Further into the Inferno: The Follies of Deepening Suspiria’s Mythology

I love Dario Argento’s Suspira. It’s very high among my favorite titles from the Italian genre film legend, matched only by the likes of Opera & Tenebre. At the same time, I could not care less about the story Suspiria tells if I tried. Like the murder mystery gialli Argento cut his teeth directing, this is explicitly a style-over-substance endeavor, one that pays much more careful attention to the lighting of a kill & the menace of the soundtrack than the logic or structure of its mythology. Suspiria is a gorgeous, gore-coated object that overwhelms in its sensual pleasures, but does little to develop its central story beyond the elevator-pitch premise of “A ballet school run by witches.” Argento doesn’t even save the revelation of that premise for a mysterious reveal; one of the earliest scenes features a track from prog band Goblin where whispers of “Witch, witch-witch-witch” overwhelm the soundtrack. It’s such a weird impulse, then, for each of Suspiria’s later follow-ups to lean so heavily into the witchy dance school’s background mythology as if that was something the original film was missing. No Suspriria descendent follows this trivial pursuit as thoroughly as Luca Gaudagnino’s 2018 eponymous remake. Guadagningo’s Suspriria sprawls into almost a full extra hour of runtime to make room for exploring the political struggles of the coven who run the dammed dance academy, the childhood background of their latest victim Susie Banion, the cultural climate of the country outside the academy’s walls, and any number of other lore concerns that were not on Argento’s mind as much as staging witchy, ballet-themed kills. The truth is, though, that Argento himself was just as guilty of needlessly fleshing out Suspiria’s mythology; he just saved that indulgence for his own sequels to the original film. It’s also true that no mythology-minded Suspiria follow-up—whether from Guadagningo or Argento—has been especially bad, even though every single one is remarkably goofy.

Argento himself wasted zero time diving into Suspiria’s unexplored mythology in his own sequels to the film. The second title in what would eventually be know as The Three Mothers Trilogy, 1980’s Inferno, opens with characters reading large blocks of text out of a fictional book titled The Three Mothers that details lore only casually referenced in the previous film. While Suspiria briefly mentions that its German setting is just one of three connected, international covens – the others located in Rome & NYC – it doesn’t waste much time wondering what’s going on with the witches who run those other houses. Inferno, by contrast, explains in plain academic dialogue how the Mother of Sighs, the Mother of Tears, and the Mother of Darkness divvy up their geographically disparate power structure—connecting its tale of NYC witchcraft to the German events of the previous film. Still, the actual narrative of Inferno has little to do with this suddenly complex lore until the final showdown staged with the Mother of Darkness witch who resides in New York. Mostly, Argento slips back into the sensory indulgences of complexly constructed kills that guided the overall trajectory of the first film, even joking with the supposed seriousness of its mythology when a character mistakes “The Three Sisters” for an R&B vocal group. It wasn’t until the much-delayed conclusion to the trilogy, 2007’s Mother of Tears: The Third Mother, that he really committed to pretending Suspiria’s lore actually meant something, now having spent decades fleshing out its legacy. In the film, his real-life daughter Asia Argento reopens the same The Three Mothers book to kickstart her fated path to confront the titular third Mother in Rome; only this time the pursuit of that mystery & confrontation are made to be the main thrust of the text, so that the brutal gore (and shoddy CGI scares) that interrupt the mythology are more a distraction than they are the entire point. It’s no coincidence that the most mythology-obsessed entry in the Three Mothers Trilogy is also the weakest picture, artistically. Its Roman Catholic mysticism & ancient texts mysteries approximate a mid-00s horror version of The Da Vinci Code, except its guidance under the Dimension Extreme label makes it way cheaper & meaner than that may sound.

As Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake is a shameless indulgence in pure excess, it can’t help but eat up all of the lore stretched out across the entire Three Mothers Trilogy in a single sitting. Gaudagnino goes beyond the establishment of there being a coven of witches in three major cities to ask who these witches are, what political climates they have to deal with, how they delegate power, and how they select their victims. He also picks up the idea of their being a book explaining the mechanics of these covens and their respective houses by filling entire notebooks with handwritten, geometrically diagrammed explanations of how witchcraft works in this universe on a practical, if not mathematical level. This elaboration of core mythology may seem philosophically opposed to the barebones, imagery-distracted lore of the original Suspiria, but it does touch on the most core aspect of Dario Argento’s work: excess. The giallo legend may have poured more of his excessive, obsessive detail into the lighting & staging of a kill than establishing a sense of logic in the witchcraft behind it, but Guadagnino’s overly-detailed attention to the lore is still in the same sprit of unbridled, maybe even ill-advised excess. Oddly, that over-commitment to mythology ultimately has the same effect on the audience that the disregard for it achieved in Argento’s original version. There’s so much going on in Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria that it’s difficult to pay attention to or emotionally invest in any one narrative thread, so that what mostly remains is the film’s sense of style. Suspiria (’77) & Inferno recognize this effect outright and fully commit to Argento’s witchcraft giallo aesthetic once they establish the basic tenants of the lore that drives their conflict. Mother of Tears & Suspiria (’18) are much more frantic in their relationship with mythology, chasing a sense of meaning so desperately in their embellishment of witchcraft lore that an overindulgence in backstory & narrative itself becomes part of the filmmaking style.

Whether keeping the mythology as thinly sketched out as it was in the original film or over-explaining superfluous new wrinkles to the lore, the overall strength of a Suspiria follow-up still lies in the pleasures of its sense of style. Inferno may be the most underrated in this regard– mixing the neon witchcraft aesthetic from its predecessor with the gloved-hand giallo kills of other Argento works & Fulci-level shameless gags singular to its own vision (there are a couple cat & rat-themed eco-horror kills I find especially pleasurable) to achieve something truly special. Suspiria (2018) is similarly pleasurable in its stylistic deviations (ultimately landing somewhere between Possession & Society, but nowhere near Argento), even if its attention to lore often feels like wasted energy. Mother of Tears is the clear weak link in the chain, but even the cheap & cheesy violence of its large-scale horror mystery has a kind of charm to it, like an especially gory episode of Masters of Horror or an expired box of Easy Mac. There are no bad Suspiria movies, but there are certainly ones that try way too hard to pretend the series’ core mythology means something; it very much doesn’t.

-Brandon Ledet

Suspiria (2018)

On an aesthetic level, Luca Guadagnino’s Suspriria bears very little resemblance to Dario Argento’s Supsiria. If anything, this 40 years-later reimagining of that cult-favorite resembles an entirely different flavor of intensely stylized, European arthouse horror: Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession. Guadagnino’s picture may have maintained the witchy dance academy setting & central character names from the Argento original, but it ditches all of that film’s intense giallo cross-lighting & prog rock sensibilities for the cold, greyed-out concrete & infectious madness of Possession. Where Suspriria (2018) deviates in tone & imagery from its source material, however, it did zero in on the most vital aspect of Argento’s work: excess. Everything about Guadagnino’s Suspiria is indulgently excessive: at 142 minutes, it’s structured as six acts & an epilogue; Tilda Swinton appears in multiple roles among an already sprawling cast of witchy women (including actors from the original film); unsatisfied with merely being a stylish tale of witchcraft, it also attempts to engage with the politics of post-war Germany; it features an original soundtrack from Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke. The most Suspiria (1977) thing about Suspiria (2018) is that it’s wholly confident that every self-indulgent impulse it has is worth exploring; the only difference in that respect is that the Argento version was more frequently correct in that shared delusion.

