There is a sense of tension and anticipation around any film remake, especially when the original is well known and received. So is the case with Luca Guadagnino’s version of his countryman, Dario Argento’s cult horror, Suspiria (1977). There has been intense on-line debate about the movie from the moment the first poster for the remake hit social media earlier this year. Speculation has increased with every subsequent image, casting decision, and trailer.
The original Suspira belongs to a highly stylised cycle of Italian horror cinema, stretching from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, referred to as giallo. Literally translated as ‘yellow’, giallo refers to films whose origins were in the yellow-covered pulp paperbacks released by the Milan based publisher Mondadori. Giallo cinema combined aspects of the supernatural, psychological thriller, and slasher genres of horror, with lashings of sex and violence, and various signature iconographical flourishes, the black leather gloves often worn by the killer being among the most frequently referenced. Crucially, in terms of the reception of the old and new versions of Suspiria, giallo has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in recent years, partly due to the films’ new-found availability on DVD via boutique home entertainment companies, but also because of their often strangely trangressive take on gender and sex, which has seen them embraced by feminist and queer film scholars and fans.
Guadagnino, whose previous credits include A Bigger Splash (2015) and the Oscar-winning film, Call Me By Your Name (2017), has retained the spine of the original narrative. This revolved around a young American woman who travels to the small German university town of Freiburg for dance tuition at a prestigious ballet school. Several horrific deaths later, she discovers the school is run by a coven of evil witches.
In the new version, the young woman, Susie (Dakota Johnson, best known from the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise), arrives in 1977 West Berlin to audition for the world-renowned Helena Markos Dance Company. Her audition wows the Company’s chief choreographer, Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). Susie is immediately accepted and is soon the lead dancer in the Company’s upcoming performance of its signature piece, ‘Volk’. As the performance nears, it becomes clear that Susie holds her own secrets and that her significance to the Company goes beyond her dancing ability.
Susie’s appearance coincides with the disappearance of another dancer, Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz), whom we see at the beginning of the film in the office of her elderly psychologist, Dr Josef Klemperer. Traumatised and fearing for her life, she flees, leaving a diary in his office claiming that witches, headed by a mysterious Mother Markos, control the Company. Klemperer enlists the help of another of the Company’s young dancers, Sara (Mia Goth), to investigate what happened to Patricia and the goings on in the Company.
The shift from Freiburg to cold, wet Berlin has seen Argento’s garish, neon colour palette replaced with a much more muted look and tone. The 1977 film has a disorientating, liminal feel, every pane of glass and shadow operating as a division between the world we know and the supernatural. Guadagnino’s is no less disorientating and chaotic, but in addition to the presence of spiritual evil the divisions are also political.
West Berlin is in chaos over the jailing of the leaders of the left-wing Baader Meinhof gang, a conflict mirrored among the witches. Further emphasising the coven’s divisions is the dance company’s location directly opposite the graffiti-smeared façade of the Berlin Wall. Linking the story to then contemporary political events is a wonderful plot device; it allows Guadagnino to open up the inner machinations of the coven more and to draw the parallel between the splits among the witches and the factionalism of the broader left in the 1970s.
While much has been made of the original film’s feminist credentials, the new version is even more female-centred. The Company is an all-female operation and the story infers the witches have had to zealously guard their space against male intrusion, a process that has imbued them with an almost separatist agenda.
Guadagnino draws fine performances from his two leads, Johnston and Swinton (the latter also playing the roles of Klemperer and Madam Markos), whose competitive relationship veers between the platonic and sexual. But the film lacks the dramatic economy of the 1977 original and is too long. That Guadagnino is not a horror director also shows, particularly towards the end. That said, Suspiria contains some genuinely terrifying scenes, particularly related to the weaponising of young women’s bodies against themselves and one another.
It is a moot point whether one classifies the film as a remake, a reinterpretation, or a homage. In the best tradition of the giallo cinema, Guadagnino has taken what he finds useful or interesting in the original and helmed his own vision, which is both shocking and hauntingly atmospheric.
Suspiria, directed by Luca Guadagnino, distributed in Australia by Transmission Films, opens in selected cinemas on November 8.
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