, stylized horrors drenched in technicolor hues or playful shadows, and they communicate the deep well of dark emotion that was boiling among Europe’s first post-WWII generation. Giallo all’italiana films are about guilt, madness, lust, and dread, and their creators’ use of cinematography is usually more important than, say, plot.
The original film combined old technology like the color saturation used in Disney’s Snow White, The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind and the remastered version of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (considered the first horror film). He constructed physical sets for the movie, and he let the camera knock against the walls physically here and there, almost to give the viewer a sense of being trapped in the ballet school. Goblin’s soundtrack, particularly the tracks which play once we enter the cursed ballet academy, work toward that same goal of claustrophobia. We hear the word “witch” repeated over and over, and synth tom-toms played on a loop begin to sound like the heartbeat of a caged animal. Argento even played the soundtrack on set while filming, cranking the volume up to tinnitus-y levels in order to keep his cast on edge.
To watch the original Suspiria is to be stuck inside it, blindly reaching around yourself for a familiar sensation. An overall narrative, maybe? A character with a plan?
A film like the original Suspiria is almost a dare to mainstream audiences. “Call it confusing,” Argento seems to sneer. “Admit you don’t understand what I’m doing.” His aesthetic even confounded David Kajganich, the screenwriter of 2018’s Suspiria, who controversially told The LA Times in 2016 that he wasn’t a fan of Argento’s film because “as a narrative it makes almost no sense.”
Suspiria is now Dario Argento’s most famous film, though critics tore it apart when it was released. Its cult status set the stage for arthouse auteurs who followed him to try out commercialized versions of their typical fare: David Lynch, Vincenzo Natali, Terry Gilliam, Lars Von Trier, or even Michael Haneke. How offensive to the senses does an arthouse horror need to be in order to maintain its street cred? For many cinephiles, Suspiria is the gold standard.
Perhaps one of the most disorienting aspects of the original film is its missing connective tissue. After peel away the iconic soundtrack, Argento’s experimentation with color and light, and the theatrical set-pieces, the ribcage of the film protects, well, nothing. There’s no lesson on female rage or the nature of violence, and that’s clear to the viewer through its 98 minutes. By trying to stuff a contemporary narrative into Suspiria, including a whole sub-plot about German politics and the Berlin wall, Guadagnino ends up using what NYT calls “ostentatious chapter breaks and narrative padding.” Ouch.