On hearing that Suspiria was due for a Luca Guadagnino–directedreboot this year—the same year of its 40th anniversary—more than anything, I wondered: Haven't I already seen this? Nicholas Winding Refn's technicolor stab at the LA fashion industry The Neon Demon came out just last year. It owes, if not a total debt, then at the very least the use of its themes and its lighting gels, to Dario Argento's 1977 ballet-Giallo horror.
"Refn's concern," wrote the Village Voice, "is the emotion of a moment, much like Suspiria, where the director has a naïve ballerina wander into a roomful of razor wire just because it looks cool." Both have soundtracks that sound like hell, assuming that hell sounds both electronic and proggy; and both deal in young, female blood. Both put girls at the mercy of women who are aging; and both have their ingénues put at grave risk by ambition. Both super stylize their dubious substance. I could go on. "Refn," Argento has said, "[is] definitely inspired by my films. He admits it."
The word "homage" is always tricky, given that it's occasionally used to mean "copied from," "ripped-off," or "stolen." The Neon Demon is none of these, which is why I'm harping on it here. The film transmogrifies some of the media-hyped fears of the 70s (i.e. the occult) into the fears of the modern age (i.e. vanity and the fashion industry's vagaries). There remains, therefore, a reason for moral hysteria; fear itself is rebooted. This is maybe how one actually remakes an iconic style or idea without actually screwing the pooch—by reimagining.
Famously, Argento first designed his film as a vehicle starring 12-year-old girls, before being told that nobody wanted to see children murdered: There are fully grown women in The Neon Demon who are hungry for underage blood, and there are murder victims in Suspiria who, thanks to his mostly unmodified script, speak like children. These are differing takes on the same kind of upset. Puberty and sexual awakening, both, feel like girlie concerns in cinema, and feed into the girliest horror. Neon Demon and Suspiria are films that are never quite clear as to whether they're trying to scare women, or whether they're scared of them.
Suspiria's plot is nasty, brutish, and mercifully short to outline. A young American girl named Suzy joins a ballet academy in Germany, where a student has been recently murdered. We see the murder in graphic detail. Later, Suzy begins to suspect that the school is run by witches, clearing the way for several other violent killings and a dénouement in which she's attacked by a classmate's reanimated corpse. All of the girls are pale and thin and snotty, with terrific center-partings in that very typically 70s style, and all of the blood looks like gouache, which makes the death freakier because it looks deeply surreal. Suspiria is shot primarily in lurid, watermelon-reddish pinks and cool blues, as well as the sickly, sulky green of imitation jade. The set design helps convey the surrealism; the doorknobs are placed higher than usual, more aligned with the girls' heads, forcing them to reach upward.
When Susan, the school's newcomer, ends up falling ill—the doctor vaguely diagnoses her with a mysterious illness related to her blood—it can't help but call to mind Carrie—the supernatural ruling a woman's basic biology. Like Suspiria, Carrie received a new reboot; both star the scowling, worldly seeming Chloe Grace Moretz, whose presence often signals a smart-mouthed tough with an attitude. In Carrie, the reboot, you know that she's going to avenge herself. Helmed by a female director, Kimberly Peirce, it makes the feminist subtext of the original into a heavier text. Stephen King, when asked about his opinion on remaking Carrie, reacted the same way the rest of us had, and the same way we will when Suspiria 2.0 hits. "The real question is," he said, baffled, "why, when the original was so good?" The most interesting thing about the remake of Carrie is what it doesn't show, which is an alternate ending where Sue Snell is seen giving birth to its heroine, fully grown and bloodied. "I suggested," Peirce explained in an AFI Directing Workshop for women, "we could have a full-grown Carrie, or Carrie's hand, being birthed—you know, something along those lines.' They liked the idea, but they were concerned. They wouldn't, or couldn't, at first articulate what it was. Finally, one of them ventured, "So… you really want to show a vagina?" Some things, it seems, are too frightening for horror whatever the era. What the movie ends up being is a failure that, beat-for-beat, apes the storyline of the first film, but lacks its pale underdog's energy.
"Horror as a genre," Hazel Cills wrote at the Dissolve, "so often thrives in moving forward, in figuring out what makes people tick and jump in the present, in creating new characters or establishing smart takes on centuries-old ones. So remakes, especially ones that reach back only a couple of decades, seem antithetic to the genre's relentless progression… the greatest threat to horror originals is the temptation to update the special effects and cinematography to slicker contemporary norms." The bright unreality of Suspiria's gore is its saving grace; blood pools on parquet floors and looks dreamy rather than queasy. It would not do for the death to feel too true in something whose subject is "witches at ballet school." It would not do for the style to be vanquished for realism. Knowing that Tilda Swinton is involved in the new Suspiria barely lessens the blow. Dakota Johnson's presence is further bad news, since in Suspiria, there should be no shades of gray whatsoever.
"I know nothing about this project except what I read in the papers," Argento fumed in a recent interview. "I repeat: I have never, ever been asked about it… Honestly, I do think it would be better if it wasn't remade… the film has a specific mood. Either you do it exactly the same way—in which case, it's not a remake, it's a copy, which is pointless—or, you change things and make another movie. In that case, why call it 'Suspiria'?" Why, indeed—why not change things and make a new movie, and call it The Neon Demon? Refn's film, his overt debt, at least earned admiration from its master source. A good enough riff on a classic will add to the conversation; a terrible remake is only like drowning it out. Suspiria, Variety dryly notes in a standalone paragraph in its announcement about the new film, "is a Latin word for 'sighs.'" The title has never felt more apt.