One More Time With Feeling: Suspiria (1977 & 2018)

Quentin Norris
Oct 4, 2019 · 11 min read
Illustration used with permission by Spencer Lucas

One More Time With Feeling is a recurring series of essays that compares and contrasts an original film with the remake that followed. What works about both films? What doesn’t? Is one a better film than the other, or do they both deserve their time in the sun? The answers are always different and always fascinating.

Horror films and remakes have always had a troubled history with each other. Almost more than any other genre, horror always seems ripe for the picking for any producer with cash to spare to remake for a new generation of midnight moviegoers. It’s such a landmine of opportunity, that it’s become commonplace for genre fans to hiss and recoil at any attempt to dust off a classic and bring it into the modern era. I used to be one of these fans, but in the end, I realized that all the wailing and gnashing of teeth seemed like a waste of breath, because hardly any of these remakes seemed to stand the test of time. No one is hailing Friday The 13th (2009) as an improvement on the original, although it is interesting that some of these remakes have aged better with time and seem to even have developed a new generation of fans ready to come to their defense. If you had told embittered high school or early college Quentin that there would be serious film pieces on the legitimacy of Rob Zombie’s Halloween remakes, I would have laughed in your face, but here we are in 2019, and there are plenty of people ready to go to war for those movies.

The relationship between horror films and their remakes is the perfect framing to use for the thesis behind the idea for One More Time With Feeling. It’s easy to dismiss remakes as cheap ploys for cash, or “Hollywood running out of ideas” (insert eye roll here), and its certainly easier to angrily ignore or boycott any remake of a film you loved instead of engaging with it and trying to understand the context behind its conception. The truth is that we don’t want to recognize that time tells a bigger story than we’ll ever know and it is time that will decide whether or not these remakes were a good idea or not. And although this film hasn’t had as much time to age as other remakes, I wanted to take a look at one of the more meaty debates of relevance in the last few years of horror movie fandom, Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 nightmare witchcraft masterpiece, Suspiria.

Every horror fan has their favorites, but if you took a poll, I’d feel confident in saying that at least nine out of ten horror fans would have Dario Argento listed somewhere in their top five directors of all-time lists. Argento splashed onto the Giallo scene with films like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The Cat o’ Nine Tails, and Deep Red, from the early ’70s through the mid-’70s. Then, in 1977, Argento co-wrote and directed Suspira, a proto-slasher that operates outside of reality, and firmly inside a hypnotic, oneiric world of ghastly color and nightmare logic. Initially dividing critics who were taken with its visual flair but turned off by its nihilistic story of a dancer trapped in an institute run by witches intent on her demise, Suspiria has evolved into a classic pillar in horror filmmaking, immovable and undeniable in its stature.

The first time I heard whispers of a Suspiria remake was in 2008 when I had just started attending the North Carolina School of the Arts film school. Alumni David Gordon Green announced during a Q&A at a special screening that he had been developing a script for a remake of the dance school horror film. At the time, I hadn’t seen Suspiria, so the news meant nothing to me. But the years went by and there were never any updates, with Gordon Green moving on to other projects. Green would go on to direct the latest revival of Halloween, but never Suspiria.

Luca Guadagnino is slowly becoming a household name in cinephilia, even though he’s been directing feature films since 2008’s I Am Love, his big break with both critics and audiences was 2017’s Call Me By Your Name, a coming of age period piece about a young boy’s sexual awakening and brief romantic fling shared with an older man. It was quite a surprise to hear during the press circuit for Call Me By Your Name that Guadagnino’s next prepped film was the long-awaited Suspiria remake, although it’s less surprising when the fact that Guadagnino’s production company had the rights to the remake for years, and it was Guadagnino who offered the project to Gordon Green originally. The speculation began and only intensified as more information trickled into public knowledge. Tilda Swinton and Dakota Johnson would star? Thom Yorke would score the film? Swinton was playing more than one character?! Could Guadagnino’s sensibilities translate to horror? Was Johnson a worthy successor to Jessica Harper’s iconic scream queen role? Did this remake justify its existence? To some, the jury is still out, but I think there’s a lot of merit to both films that complement each other in many ways.

