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Which Witch Is Which: In Praise of the Original ‘Suspiria’

As Luca Guadagnino’s remake goes into wide release, a look back at Dario Argento’s 1977 surreal Technicolor nightmare

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock (1614171a)Suspiria, Jessica HarperFilm and Television

Jessica Harper in Dario Argento's 1977 horror classic 'Suspiria.'

Moviestore/REX Shutterstock

She’s just a small town girl, livin’ in her lonely world, she took the midnight plane going … well, to Munich. Her name is Suzy, and this doe-eyed American has just been accepted to a prestigious dance academy in Germany. No sooner has she stepped out of what is the single most red-tinted hallway in the history of movie airports and made her way to school than this young woman begins to feel that something is a little weird. Maybe it’s the former student who she meets on her way in, the one with the crazed look in her eye and the manic jibber-jabber about turning the blue iris, whatever that means. The fact that this same person will end up dying in a highly baroque manner hours later — how else would you describe being grabbed by hairy arms through a window, then stabbed in the heart, and then tumbling through a stained glass ceiling with a noose around your neck? — doesn’t help ease her anxiety. Nor does the oddly stern dance instructor, or the ghoulish looking Romanian handyman with “new teeth,” or the young blond boy in the Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit who keeps staring at her. Maybe it’s the Euro-grotesques that her nerves all aflutter. Maybe it’s the ceiling dripping with maggots. Really, who can say?

Or, and we could be reaching a bit here, it might be that Suzy is a little freaked out by the guild of witches that are using the academy as both a cover and a cozy home base. Technically, the correct term is a “coven.” But when you have to deal with a powerful supernatural creature that wants you dead and isn’t afraid to throw a few walking corpses with needles in their eyes at you, semantics is the least of your worries.

Discerning consumers of the real-deal spooky cinema speak of Dario Argento’s 1977 magnum opus as a sacred text of Italian horror, the sort of grandiloquent Grand Guignol gorefest that inspires both hushed whispers and earsplitting screams. The filmmaker had made canonworthy cult films before, giallo GOATS like The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970) and Deep Red (1975), but this one is different. It’s the sort of stylish, surreal, gloriously perverse nightmare that borders on the transcendent — “Lewis Carroll meets Caligari,” according to one critic. There may be pound-for-pound scarier movies, though this supernatural tale makes for a strong Top 10 contender. But it is, hands down, the single most sensual horror film ever made, all bright colors and palpable textures and heightened, panic-inducing mayhem. An editor once informed me that the phrase “hell on earth” was never, ever applicable because “we have no idea what hell on earth would actually look like!” Suspiria is as close to an Exhibit-A approximation as you could hope to ask for.

And so it makes sense that one of the few major seventh-art sensualists currently working, Luca Guadagnino, would want to take a crack at his own version (it goes into wide release this Friday). It’s an impressive stab at a classic, even if the Call Me By Your Name director makes some questionable decisions while detailing Dakota Johnson’s journey from lost naif to final-girl superstardom. Setting Suspiria ’18 in 1977, the year of Argento’s original? Sure, why not — the wardrobe alone warrants the back-dating. Desaturating and draining the images of bright colors so that it looks like something that a Berlin-based filmmaker would have made in the late Seventies, then trying to fit the sound and fury into some big-picture, sins-of-a-nation social template? Was our man dipping into the drugged “restricted diet” dinners in the dance academy?

What the new version does get correct, however, is the casting — Johnson, very good; Tilda Swinton as modern-dance majordomo Madame Blanc (her credited role), beyond genius — and the sense of reality cracking in half. The latter is the Brothers Grimm currency and the calling card on which the original’s spirit-of-’77 fractured fairy tale runs. Once upon a time, a girl wanders through the Black Forest. She comes across a house. She discovers something she is not supposed to discover. And then: Chaos reigns.

