Legendary Italian filmmaker Dario Argento is renowned for his blood-soaked, vibrant, and violent entries to the horror movie genre. The prolific director has amassed 27 directing credits in his career, across film and TV, with a new feature film set to release this year. However, Argento’s most prominent period came in the late ’70s and early ‘80s, when he changed the face of horror with his iconic movie Suspiria.
Arguably Argento’s finest and most famous work, the Giallo classic, Suspiria was released in 1977. Although this was Argento’s sixth film as a director, it has to be said that Suspiria is the one which truly made the world stand up and recognise his work. Cinema, and indeed horror, would never be the same again, with the exploitation movie influencing countless filmmakers throughout the years, even spawning a 2018 remake of sorts.
The modern version of Suspiria was directed by Argento’s compatriot, Luca Guadagnino, and starred Dakota Johnson and Tilda Swinton, among others. The dark thriller movie, distributed by Amazon, is described by Guadagnino as a “homage” to the original rather than an absolute remake. But why is Argento’s movie so revered? And, which movie is better? Let’s find out, shall we?
Perhaps the most important and impacting element of the original Suspiria movie was the way Argento wrapped his twisted horror story in a vivid, colourful chrysalis. Generally speaking, horror movies find their home in the darkness, but bright, primary colours permeate every inch of Suspiria.
This hyper-stylised aesthetic was revolutionary at the time, and helped to create a new sense of unease for audiences who were now witnessing nightmarish scenes with an unsettlingly rich colour palette.
But, beneath the beauty, there lies much to be inferred. There is, of course, the inherent danger and violence commonly associated with the use of the colour red. This is juxtaposed with flashes of blue and green, which appear to signify a more calming and safe environment.
These rules are seemingly abandoned, however, when our protagonist Suzy Bannion crosses the threshold into the true depths of horror within the academy walls. Here, all the colours warp into one big, hallucinatory fever dream, leaving the character, and the audience, to doubt everything that they have experienced thus far.
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At the core of the narrative for Suspiria, both the 1977 and 2018 versions, is the art of dance. Dance scenes are most commonly utilised to signify coordination and cohesion, but not in this world. Although Guadagnino leans on this synchronised element far more, when we first see Suzy dance in Argento’s version, we are witnessing the unhinged rhythm of his movie reveal itself.
Feeling weak, which we later assume is due to being unwittingly drugged, Suzy is disorientated and unable to keep pace with the simple warm-up routine. As she spins out of control and faints in the centre of the dancehall, we recognise that Suzy is truly an outsider in this hostile environment; uncomfortable, unwelcome, and highly vulnerable.
Of course, when you think of dance, you think of music. But, again, Argento is not concerned with creating a symbiotic relationship between the two. Horror music is notorious for instilling a sense of dread and unease in audiences, and it’s safe to say Argento’s Suspiria achieves this.
Dario Argento himself is co-credited with creating the music for this movie, and it’s clear that his jarring score is purposefully misaligned with the visual cues to create a meticulous pattern of organised chaos. There is certainly method in the madness, particularly evident as the film draws to its conclusion and Suzy encounters the demonic Helena Markos.
Argento combines a hellish mix of synth and bells to form a frenzied backdrop to this climactic sequence, but never allows this to distract or become overbearing. This is a filmmaker who has a remarkable handle on all of the moving parts, and who instinctively knows how to drive the horror home with any and all of the technical elements at his disposal.
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Among the alluring visuals and striking score, it’s easy to forget that the Suspiria of 1977 includes an array of genuinely shocking horror moments. We have already touched on the gruesome Helena Markos, the big villainous presence who dominates the film’s conclusion, but scattered throughout the 100-minute runtime are plenty of disturbing deaths scenes.
Argento wastes no time in introducing us to the graphic horror we will witness. Early on, we have the jump-scare induced, frenetic window death sequence, accompanied by intense screams and haunting, wailing music. This ultimately leads to the victim, Pat Hingle, being stabbed several times, before being hanged from the tall ceiling of the academy, and Argento is unflinching in his depiction.
The danger of the academy doesn’t remain within its grand walls, and it is certainly not limited to the dancers, either. With the death of Daniel, the academy’s blind pianist, Argento ensures his audience understands that no one is safe from the evil which lurks behind the confines of the dance studio.
By setting this scene outside of the academy, in the open expanse of the town hall, albeit in the dead of night, it is immediately implicit that even if you manage to escape, the witches will find you. And, if it isn’t the witches, it’s the barbed wire!
Dario Argento is one of the most accomplished filmmakers in the Giallo movement in Italy. Giallo movies are essentially mystery and thriller movies, and, believe it or not, they are labelled as such due to their derivation from popular novels of similar themes, which had yellow covers – Giallo translating as yellow, in Italian.