One of my favorite tactics that carries over from Original Flavor Suspiria to Nu Suspiria is that neither waste any effort hiding that they are about dance schools “secretly” run by a coven of witches. In the original, this mystery is “spoiled” by an early sequence of a frightened dance academy student fleeing into the woods while the prog band Goblin whispers, “Witch, witch-witch-witch” over the soundtrack. In the new version, that same freaked-out runaway character (Chloë Grace Moretz) blurts, “They are witches” in blatant terms to her old-man psychiatrist (a gender-blind cast Tilda Swinton) before continuing, “They’ll hollow me out and eat my cunt on a plate.” The psychiatrist, of course, believes this paranoia to be delusional and a large part of the narrative likens his dismissal of her cries of witchcraft to the ways he failed his long-gone wife during The Holocaust. That post-war grief & guilt swirls outside the dance academy, while inside the flesh-eating witches in question are undergoing a more insular political crisis of their own. Unbeknownst to the young dancers in their care, the women who run the academy as an incognito coven are experiencing a kind of civil war on two key issues: choosing new leadership & selecting an unwitting student for a mysterious ritual that will secure the school’s future (at the student’s own peril, of course). That freshly-arrived American student’s name is Susie Banion (Dakota Johnson in a role originated by Jessica Harper), who is afforded her own lengthy backstory in a distant Mennonite community, just in case the narrative wasn’t already overstuffed without it.

It’s probably safe to say that no one loves the original Suspiria for the strengths of its story. Like most giallo-related media, it’s a film best appreciated for its overbearing sense of style more so than the cohesion of its narrative. This only became increasingly apparent as Argento attempted to retroactively make sense of his witchcraft lore in the Suspiria sequels Inferno & Mother of Tears, expanding the original film’s elevator pitch of “A ballet school run by witches” into an unwieldy (but still charming) mess now known as the Three Mothers Trilogy. Guadagnino greedily eats up this now-sprawling mythology and attempts to reinforce each element with even more over-explained backstory: how the dance school relates to its German setting; why Susie Banion is targeted and what her life was like before the ritual was initiated; how the coven negotiates & organizes its collective will across hundreds of women in three separate locales. Beyond skewing its overall aesthetic closer to Żuławski than any gialli, Guadagno’s Suspiria avoids becoming a pointless retread of its Argento source material by pulling its narrative to the opposite extreme – from vaguely stretched-out elevator pitch to overly complex, unnecessarily dense mythology. Paradoxically, the effect of that overcorrection is oddly similar to how plot & lore work in the original film; its narrative is such an overdose of information that very little of it sticks to the walls and what’s mostly left for the audience to digest is the overbearing sense of style it’s delivered through.

As much as I admire Guadagningo’s dedication to excess here, this is the exact kind of messy ambition that invites viewers to pick and choose individual elements at play to praise or critique—as opposed to the more unified vision of the Argento original, which is more of an all-or-nothing proposition. Personally, my favorite aspect of the new Suspiria is the purposeful ways that the act of dance (modern here instead of ballet) is linked to the practice of witchcraft, establishing a cause & effect relationship between dancers’ beautifully contorted bodies and their grotesquely contorted victims’, left to stew in their own piss & mucus. I was also in love with the complexly detailed imagery of Susie Banion’s nightmare montages, each individual flash of a tableau carefully staged like fine art photography. At the same time, there were two glaring stylistic choices that harshed my buzz throughout: a camcorder-level choppy frame rate effect worthy of a Milli Vanilli music video & the jarring inclusion of Thom Yorke’s crooning vocals in an otherwise phenomenal soundtrack. My aversion to those choices are likely personal biases, given that they’ve also bothered me in previous works (specifically, the choppy frame rate in Daughters of the Dust, and Sufjan Stevens’s voice in Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name), but I can’t help but find them cheapening & distracting all the same for crashing me down from the film’s otherworldly spell to a much more pedestrian tone.

There’s so much on the screen in Suspiria that most audiences will find something to nitpick in their personal experience with its relentless over-indulgences in gore-soaked, lore-obsessed witchcraft horror. I envy those who weren’t distracted by stray choices like Yorke’s mewing, appreciating this love letter to excess in its overwhelming entirety. I also pity those who can’t find anything to enjoy here; Guadagnino offers so much to choose from that if you can’t latch onto something the problem is you. I’m personally falling somewhere in the vast middle between those extremes—in impressed, but frustrated appreciation of the film’s dedication to the extremes.

