There are two schools of thought when it comes to remaking classic movies; you can either do it exactly like the original, just updated–in which case, why are you doing it?–or you can do it so different as to be almost unrecognizable, in which case, why not call it something else? Neither is a proven science, and usually both arguments have detractors. When it comes to 2018’s Suspiria, it’s a weird filmic Schroedinger’s Cat which is somehow in either position as both a redux of Dario Argento’s original and completely its own thing.As a means of unpacking this strange case of a horror movie remake, let’s break down the similarities and differences between both Suspirias.
As you might expect, the following will include MAJOR SPOILERS for both movie
A lot of the structure and plot of David Kajganich’s screenplay for the 2018 film comes directly from Argento and Daria Nicolodi’s script for the 1977 movie. Both feature an American dance student named Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper and Dakota Johnson, respectively) who comes to a prestigious dance academy in Germany and quickly gets caught up in the school’s many mysteries, including its murderous witch coven. In both films Suzy makes fast friends with another student, named Sara (Stefania Casini, Mia Goth), whose investigation into the coven leads to her gruesome death after falling into an unexpected pit in the floor. Both movies also have remarkably similar hierarchies in terms of the coven. The public face of the academy is Madame Blanc, (Joan Bennett, Tilda Swinton), who seems also to be the creative force in the company. Madame Blanc has a right hand woman named Miss Tanner (Alida Valli and Angela Winkler) who does most of the day-to-day dance training. There’s also an unseen headmistress of the school who may or may not be a malevolent force, and in both versions her name is Helena Markos, but who/what Markos is left a mystery until the end. An interesting piece of the new Suspiria is the story of the Three Mothers, three ancient and powerful witches who each run a different coven somewhere in the world. This is moderately hinted at in the original Suspiria but is explored much further in the 1980 sequel, Inferno. In that movie, the protagonist discovers a book called The Three Mothers detailing each: Mater Suspiriorum, Mater Tenebrarum, Mater Lachrymarum, the Mother of Sighs, Darkness, and Tears, respectively. Inferno‘s main antagonist is Mater Tenenbrarum, though it features a brief appearance by the seemingly young and beautiful Mater Lachrymarum, much later the antagonist of Mother of Tears in 2007. And this is what leads us to the differences between the two Suspirias.Â The new film brings in so many elements from the original in order to lull people familiar with it into a rhythm so that when the movie ends, we think we know where it’s going, but then it turns into something very, very different. In the original, Suzy is at all times the outsider, the one whose well-being is threatened by digging too close to the truth, and in the end it’s she who plunges the shard of a crystal peacock into the neck of Helena Markos, the Mother of Sighs herself. But in the new movie, Helena Markos–played by Swinton in heavy makeup, even more disgusting and decrepit than she was in the original–is not the Mother of Sighs, just an old, sick witch. Suzy herself is the reincarnation of the Mother of Sighs, and has been using her training with Madame Blanc to actualize her powers, which are vast and horrible. Director Luca Guadagnino is far less interested in the cacophony of color and music and violence present in the original, instead giving a tone of muted dread throughout. Unlike the original, the new Suspiria is firmly established in a time and a place, namely 1977 Berlin. The Wall stands, and people must go through an ordeal to traverse from the modern, cosmopolitan West Germany into the drab, Soviet-run East. There is political unrest, and even the motivations of Patricia, the girl whose disappearance sparks the action of both films, is said to be a secret revolutionary against the Communists. The very fact that the style of dance in the new movie is interpretive, modern dance as opposed to the classical ballet of the original movie speaks to the clashing worldviews of late-’70s Berlin. The ending of the new movie is an orgy of gore in a red-soaked room, but that’s maybe the only scene reminiscent in any way of Argento’s style. Guadagnino’s horror comes in the form of strange and unsettling visions and long and laborious moments of body horror. Olga’s body is twisted and broken during Suzy’s initial dance. Rather than being chased by a black-gloved spectre with a knife and falling into a suddenly appearing pit of razor wire, 2018 Sara steps into a pit on the floor and breaks her leg, painfully and agonizingly, while we see the bone protrude from her skin. Even Patricia’s fate in the new movie is not the Technicolor explosion at the beginning, but the late realization that she’s been slowly rotting in the bowels of the academy along with several other girls who’ve “disappeared” after washing out. And even though the aforementioned orgy of gore is bathed in red light like in Argento’s movie, the violence comes from a beast-monster slowly tearing people’s heads off. The final difference is truly where the movies diverge. Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz) has a psychiatrist named Dr. Josef Klemperer (credited to Lutz Ebersdorf but actually Swinton again in heavy makeup). Klemperer is an elderly man and a survivor of the Holocaust who does most of the investigating into the Three Mothers out of his worry for Patricia. But he’s also searching to alleviate his guilt for having fled the Nazis while his wife could not. He has no idea what became of her, much like Patricia and the other girls. Through his investigation, he feels as though he can do something, and he is eventually chosen by the coven to be “the witness” to the ceremony at the end. He’s lured to the school via a vision of his wife (played by original Suzy Jessica Harper) safe and sound. Klemperer is a witness to the horrors of the coven, but also to the horrors of the Holocaust and Germany in the aftermath and Cold War. He’s the sum total of the sadness the country’s people have suffered, and at the end, he’s freed of his memories by Mater Suspiriorum, seemingly as repayment for all he has been forced to see by the evil lurking underneath society. No character like Klemperer exists anywhere in the original, safe a brief scene in which Suzy visits the young folklorist Dr. Mandel (Udo Kier) who then has her speak to his aged colleague Dr. Milius (Rudolf SchÃ¼ndler) who reveals the history of Helena Markos and the school. He’s literally just a means of exposition, whereas Dr. Klemperer is in many ways the new Suspiria‘s true protagonist.The two Suspiria movies share much in their DNA but are arranged in wholly different ways. Their aims are far different, and their results are even more so. The new one is far “witchier” than the original while being much less of a dark fairy tale. The original is a lean 90 minutes while the new one is over two and a half hours. Either version is baffling and enthralling in its own way, and both deserve a great deal more study for its true dark magic to be discovered.
Images: Amazon/Produzioni Atlas Consorziate