Italian director Dario Argento’s 1977 horror film Suspiria (Sighs) is a classic in the genre for its ability to deploy the tools of cinema to create a unique sense of dread. Among the reasons for the movie’s lasting reputation are the vivid cinematography by Luciano Tovoli, the lively use of primary colours, the expressionistic sets, the background score by progressive rock band Goblin, and the narrative that follows the dream logic of a fairy tale.
The Italian movie was released 41 years ago, and has been remade by Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name). The new English-language version, starring Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth and Chloe Grace Moretz, will be released on November 2.
Suspiria is the first in Argento’s The Three Mothers trilogy. The trilogy is inspired by the section Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow from Thomas De Quincey’s 1845 essay Suspiria de Profundis (Sighs from the Depths), an exercise in psychological fantasy. Quincey imagines three companions of Levana, the ancient Roman goddess of childbirth – Mater Suspiriorum, Our Lady of Sighs; Mater Tenebrarum, Our Lady of Darkness; Mater Lachrymarum, Our Lady of Tears.
Argento uses these three characters as supremely powerful witches up to no good. Each film in his trilogy revolves around one witch. Suspiria is based on Mater Suspiriorum, the Lady of Sighs. This was followed by Inferno (1980), based on Mater Tenebrarum, and The Mother of Tears (2007), based on Mater Lachrymarum.
All three films contain supernatural events, murder and intrigue up until the final minutes, which reveal the villainous witch. Of the lot, Suspiria has earned the greatest reputation and is considered the most accomplished film in Argento’s career.
Suspiria’s storytelling style is complex, but the story isn’t. American ballet student Suzy (Jessica Harper) enrolls at the prestigious Tanz Dance Academy in Freiburg in Germany. A prowling murderer haunts the academy, students go missing or end up dead, and Suzy is confronted by eerie sounds and shadows. The academy is revealed to be a front for Helena Markos, an age-old witch who, along with her coven, continues her occult practices.
Stylistically, Suspiria was a bold update on the Italian giallo films perfected by Argento’s predecessor Mario Bava, which were tales of suspense nearly always involving a murderer who dresses in black and preys on unsuspecting nubile women.
Suspiria dips heavily into the giallo textbook: a grand mystery looming large over the academy, the female murderer whose presence is merely suggested, and elaborate murder scenes described by Argento as similar to “Pagan feasts, or Aztec feasts, where people would be decapitated and people were eaten alive, and everybody was happy, everybody took pleasure in the blood”.
The movie was an immediate critical and commercial success. While the giallo elements reeled in viewers, the film’s audio-visual razzmatazz followed by the supernatural reveal turned the film into something else entirely.
Four decades later, Suspiria remains celebrated for its ability to conjure up a phantasmagorical atmosphere, rather than for the character sketches or the story and dialogue. The movie’s universe engulfs viewers right from the opening sequence, where Suzy exits an airport that is lit in shades of red. The use of red extends to the costume design and props.
It is a stormy night outside. As Suzy steps out of the airport, the iconic celesta melody of the Suspiria theme kicks in, followed by the timpani, the strings, and unnerving whispers and sighs. Suzy gets inside a car, but the mood persists and gets more overwhelming with each passing sequence.
After sundown, the academy is soaked in all kinds of colours whose light sources are a mystery. Characters are either anxious or scared. Goblin’s score, filled with distant screams, heavy breathing and other vocal pyrotechnics, plays in the background and blends with the sound design, making it tough to figure out whether the characters are able to hear the sound or it is off-screen music.
Nearly an hour into the film, the academy is revealed to have been a meeting ground for witches who have survived for centuries. The entire structure appears to be a psychic echo-chamber that has come alive from being exposed to supernatural wheeling and dealing for years, similar to the haunted house of a Gothic horror story.
However, contemporary audiences wowed by the sadistic excesses of the Saw series or the computer graphics-driven blockbuster horror such as The Conjuring (2013) might find Suspiria’s peculiarities off-putting; the ketchup-like blood, for instance, or the robotic acting.
Then there is the stilted dialogue, which could either be a result of the actresses dubbing their lines on account of being of different nationalities, or because the screenplay was initially written with eight to 10-year-old girls in mind as the academy’s students.
To attempt to recreate Suspiria’s distinctive audio-visual world would be a fool’s job. To try and mould it to conform to modern demands of blockbuster horror would be sacrilege. The teaser of the Suspiria remake hints at a starkly different visual palette.
Like the original, the new movie has been shot on 35mm film stock, but the makers seem to have turned 180 degrees away from Argento’s use of colours. Instead, Guadagnino and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Call Me By Your Name), have gone for a desaturated “winter-ish” look, echoing 1970s scare-fares and mysteries such as The Exorcist (1973), Don’t Look Now (1973), and The Omen (1976).
Perhaps the only possible way to crack a Suspiria remake would be to not ape the original’s style but to improve on the story and characters. Guadagnino, who is associated with drama-heavy narratives featuring well-rounded characters, seems to be a good fit for a fresh spin on Suspiria. In many ways, Suspiria 2.0 could possibly be a different beast altogether.