The first and most obvious tonal shift between the two films is the stylistic upheaval that takes place in the transition. Dario Argento’s Suspiria is a phantasmagorical assault on the senses. Like many other Italian horror films of the time, from contemporaries like Lucio Fulci or Mario Bava, Suspiria is first and foremost concerned with the stylistic atmosphere it creates, wrapping it around the face of the audience and suffocating them with it. From the very beginning of the film, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed as the young, innocent, Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) steps out of the German airport into the pouring rain, and is taken by taxi to her new Dance Academy. Winding in and out of long, tall, unnatural looking trees. The rain keeps pouring down, Goblin pounds at our eardrums with a demonic lullaby, and just like Suzy Bannion, we find ourselves displaced, far from home, from our own comfort zones, and thrown into a terrifying, unpredictable realm, that almost certainly wants to bring harm to us. The 1977 Suspiria’s greatest achievement is its complete and total realization of creating the experience of a nightmare and ripping it from our collective minds and splashing it on the screen. In a literal sense, there is nothing in the world of Suspiria. None of it should make sense, and yet, Argento found a way to communicate to the audience directly through nightmare logic. Eyes appear out of the darkness, characters stumble into rooms filled with nothing but barbed wire, and everyone speaks with a voice that doesn’t match their own, their mouth movement slightly off (mostly thanks to the Italian method of every actor speaking their native language onset rather than everyone learning Italian), all the while awash in garish reds, deep blues, and the most intense color schemes the human brain can process.

The lack of eye-popping colors was the first new element of 2018’s Suspiria that everyone took notice of once the first teaser trailer for the film was released online. Gone were the warm summery colors of Luca’s previous films like Call Me By Your Name and A Bigger Splash, replaced with cold, wintry greys, whites, and browns of a Berlin choked by the grasp of the German Autumn. The only reds that can be found in this Suspiria are deep, blood-colored maroons. Many decried the washed-out look of the trailer at first, tallying it up to a common studio approach of a cinematic easy-out, a quick way to make a film look “important” by simply draining it of color. But Suspiria (2018) speaks for itself and even Guadagnino has pointed out that both he and the film’s cinematographer, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, knew from the start that their film had to take place in a much colder world, not a world completely devoid of color, but color that left the audience feeling lonely shivers run down their spine, because this world doesn’t take place inside the subconscious of our nightmares, instead, it takes place in the middle of the real world, at a time of extreme change for the country it is set in.

Illustration used with permission by Spencer Lucas

But even if Suspira (2018) is more grounded than its predecessor, that hardly means the film doesn’t have a dreamy style of its own. Through the patient camerawork of Mukdeeprom and Guadagnino, the precise editing of Walter Fasano, and the ethereal score by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, we feel like we’re floating through this film, and in another film, that floating may feel welcoming or fun, but in Guadagnino’s specifically crafted horror, we’re floating with unease through uncharted territory and that territory grows darker and darker with each passing minute. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel. It is pitch black. We can dig our heels in as much as we can, but the film will keep pulling us along into its cathartic, trippy rebirth of a finale. Each moment feels carefully and painstakingly choreographed, from each sweeping zoom to every tilt of the head from one of the characters. If Argento’s original is a waking nightmare, then Guadagnino’s Suspiria is a dance, similar to one that the students of the Markos Dance Academy would perform.

Dancing is something that you see very little of in the original Suspiria, even though it takes place in a Dance Academy, but as I mentioned earlier, Argento is not interested in telling a traditional story in Suspiria, or in any of his films. Suspiria has the skeleton of a basic plot structure, but the guts and flesh of the film are fueled by horrific, terrifying imagery and a nerve-wracking Goblin score. That skeleton revolves around Suzy Bannion, the young new student who goes straight from the airport to said Dance Academy. Meanwhile, as she tries to find her way into the closed Academy, another student is chased back to her apartment by a mysterious, malevolent force that eventually takes her life. The murder of that night sets off an unsettling chain of events as Suzy attends the school, and she slowly begins to realize that the school is run by a coven of witches, as each one of her friends are killed off one by one, and Suzy is slowly poisoned by the Coven, all leading up to an acid trip of a color-vomit finale of purely primal horror. Each character is an archetype. Suzy is the wide-eyed innocent. Madame Blanc is the stern, mysterious authority figure who can’t be trusted. Udo Kier’s professor is the fountain of knowledge who can dump all of the exposition of the history of witches onto the main character and the audience, so we understand just what Suzy’s dealing with. This is the structure that Suspiria (1977) follows and it sticks to it rigidly, which in any other film, would be horrendously boring, but Argento finds a way to keep us on our toes.