It was a fairy tale, in fact, that Argento had in mind when he started mulling over this story of a young woman and the Mother of Sighs. Per Maitland McDonagh’s invaluable book Broken Mirrors, Broken Minds, the director had been approached about doing an H.P Lovecraft movie for some American production company, but was having a hard time figuring out what they — and he — wanted out of the material. Instead, his thoughts drifted to witches, those wart-covered crones who dealt in the Dark Arts. He liked the idea of doing something involving the supernatural, and maybe along the lines of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The original idea, he was quoted as saying, was to set everything in a primary school, “where the witches were teachers who tortured the children”; the heroine, we can assume, would have been the same age as Suspiria‘s Suzy, which suggests a parallel to a young princess taking care of small wards. “People say, ‘Oh, you’re just like Snow White in that movie,” Jessica Harper was recently quoted as saying. (This was probably not lost on Dario when he saw her in The Phantom of the Paradise and decided he’d found his wide-eyed lead.) The look of the movie was designed, in part, to draw comparisons to Walt Disney’s animated version.

Yes, those visuals — colorful is too mild a word for them. For a film partially inspired by both a totemic feature-length ‘toon and Thomas De Quincey’s essay collection Suspiria de Profundis (translation: Sighs From the Depths), it makes perfect, perverse sense that the film would utilize retina-searing reds, blues and greens to create what cinematographer Luciano Tovoli would refer to as “a total abstraction from what we call ‘everyday reality.'” Never mind that it’s also drawn from an apparently true story, told to the film’s cowriter/co-creator Daria Nicolodi by her grandmother, about escaping an actual coven (!), and a real-life visit that she and Argento took to a school in Switzerland with ties to the arts and the occult. This is a movie that feels like an expressionist hallucination, one marinating in primary hues to which Tovoli would add a “complimentary color, mainly yellow, to contaminate them.” The very first shot sets the tone with that conspicuously crimson airport lounge. Goodbye, real world; hello, cruel world. It’s like Harper is stepping through a portal into a dream, one where the blues are icy, the greens range from emerald to pea-soup nauseating, the goldenrods gleam and the reds bring to mind gallons of spilled Type O.

And then there are the kills — Jesus, Mary and Mario Bava, the murders in this film! We’ve already mentioned the death by heart-stabbing, hangman-noose-tying, hairy-armed killer (those are Argento’s hands grasping the first of the film’s numerous victims). There will also be death by a jagged glass plate through the skull, by a seeing-eye dog attacking a jugular vein and by stumbling into your run-of-the-mill room filled with barbed wire. The last one is punctuated by a black-gloved hand slicing the victim with a razor, the most common manner of homicide to be found in a giallo. In fact, it’s such a conventional way of dispatching a character that it sticks out in an Italian horror that borrows the vocabulary of that subgenre but leaves any sense of slasher-flick realism (the word is being used extremely loosely here) behind. Then that woman returns later as a maniacally grinning, laughing cadaver with steel needles stuck in her eyeballs, ready to kill, and you think, Ah, right: That is the Suspiria-logic ending we assumed she’d get in the first place.

By the time we’ve arrived at the climax, having been primed by the band Goblin’s throbbing prog-Euro-funk-meets-kitchen-sink score (writer David Karat astutely noted that the opening melody resembles a child’s nursery rhyme — one more fairy tale-like motif), the movie delivers unto us the apocalyptic delirium it’s been promising for the previous 80 minutes. The “head of the snake” known as the Black Queen makes her appearance known, Harper has to deal with all sorts of nastiness and the coven gets their comeuppance. Things fall apart. And viewers leave feeling dazed, as if they’ve just awoken from a particularly nasty Technicolor nightmare. Unlike other Seventies horror films that made you want to repeat “It’s only a movie … only a movie,” Suspiria 1.0 revels in its blatant make-believe — at no point do you ever forget that it’s only a movie. But that’s what makes Argento’s masterpiece such a glorious through-the-looking-glass experience. It’s an immersive bad dream you keep returning to, one that neither endless reviewings nor a remake can temper. It will still unnerve you in ways you can’t even pinpoint.

In This Article: Cult Movies, Horror

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