[Editor’s Note: The following article contains spoilers for the new “Suspiria,” including the ending.]
When it was first announced, plenty of people had doubts about Luca Guadagnino remaking Dario Argento’s classic 1977 horror film “Suspiria.” Argento’s movie pulses with an unforgettable soundtrack by Goblin, and is a kaleidoscope of colors, garish but instantly memorable backgrounds, and brutal death scenes. “Suspiria” didn’t need a remake, and Guadagnino knew this, clarifying that his film would be more of a tribute than anything else.
Guadagnino infused his film with the mythology of the Three Mothers, which Argento introduced in “Suspiria,” and further explored in 1980’s “Inferno” and 2007’s “The Mother of Tears.” The Three Mothers are in fact three powerful witches, who once roamed the earth, gaining power and wealth, and leaving destruction and death in their wake. There is Mater Suspiriorum or the Mother of Sighs, based in Freiburg, Germany (changed to Berlin in the new film); Mater Tenebrarum or the Mother of Darkness, based in New York; and Mater Lachrymarum, the Mother of Tears, who is in Rome.
2018’s “Suspiria” keeps Mater Suspiriorum, as well as Susie Bannion’s (Dakota Johnson) arrival to a prestigious dance academy in Germany, where not all is what it seems. But Guadagnino makes his own mark by setting the film in 1977 and weaving in German political history, specifically the German Autumn, a period of unrest marked by kidnappings and a failed hijacking by the Red Army Faction, a West German far-left militant group.
It was this take that drew screenwriter David Kajganich, who previously collaborated with Guadagnino in 2015 on “A Bigger Splash,” to the remake. Kajganich wasn’t as enamored with the original film as Guadagnino — he admitted to only re-watching it once before starting his own script — but he still found remaking Argento’s beloved movie a daunting task, until Guadagnino explained the context.
“Luca was saying that he was thinking of keeping it in 1977,” Kajganich said. “But letting the world of Berlin and Germany at the time really leak into the story. As soon as he said that, I understood how this could work, that it could really be about the politics inside of the coven, in the context of the politics of Germany at the time, in the middle of the German Autumn. Suddenly, it seemed like the scope of it could be quite a bit more, dramatically, instead of the sort of hermetically sealed kind of fever dream of the original. We can really have a much grander scale, in terms of understanding the politics of the day. As soon as we started to talk about that, all of my trepidation went away.”
Despite this new context, as well as looking very different, “Suspiria” is still firmly embedded in the world of witchcraft and secret covens, perhaps even more so than the original. At the Tanz Dance Academy, and especially through the work of Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), it soon becomes clear that dance is actually ritual, a means of spell casting.
These witches don’t feel quite like anything seen before on the screen: they brandish sickle-like silver hooks that they impale their victims with; they haunt the dreams of each student, giving them vivid, technicolor nightmares; their magic is one that affects and controls the body, clogging the eyes of unruly students with thick, globular tears in one scene, before leading them to be brutally broken through Susie’s dancing, like a twisted marionette act.
To create the unforgettable witches, Kajganich used some body horror inspiration from directors like David Cronenberg, but most of it was rooted in the very real and dark history of accusing women of witchcraft as a means to strip them of basic power and a voice.
“I went into just hard research about the history of witchcraft,” Kajganich said. “About that kind of esoteric iconography. I did a lot of research that was really about how witchcraft and the fear of witches really was a fear of female empowerment. And how those two things… the feminist movement and this fear of the occult had points where they crossed paths, because they exist in a relationship with one another historically, in the sense that people (the patriarchy, if you will) takes its fear of the empowerment of women and creates a mythology for it. Often that has something to do with the occult, what’s hidden.
“So, I just wanted to try to build something that had one foot in actual research about witchcraft, and one foot in… the transgressive and subversive narratives about female empowerment. [I was] just trying to figure out as practically as possible what a real coven in Berlin in 1977 might look like, and how it might behave, and what their rituals might involve.”
Those rituals come to a huge climax twice in the film. First, in the performance of “Volk,” a stunning sequence that builds to a fever-pitch before the spell is quite literally broken by Mia Goth’s Sara, whose doubt about the disappearance of her friend, Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz) has led her to uncover the sinister coven hidden in the bowels of the dance academy.
With the performance of “Volk” it becomes clear that Madame Blanc and the coven are attempting to sacrifice Susie: through the dance ritual, her body will become a vessel for the ancient Helena Markos, the leader of the coven and Mater Suspiriorum, who needs a fresh body for her soul to live on. After the performance is a failure, the witches make a second attempt, in a final and very bloody ritual, where it is revealed that the true Mother of Sighs is not Helena Markos, but (in a big departure from the original film) in fact has been Susie all along.
As Susie reveals herself, she summons her familiar, a demonic-looking creature, which begins killing off those in the coven who supported Helena Markos. The Mother of Sighs pulls open her own chest, revealing a blackened mouth (which looks suspiciously like a vagina), which wails and sighs. Mother leaves a wake of death and destruction in the ritual chamber, but she is not without mercy, granting a peaceful death to both Sara and Patricia, who have become half-human and hobbled in the coven’s failed attempts to create a host body for Markos.
As Kajganich explains, the hints of Susie’s true identity were embedded in the film from the beginning. Susie awakens to her own identity while at the school, screaming during a dream “I know who I am!” Still, it is not only the audience who is surprised by her big reveal at the end, but also Madame Blanc.
“You start to realize at some point that she’s always been drawn to Berlin,” Kajganich said. “She’s always been heading towards Madame Blanc, and she doesn’t even know why. As she begins to see things at the coven, where the two detectives are stripped and toyed with, her reaction to that scene is to laugh. That’s not what you’re expecting. In most horror movies, the final girl will see something like that and want to run. And she doesn’t, it just pulls her in more and more. She doesn’t quite know why her relationship to these terrifying things isn’t to want to run away.
“And then at some point she realizes, and she starts taking over the dream that Madame Blanc is sending her. At some point, she’s introducing her own iconography into those dreams that startles Madame Blanc, to the point where, during the ritual, Madame Blanc says, ‘I think something’s wrong here. This isn’t what we anticipated this being. We have to stop it and figure out what is this new element here that we’re not in control of.'”
Susie’s transformation, her ability to conquer Helena Markos is markedly different from Argento’s film, which falls into the standard Final Girl trope of an innocent girl overcoming death and horror to defeat evil and emerge triumphant. Susie, as the Mother of Sighs, is triumphant, but she marks a shift in the trope, one that has come to define horror, but one that is still evolving in new ways as women become more empowered in the genre.
Kajganich sees Susie as a very different type of Final Girl, because the source of her empowerment comes from within, and because she is often the source of the horror in “Suspiria.”
“Horror is a genre, obviously, that traffics in environment, so when the final girl trope is used well, it’s about the anxiety of being a woman inside of circumstances that are objectifying or violent toward you. But in our version, a young woman discovering what is her true identity, and what is a source of power that she is in control of, that isn’t just being given to her, but that she is the source of.
“She’s not a final girl, exactly, but the Mennonite Susie Bannion that you meet at the beginning, obviously isn’t the person that you have at the end of the film. I think what I would say about it is, in most horror films, that main character is just the object of the violence of the film, of the threat of the film. We wanted Susie to be sometimes, and certainly by the end, the subject of the horror of the film. To me that distinction is a pretty great one.”
Suspiria is now playing in theaters.