The 2018 Suspiria keeps the same basic framework skeleton and character names of the original predecessor, but then smartly makes sure to find a way to branch off and find its own story and character motivations inside the inspiration of the premise: What if a coven of witches ran a school of dance in Berlin, Germany? The remake was written by David Kajanich, who had made a name for himself in deeply layered historical horror epics with the television anthology series, The Terror. Kajanich’s first inspired choice was keeping the story inside 1977, rather than find a way for the story to be transplanted into a modern time and place. Suspiria (2018) is obsessed with the past. While the original school of dance was a well of primal fears, the new Markos school of dance is a breeding ground of history slowly repeating itself.

Illustration used with permission by Spencer Lucas

In Suspiria (2018) the coven is fleshed out to create a sisterhood that stretched back to the beginning of time. These witches worship The Three Mothers, (which is a fun nod to Argento’s Three Mothers film trilogy that includes Suspiria) a trio of witches who have roamed the earth, spreading darkness and despair wherever they went. The witches in charge of the dance academy have created a hierarchy of leadership, one that Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) has come to resent. So when Dakota Johnson’s Susie Banion meekly comes creeping into the academy all the way from Mennonite Ohio, Blanc sees an innocent blank slate on which she can project her hopes, fears, and desires, and for a time, that’s the role that Suzy plays at the academy, but the more she learns about the hidden dark history of the school, and the more she learns about herself from Madame Blanc, the more powerful she becomes, making her eventual rebellion against Blanc both tragic and inevitable.

The theme of rebellion is certainly intentional, especially when set in such a specific time of political upheaval for Germany, which brings us to the second largest theme of the remake, sins of the past, and our attempts to bury or overcome them. Dr. Klemperer (Also played by Tilda Swinton, I mean, Lutz Ebersdorf) is a psychiatrist for Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz) a dancer being poisoned by the witches for nefarious purposes. When Patricia disappears, the doctor finds himself slipping down a rabbit hole as he tries to find out what happened to her. Recognizing the meddling of the doctor as a threat, the witches begin to torment Klemperer with visions of his dead wife, who he abandoned to escape the Nazis in World War Two. His wife appears to him (Jessica Harper, the original Suzy) in a dream state, and for a beautiful moment, the regrets that haunt his mind are lifted, and everything feels right before he’s captured and tortured by the witches. He survives the finale, thanks to Susie, who has embodied Mother Suspiriorum, and overpowered Blanc. As he lies in his bed, thinking he’s woken from a terrible dream, Susie visits him and grants him the opportunity to forgive himself for the regrets he’s held onto his entire life, and he peacefully slips into an eternal sleep.

It’s easy to assume that the only version with political upheaval on its mind is the 2018 version of Suspiria, but that does a disservice to the original, which was released in 1977, the same year that the 2018 film takes place inside. Argento’s film is more concerned with upsetting a status quo with shock, violence, and gore. Suspiria (2018) is more sincere in its approach, creating a metaphorical narrative that is still weighted in the importance of creating a large cast of characters, each with their own emotional arc.

The two Suspirias end up in the best sort of situation that two films based on the same characters can have. Neither eclipses each other. They both have their own strengths and weaknesses and support each other. Suspiria (1977) brings the frights and Suspiria (2018) brings the melancholy thoughtfulness. While I personally feel a stronger emotional pull to the 2018 version, I adore both and I would happily spend a rainy day watching both back to back, getting hypnotized by their witchy spells.

Stale Popcorn

When the last of the credits have rolled and the lights go up, the conversation begins, and it doesn’t end until the theater employees ask you to leave. Stale Popcorn is for the true cinephile, who never wants to stop talking about the films they love.

Quentin Norris

Written by

Writer, filmmaker, and comedy performer living in Austin, Texas. I write fantasy, horror, flash fiction, and film/television/music reviews.

Stale Popcorn

When the last of the credits have rolled and the lights go up, the conversation begins, and it doesn’t end until the theater employees ask you to leave. Stale Popcorn is for the true cinephile, who never wants to stop talking about the films they love.

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