There are several ways of remembering a nightmare. Interpreting a classic work always requires a true sense of daring. When literature has become canon or a film a cultural staple, updating a story for a new age will bring with it the baggage of decades. For our new era of ghouls and menacing shadows, director Luca Guadagnino has decided to conjure his own interpretation of Dario Argento’s 1977 Suspiria. This new version, nearly 3 hours in length, is not worthy of the label “remake.” Guadagnino has taken Argento’s pulpy, color-strewn cult object and transformed it into a work of an almost occult power. It is a film set in the very decade of the original, but it seems to be channeling our own, present sense that dark forces at work in the world. To compare the two versions is to compare two eras and mindsets, two interpretations of the extreme and satanic.
The 1977 original work by Argento is an immersive, effective form of pop gothic art where the style is what matters. He was one of the filmmakers who belonged to the “giallo” movement. In this trend Italian cinema would combine an arthouse sensibility with elements of noir, slasher movies, murder mysteries and supernatural thrillers. Suspiria is the defining work of giallo. It is a work of visual sensuousness and a plot that would find itself at home in a B-movie. An American ballet student named Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper) arrives in a rain-drenched Munich to the sounds of Goblin’s evocative music. She sees a woman named Patricia running through the woods and learns she was a student at the prestigious dance school she is here to dance for. As Suzy arrives at the school she hopes to train in, the setting becomes even more ominous. The school itself is an immense estate with stairways and framed paintings from some other century. Miss Tanner (Angela Winkler), the overseer of the school, walks with a refined, yet ominous air about her. Suzy will discover a coven is at work here, snuffing out enemies while cursing others. The school is like a conduit for the witches’ séances and will to power.
To say there is a “plot” to Argento’s opus is to simplify its pure, visceral force. It is a film purely of tones. Blues, reds and blacks blend in the cinematography and set design, setting the precedent for future films where genre mixes with photographic exuberance. What stands out in the memory are the set pieces — a bloody hanging over an abysmal hallway, maggots dropping from the school’s ceiling, concealing a horrible, rotting secret. The final, apocalyptic crescendo in which Suzy finds the source of the school’s evil before the whole place erupts in flames. All of it of course driven by that entrancing score by Goblin with its melodic bells and tribal drum.
Because horror is transcendental, it lends itself to endless re-imaginings. What Guadagnino has done with Suspiria is similar to Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake of F.W. Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu, which was itself an interpretation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel (before the rights were made available for Hollywood’s grander commercial mill). Herzog took Murnau’s ghoulish, silent work of German Expressionism, with its sickly and perfect performance by Max Schreck as Count Orlock (Dracula) and transforms it into a hypnotic tone poem of subdued color and shadow. Actor Klaus Kinski, he of the mad hair and eyes, is turned into a bald, lonely apparition, a Dracula consumed by loneliness more than malevolence.
Similarly, Guadagnino has taken the concept of Suspiria and transformed it into a long, howling lament for the downfall of civilization and its possible (upcoming) rebirth through violence. The setting is rain-drenched Berlin in the 1970s- the Cold War is a presence everywhere. An American named Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) arrives to attend a prestigious dance school located near the Berlin Wall. Susie hails from Ohio where she was raised amongst the Amish. Through flashbacks we are given glimpses of her sad childhood during which she loses her mother to illness. Now in Berlin she seeks to hone her craft with Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), head of the school, who seems to float in her long dresses and controlled stares. Earlier we meet a student named Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz), who grows manic as she tells a psychiatrist named Dr. Josef Klemperer (played by Swinton to a degree where she ceases to exist) about her suspicions that the dance school is run by a witches’ coven. By the time Susie arrives, Patricia has disappeared, suspected of having joined up with the radical militant groups carrying out attacks in West Germany. It is the era of the Red Army Faction and the Baader-Meinhof Gang. Patricia is of course not wrong, the school is run by a group of witches of which Madame Blanc is a key figure. As Susie begins to perform for Blanc she will be drawn into the school’s underworld, discovering dark powers of her own. . .
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