The case for homages lie within two 'Suspiria' films

Both versions create opposing skin-crawling sensory experiences, drawing from 19th-century literature

"One angle in one mirror or on film is not enough. Movement is never mute. It is a language. It's a series of energetic shapes written in the air, like words forming sentences. Like poems. Like prayers," proclaims Tilda Swinton's Madame Blanc in Luca Guadagnino's 2018 reconceptualized "Suspiria," which he defines as an homage, rather than a remake, of the 1977 Dario Argento original known for both its enigmatic plot and harlequin lighting and set design.

After remaining elusive from many prospective viewers for ages, Argento's "Suspiria," a hallmark of horror about an American dancer's experience at a European ballet school acting as a facade for a deadly coven of witches, recently emerged on YouTube and Tubi, much to my delight as the movie had become a forgotten relic in my mind following my first viewing.

Both versions of the film consist of two Italian master directors tackling a kindred plot in vastly different, albeit wonderful, ways. Argento concocts a recherché dreamscape riddled with gruesome death, while Guadagnino opts for a drab realism that combines a slow-burn plot with a nefarious sense of psychological terror.

Partially inspired by the technicolor splendor of 1937's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," Argento delved into crafting an otherworldly Gothic set and scenes drenched in primary hues and ominous blacks with the help of cinematographer Luciano Tovoli and production designer Giuseppe Bassan.

Argento wrote the screenplay alongside his then-partner and actress Daria Nicolodi, pulling inspiration from "Grimms' Fairy Tales" and the 19th century psychological fantasy book "Suspiria de Profundis," or "Sighs from the Depth," by Thomas De Quincey.

The movie's dance school was initially intended to only accommodate girls under 12 years old, a proposition denied by Argento's producers and studio for fear of having the film banned for depicting excessive violence with children. 

Despite raising the age of his subjects to a minimum of 20 years old, Argento declined to rewrite the script, resulting in naive dialogue between overly-infantilized characters.

This brings up Argento's awkward objectification of women in his slashers, having stated once that he likes women, "especially beautiful ones." 

"If they have a good face and figure, I would much prefer to watch them being murdered than an ugly girl or man," Argento said in Kim Newman's "Nightmare Movies." "I certainly don't have to justify myself to anyone about this. I don't care what anyone thinks or reads into it."

Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow, an essay housed in Suspiria de Profundis, acted as an archetype for Argento in erecting his "Three Mothers Trilogy," consisting of 1977's "Suspiria," 1980's "Inferno" and 2007's "Mother of Tears," an esoteric triad engaging with the mythos of Mother Suspirorium, Mother Tenebrarum and Mother Lachrymarum, respectively.

The genius of Guadagnino's "Suspiria" lies in his ability to mutate Argento's vision for Quincey's supernatural folklore in a way that breathes new life into the story with a reinvigorated stylistic vision and altered plot direction while maintaining the occult terror set as precedent by the original.

The revamped "Suspiria" is carried out against the backdrop of 1977 Berlin, amid the Autumn of Terror, juxtaposing the characters against a chaotic moment in history and providing another avenue for attaining a dynamic plot.

Guadagnino's "Suspiria" differs from Argento's drastically, both stylistically and thematically. 

However, one standout anomaly is the use of modern choreography that teeters between bestial and hypnotic as a method of advancing the story, whereas Argento's use of dance is insubstantial and relegated to basic and objectively bad ballet.

"There are two things that dance can never be again: beautiful and cheerful. Today we need to break the nose of every beautiful thing," declares Swinton's Madame Blanc to Dakota Johnson's Susie Bannion in the film.

Johnson completed two years of ballet training to fulfill her role, and admitted having to seek therapy upon finishing filming for the movie, later clarifying that "it wasn't that this film sent me to a ward, I just have a lot of feelings."

Blanc's notion that dance must be a vessel for depravity and uncomeliness was written into the script by David Kajganich in response to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels asserting that "dance must be cheerful and show beautiful female bodies and have nothing to do with philosophy." 

Choreographer Damien Jalet brought this rejection of philosophically-barren femininity to life through his use of dance as a tool for macabre horror.

Another polarity between the original "Suspiria" and Guadagnino's homage is the choice of scores to accompany the movie. 

While Argento opted for Goblin's synthesized idiosyncrasies that accentuated his movie's mystical characteristics, Guadagnino tapped Radiohead's Thom Yorke for the musical mastermind's first film score, which featured ambient drones and earnest ballads sung in a near whisper.

Yorke's croon lends itself beautifully to a scene depicting monochromatic chaos. His audible vision of eerie, dirge-like songs that seem to slither into scenes sows a sense of trepidation that holds firm throughout the duration of the movie.

The 2018 rendition also foregoes the use of male actors, excluding a scene comically demeaning the masculinity of two investigators that arrive at the dance school, allowing for Guadagnino to focus on the mother-daughter dynamics and body horror by way of the feminine physique throughout the film.

Guadagnino's homage probes into themes relating to maternity and nonage, belonging and violence and rage as feminine expression. Argento's original prioritizes curating a terrifying sensory experience above philosophizing through the framework of art.

Although they vary greatly in approach and execution, both Argento and Guadagnino's "Suspiria" hold vast artistic merit, making any viewing a bone-chilling experience. The latter does not feel confined by the directorial decisions of the past, but rather free to construct a wholly new experience for the viewer with the guiding hand of a vague prototype.

Despite Argento lamenting that Guadagnino's adaptation "betrayed the spirit of the original film: there is no fear, there is no music," I believe that it was in Guadagnino's best interest to refrain from attempting to mimic Argento and Tovoli's cinematic genius, and instead offer his artistic vision of an iconic horror experience in a way that honors it by leaving it be. 

In the case of the two "Suspiria" films, we see that tasteful adaptations, or homages, should be created, rather than banal remakes that relinquish themselves from taking on any bold originality and instead flounder under the pressure of living up to the original.


Reach the reporter at stellefs@asu.edu and follow @samtellefson on Twitter. 

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