The vast influence Argento and his work had on the horror genre is enormous. Ask any horror filmmaker what their favourite films are or what films inspire them, and we’re sure Suspiria will find its way on to the majority of those lists. Indeed, Halloween director John Carpenter recently cited the movie as one of his top five horror films of all time.
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When you consider many of the brilliant horror films of the last decade, comparisons to the great Giallo are definitely there to be found. The most Argento-adjacent of which, is Ari Aster’s daylight horror, Midsommar.
In Midsommar, we see a vulnerable young woman thrust into an extremely uncomfortable environment, wherein she experiences hallucinations, and witnesses various people around her suffer gruesome deaths. There’s even a spot of dancing, just in case you weren’t already convinced of the similitude between the two movies. These events are all set against the backdrop of a vivid, picturesque location which, similarly to Suspiria, forces the audience to endure the unnerving contrast of beauty and brutality.
Of course, we can’t talk about modern horror and Suspiria, without examining the 2018 version of the movie. As mentioned previously, director Luca Guadagnino describes his movie as a “homage” to the Argento classic, rather than a remake.
There are a lot of similarities between the two movies, naturally; the narrative focus on a dance academy, the devilish presence of witches, and plenty of gnarly death scenes. There is even a cameo appearance from Suzy Bannion herself, Jessica Harper, who shows up in this movie playing a different character.
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The overwhelming sense of unease and anxiety which underpins the original movie is very much present throughout Guadagnino’s reimagining, too. This is portrayed fantastically by Dakota Johnson; a visual manifestation of distress and paranoia, who is captivating to watch.
Again, much like the 1977 version, the marriage of music and what we see on screen is inch-perfect. With a delightfully disturbing score, composed by Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, Guadagnino is able to replicate what Argento achieved all those years ago; driving the narrative perfectly without the sonic accompaniment ever becoming overbearing.
However, whilst Guadagnino certainly draws on the spirit of Argento’s 1977 movie, the modern interpretation does make bold choices and deviate from the path of the original. The success of these filmmaking choices is purely subjective, but I would argue they are very effective.
On a technical level, Guadagnino’s decision to drain his movie of the quintessential primary colour palette is a very interesting one. The director is quoted as saying: “It’s a film about guilt and motherhood. It has no primary colours in its colour palette, unlike the original. It will be cold, evil and really dark.”
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This approach allows the rare moments of colour that we do get, to be all the more impacting. By bathing Tilda Swinton’s Madame Blanc in a rich, green filter, Guadagnino is perhaps leaning on the most common connotation of this primary colour – envy.
Blanc’s demonic alter-ego, Helena Markos, yearns for the body and spirit of the young women she tutors, particularly that of Dakota Johnson’s Suzy Bannion. Blanc is not simply observing her students in this moment, she is sizing up her sacrificial offerings.
For those who have watched the movie, of course, you will know that the climactic scenes send us down a very different path to the original movie. In the 2018 version, Suzy Bannion is ultimately revealed to be the real Mother Suspiriorum, in her shocking “I am she” dialogue.
Deep in the hellish coven, the witches gather to perform the sacrificial ceremony, with Helena Markos showing her true form. It is here, that Dakota Johnson’s Suzy becomes another addition to the new breed of final girls in horror.
In the past, it has been enough for the archetypal final girl to simply survive. However, recent horror movies such as Ready or Not, The Witch, and the aforementioned Midsommar, have allowed the female protagonist to thrive.
Soaked in the red filter we would normally associate with our character being in danger, the Suspiria of 2018 flips this convention on its head and instead presents Suzy as being the one who is dangerous. Suzy is no longer a vulnerable victim, but a malignant force all of her own.
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So, which movie is better? The 2018 version of Suspiria was met with mixed reactions from critics and fans alike, and failed miserably at the box office, taking less than $8m against a reported budget of $20m.
It would seem the film suffered from the age-old dilemma of revisiting such a revered movie heritage, in that you can’t copy the original, and you can’t stray too far from it either; you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t.
Essentially, if you assess Guadagnino’s Suspiria as its own beast, the movie is a very impressive, bold and dynamic piece of horror filmmaking. Sadly, it has an impossible standard to live up to, and the original Suspiria is always going to dominate the conversation.
The impact Argento’s movie had at the time, and its lasting legacy to this day, are emblematic of the perfect execution of a filmmaker at the peak of his powers. Argento may be the best, but there is certainly room in the horror hall of fame for both of these movies to co-exist in a wonderfully twisted consanguinity.