-Brandon Ledet

Suspiria (1977)

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I first became aware of Dario Argento during my freshman year of college. At the time, television channel Bravo was still transitioning from the arts-oriented channel that it was when it was first incepted into the reality-TV landfill that it is now; I was visiting home and caught the re-airing of their 2004 miniseries 100 Scariest Movie Moments. It’s a smart list, even if the ascending algorithm of fright is contentious (I adore Nightmare on Elm Street, but scarier than Jacob’s Ladder or Rosemary’s Baby? Please.), and it was from that list that I learned the name “Suspiria.” It ranked relatively high, coming in at number 24, and was the second-highest rated non-domestic feature on the roster (Japan’s Audition claimed the number 11 spot), which also included thrillers like Deliverance and Night of the Hunter, films that wouldn’t normally fall under the banner of “horror” per se.

Thus, I didn’t begin my journey into the Dario Argento oeuvre with his earliest work, I started with Suspiria. In fact, before beginning this project, I had not seen Argento’s films that preceded this, his most well-known picture. I Netflix’d the DVD of Crystal Plumage sometime in 2008, but never got around to watching it before sending it back, a casualty in my mad, gluttonous rush to consume every episode of Veronica Mars. The other films of his that I did uncover and watch, like Phenomena and Opera, all came from the middle of his career, after he had forsaken pure giallo and before he moved on to making the mediocre miscellanea of his later career. And, at the risk of sounding cliche, Suspiria was a revelation to me then and a revelation to me now.

The story follows young American ballet student Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), who has been accepted to a prestigious dance academy in the Black Forest of Germany. She arrives during a torrential downpour, and makes her way to the school just in time to see another young student flee into the woods, screaming about secrets. This same young woman is later murdered, brutally, and the friend with whom she took refuge is also killed. The following morning, Suzy meets school’s vice-directress, Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett in her final film role), and dance instructor Miss Tanner (Alida Valli), who appear to be strict but matronly. She also befriends Sarah (Stefania Casini), who was friends with the murdered girl and continues her investigation into the strange goings-on about the academy. Strange events begin to happen: Sarah experiences an unusual fainting spell that forces her to relocate to the school’s dormitories from an off-campus apartment, maggots rain from the ceiling after having infiltrated “spoiled food” being kept in the attic, and disoriented bats fly into open windows while faithful service dogs turn on their owners. It’s hard to describe the film’s plot without it sounding like a standard haunted house movie, but it’s so, so much more than that.

What is a movie? Or, perhaps a better question, what should a movie be? In the West, we have been trained to have certain expectations of films, to be receptive to a particular cinematic style with a mostly-linear structure, to recognize certain constants and feel secure in them. As a comparison, think about how you were first introduced to poetry as a student: poems were words arranged in a particular pattern, with meter and rhyme. You were likely given something palatable to read, something not too dissimilar from nursery rhymes, with an easily-identifiable structure. Then, you were introduced to something completely different, something that wasn’t recognizable as a “poem” within the limited context that you were taught. Films are much the same, as studios make the majority of their money from regurgitating the same kind of mediocre pablum over and over again across all genres: Meg Ryan is a relatable career-oriented everywoman who doesn’t realize that there’s something missing from her life, every superhero has to learn the hard way that with great power blah blah (I won’t even bother finishing that thought because you’re already ahead of me), and every generation has a raunchy sex comedy to mislead them about the birds and the bees. But sometimes, a movie comes along that doesn’t just repeat the same ABAB CDCD EE rhyme scheme of other movies you’ve seen before. Auteurs earn their credibility by taking the same things we’ve seen over and over again and tearing them to pieces, or forsaking them altogether, or using them in a transcendent way by playing with or manipulating audience expectation.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that movies which forego some element of cinema in order to exalt another aspect of film can be a worthwhile endeavor, and that putting narrative consistency on the backburner in order to focus on aesthetics or mood doesn’t necessarily make a film less successful than the median anymore than ee cummings was a lesser poet than Robert Browning. Suspiria is a movie that does just this, by honing in on atmosphere and tone rather than plot, and the film is well-served by this attention to detail. That’s not to say that the plot is irrelevant (this isn’t The Five Days, after all), but color and immersion are much more important here than they are in a lot of other films from the same period (or today). Contemporary critics took issue with the film’s plot structure, apparently failing to realize that Suspiria is intentionally dreamlike, influenced by fairy tales and nightmares more than monomyth. Even the opening narration, which others consider to be out of place and somewhat silly, contributes to the film by acting as a kind of horror-tinged “once upon a time.”

