“Call Me by Your Name” director Luca Guadagnino’s new film “Suspiria,” a remake of a classic Italian horror flick of the same name, is mere weeks away from release, and if early buzz from festivals is to trust, it’s not a film to miss.
But before you let it shred your soul and drench you in terror, you’d be smart to give Dario Argento’s 1977 original a watch.
The films follow essentially the same premise: an American dancer, Suzy Bannion, travels to Germany to study at a prestigious ballet school that might just be hiding a dark secret: a coven of witches.
Argento, one of Italian cinema’s most famed filmmakers and one of the pioneers behind the foundation of an entire genre, was known primarily for his work in giallo, a genre of film so named for the yellow, paperback crime novels from which they were adapted. Lurid and pulpy like the novels by which they were inspired, they were essentially an answer of the American film noir and a predecessor to the slasher.
“Suspiria” is thus a rare film in Argento’s rich and colorful repertoire in that it eschews the traditions and subjects of the giallo but not the gleeful pulpiness and detachment from reality. It is a film of heightened sensuousness and rapturous aesthetic precision. Every shot feels like a dream conjured to the screen. Its colors are vivid and its set designs rich, lending it an air of pure fantasy.
But unlike the giallo, its focuses are ultimately not crime and murder, but the supernatural and preternatural, despite the compelling whodunit mystery it establishes for itself in a gruesome kill early on. Argento understands what makes the giallo tick, as well as what constitutes its identity as a genre, and at every moment he is willing to subvert the expectations incumbent in that, forging a singular style and unmatched beauty.
It’s precisely because of that thoughtful skewing of genre that “Suspiria” remains such an invigorating film so many years later.
It’s also brilliant because its beauty belies its brutality. By situating his film within a fantastical visual milieu, Argento creates an experience that feels visually poetic and distanced from the horror genre, and yet, because of the nature of the narrative yarn he’s unspooling, it remains frightful and in touch with terror.
The product is a dark fantasy drenched in blood and overflowing with brilliant set-pieces. There’s a slew of viscerally tense sequences and grueling kills that will satisfy any fan of the genre, and the entire ordeal is so steeped in mystery and suspense that even in the moments where outright terror isn’t its foremost intention, it still feels chilling and suspenseful.
A standout sequence late in the film sees a character sneaking around the coven’s dark halls late at night, pursued by an unseen assailant. It’s tense and terrifying, but what’s especially stirring about the whole ordeal is how dizzyingly gorgeous it remains, even in its garish depictions of violence. Argento’s “Suspiria” is a film about beauty and terror, and the profundities that arise from the confluence of the two.
As such, even its most gruesome moments remain unexpectedly dazzling. Argento’s predilection for visually astounding representations of even the most brutal acts of violence renders the film wholly captivating and makes it palatable even to those too squeamish for mainstream horror. It also compounds the intensity of the entire experience, because the aesthetic richness of his vision draws one in, even in moments where the natural instinct might be to look away.
There’s a dark majesty inherent in ballet that’s rarely capitalized upon in cinema. Darren Aronofsky made something of it with “The Black Swan,” but before him, Dario Argento conjured up something truly dazzling and spectacular.
“Suspiria” is a bewitching, entrancing film of unexpected beauty and blood-curdling terror. Here’s hoping Luca Guadagnino can do it justice.