Remakes of horror classics have become a trend that is most likely here to stay. For the most part, they all have some things in common: they fail to capture the heart and endurance of their predecessors, their only reason for existing is to “reintroduce” the title to a new generation of fans (yet it’s a safe bet that money has more to do with it), and they even tend to feature Chloë Grace Moretz. Only the last of these rings true for Luca Guadagnino’s reinterpretation of Dario Argento’s 1977 classic, Suspiria. His version differs greatly from the original, only keeping the loosest main elements of the story and making everything else about the project completely his own. One of the stylistic differences most likely to throw off die-hard fans is the film’s earth-toned color palette. It was evident early in the film’s promotional material that it wouldn’t feature Argento’s trademark vibrancy, opting instead for a milder, bleaker look. It’s for good reason, however. Where Argento used color to enhance his film’s surrealist dreamscape, Guadagnino uses their conspicuous absence to drown us in a sense of unflattering and terrifying realism – a world that reminds us too much of our own.
Much like its predecessor, this Suspiria tells the story of Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), a young American who arrives in Germany to begin school at the Markos Dance Academy. The academy has started to face some controversial rumors following the disappearance of one of their students, Patricia (Moretz). She was last seen leaving the apartment of her psychotherapist Dr. Joseph Klemperer (Tilda Swinton) after confessing her belief that the school is run by a coven of witches who serve the Three Mothers, a trio of witches from long ago. Susie ignores such outlandish fables claims as her dancing skills further impress the head artistic director and choreographer Madame Blanc (also Swinton). However, claims from her friend Sara (Mia Goth) arouse Susie’s suspicion, as does an ongoing investigation by Dr. Klemperer.
Though the film does deal with witches, it tends to focus less on the supernatural and more on the world that unfolding around the characters. It it set in 1970s West Berlin, where it is evident that the city is on the brink of violence as well as suffering from national guilt. Guadagnino incorporates these moods into his palette. Muted, earth-toned colors not only represent the time period, but the hopeless feeling of the film, as well.
With this stylistic choice, Guadagnino makes more than just a creative refusal to copy Argento’s original. By imbuing the film with an overwhelmingly bleak look, the viewer feels as hopeless as its characters. This is interesting because the German national guilt that Guadagnino weaves into the film was by and large a male offense. To accentuate this, he gives Suspiria an almost-entirely female cast, with the main male protagonist played by Swinton. Yet, the guilt over the violence and horrors committed by many German men bled into the lives of German women as well. The stark, autumnal colors spreading their way throughout the world of Suspiria and into the Markos Dance Academy echo this; even if its inhabitants aren’t directly responsible for the horrors, the aftermath is felt by everyone.
However, it must be noted that not all of Suspiria is colored in this way; Susie’s surreal dreams reflect a bit of Argento inspiration in the vivid colors they portray. But the most violent change – in every way – occurs in Act VI, when Susie reveals herself as Mater Suspiriorum, one of the Three Mothers previously mentioned, seeking revenge on the coven members who voted Markos as their new leader. A lengthy scene of carnage ensues as Susie, inhabited by the Mother, summons an incarnation of Death to kill Markos and her followers. As this happens, the entire screen fills with a menacing red, tinting everything that follows as if the set was drowned in gel lights.
This is as close to Argento’s colors as we ever get in Guadagnino’s adaption, which is fitting because it matches the violence he found so colorful in itself. Yet, where Argento’s use of color somewhat added a layer of playfulness to go along with the giallo genre of his filmmaking, Guadagnino uses it as a signal that everything has gone to hell. This is a woman taking back what she wanted from the academy, but can also be seen as an act of revenge on the German men who brought the country so much shame. It’s a horrific scene that is without a doubt the most disturbing of the film, but overall it is a beautifully colored scene of redemption.
In parts, Guadignino uses color to add to the terror of his film just as his predecessor did. However, his use of bleakness accomplishes the same feeling, adding a sense of overall anxiety and dread from the beginning of the film. This Suspiria and the original are two very different breeds, despite sharing many of the same elements. Despite this, color never seems to escape either of them – not entirely. Color helps complete the story – sometimes it is the story – and it’s hard to imagine either Suspiria films without it.