Daria Nicolodi, who has a co-writer credit on the film, stated that she based her contribution on stories her grandmother had told her as a child, like the misadventures of Lewis Carroll’s Alice and, supposedly, the elder woman’s discovery that the faculty of a school she attended was secretly into occultism. Argento has claimed that this story is false, but I prefer her whimsical lie to his pragmatic honesty, as it’s a fun and intriguing fiction that’s better than the truth; that’s one of the things art is for, in my opinion. Argento has also said that he initially wanted the film to star adolescents, but that this was quickly nixed (watch that first murder scene and imagine that the victim is twelve years old, and you can see why this change was necessary); to maintain that viewpoint, the set was designed with all doorknobs at eye level so that the subconscious recognizes the actors as being smaller and more childlike. This kind of set detail, along with the omnipresence of bright, vivid colors, contributes to the film’s overall surreal ambiance. It’s a movie that’s experienced and felt more than it is one which is interpreted, and it’s all the better for it.

This is perhaps best encapsulated by the experience of the main character, Suzy. Suzy spends a great deal of her screentime being sedated each night while the heavy-lifting of the mystery is largely performed by others around her. Pat, the girl who flees the school in the opening, kept notes about the faculty’s suspicious behavior and practices; Sarah listens to the steps being taken by the teachers at night and records them so Suzy can use this information to discover the coven later; Suzy’s disappearance leads Sarah to Dr. Mendel (Udo Kier, of all people), who introduces her to exposition-laden Professor Milius (Rudolf Schundler). Suzy is a character who is acted upon more often than she is one who has agency, but isn’t that so often the case with dreams? In another movie, this would be a detraction, but here it’s actually a feature. If you haven’t seen this movie already, what are you doing here? Stop whatever you’re doing and go watch it, right now.

Additional notes:

  • I can’t believe I didn’t address this above, but this was prog-rock band Goblin’s second time collaborating with Argento, and the movie’s score is absolutely phenomenal. Anchor Bay’s DVD release of Suspiria includes a copy of the soundtrack, which has long been out of print but must be heard. It’s like the apotheosis of what a horror film score should be, at once delicate and disquieting, unsettling but eerily beautiful and vaguely mystical. Halloween’s may be the best-known horror score, but Suspiria‘s is technically and thematically superior and one of the best scores of all time.
  • When I first saw this movie, I had never seen any previous Argento films, so I didn’t know what his recurring motifs were. Although this is not a giallo film in the strictest sense of the word (obviously, the “mystery” here is much less important than visuals and mood), his trope of a character witnessing something at the beginning of the film that they struggle to comprehend is present here. As in Deep Red, a mirror holds an important clue and plays a key role in the resolution of an investigation. Most amusing to me, however, was the fact that Suzy’s ultimate defeat of the evil coven queen requires her to use a crystal-handed dagger that is part of a sculpture of a peacock, presumably the same genus as titular Bird with the Crystal Plumage.
  • He doesn’t factor into the film all that much, but Suzy’s love interest Mark (Miguel Bosé) is a total babe. Yowza.
  • A minor quibble: Why do the witches even care to bring Suzy into the school in the first place? In a more standard Hollywood film, they would probably be looking to use her in some way (see: Rosemary’s Baby) or convince her to join the coven, but there’s no real reason given or explored here, further adding to the dreamlike atmosphere. We never get an answer, but if this frustrates you, you may be missing the point.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond