Sighs from the Depths of My Local Arthouse

I’ve known the name Dario Argento since I was in high school, but I hadn’t seen any of his films (unless you count Once Upon a Time in the West, my favorite Spaghetti Western, on which he has a story credit) until May 1st, 2018. On that day, I saw the original 1977 Suspiria at the local Art Theater in downtown Champaign.

Without spoiling anything for fellow latecomers, Suspiria stars Jessica Harper as an American ballet student who transfers to a prestigious German dance academy only to get caught up in a brutal supernatural conspiracy. It’s considered one of the most influential horror films of the late 1970s, and is actually the first of a trilogy (I haven’t gotten around to seeing the rest, but I hope to eventually).

For me, the original Suspiria didn’t quite live up to the years of hype surrounding it, but it came damn close and I enjoyed it a lot. It struck me as perhaps a little more style than substance, but MAN, what style! Those colors! That music! It all combined to form a beautifully creepy atmosphere unlike anything I’d seen before. The University of Illinois Press had a table in the theater lobby, selling copies of L. Andrew Cooper‘s critical text on Argento’s films (titled simply Dario Argento). I bought one enthusiastically on my way out, and sighed Goblin’s iconic Suspiria theme under my breath all the way back to my car.

Then, in September, I saw my second Argento film: 1975’s Deep Red (a.k.a. Profundo Rosso, a.k.a. The Hatchet Murders), also at the Art.

If you don’t count Suspiria as part of the genre (and many of my better-versed acquaintances don’t, though some do), Deep Red was my first-ever giallo film. Like Argento’s name, I’d known the term for years, but had never seen (at least not knowingly) an example of the form (I was attracted enough to the concept to ask my dad for a copy of Ross E. Lockhart’s Giallo Fantastique anthology for my birthday in 2016, but that had as much to do with the authors featured as it did with the theme).

Anyway, I really dug Deep Red, even more than I expected to. It’s the complex story of a British jazz pianist investigating the murder of a psychic medium in Rome, while the mysterious black-gloved killer tries to thwart him. Another fantastic score by Italian prog-rockers Goblin, a camera that never seems to stop moving (but in a good way, not like the lame shaky-cam bullshit found in some recent films), and some genuinely creepy moments beyond the merely gruesome (that scene with the doll!). It almost feels like a gorier, more over-the-top version of something Hitchcock might’ve made, and I mean that in the best way possible.

Finally, in early November, I saw what many consider the high-water mark of giallo cinema: Argento’s first feature, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970).

This one is also the first in an Argento trilogy, and takes its plot (loosely and without credit) from the Fredric Brown mystery novel The Screaming Mimi (1949). Like Deep Red, this one drops a foreign artist (this time an American writer) in the middle of Rome for a stylishly horrific thrill ride. This one features a score by Ennio Morricone, most famous for composing the music for practically every Sergio Leone film (including Once Upon a Time in the West) but also deservedly admired for his work on films like The Thing (1982) and The Mission (1986). Seeing the movie in an old art-house theater, rum and Coke in hand, and sporting at the time a period-appropriate mustache, sideburns, and leather jacket, I felt like a character straight out of the first season of The Deuce. It was an excellent finale in my backwards journey through three of Argento’s most celebrated films.

But there is a coda to this minor art-house odyssey.

Last weekend I turned 27, a prime age for death by misadventure. To celebrate, my dad took me out for sushi and then to see a film at our beloved Art Theater.

The film, of course, was Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria.

Since its production was widely announced in 2015 or 2016, I already knew about the new Suspiria before I saw the original. Some of my friends were outraged over the idea of a remake, and I rolled my eyes at the addition of yet another title to the recent glut of remade films, but I wasn’t actually upset by the notion. First, I hadn’t even seen the original, and therefore had no strong feelings about it that a new version might potentially mar. Second, I’d much rather see a remake of a 40-year-old semi-obscure foreign film done by a talented director than a watered-down, focus-grouped rehash of a still-popular ’80s or ’90s nostalgia item made by a committee of hacks (I could list some examples here, but they don’t need more publicity and I’m sure you can think of at least three on your own).

Anyway, I was mostly ambivalent about it until I saw the first teaser, about a month after seeing the original film. That teaser pretty much hooked me, and every trailer following only got me more pumped to see it. When I saw it was coming to the Art on my birthday, my plans were made.

I was a little anxious about bringing my dad. He has a tendency to doze off in dark theaters during long movies, and when I discovered Videodrome (1983) in college and made him watch it with me, he told me afterward, “Don’t show this to [your girlfriend]. She doesn’t need to see this.” On the other hand, he’d previously hosted a screening of Antichrist (2009) for me and some friends a few years earlier, and hadn’t seemed too fazed by it. So, after a delicious sushi dinner, both a little tipsy on sake and beer, we subjected ourselves to a headily ornate audiovisual assault.

Where Argento’s Suspiria might be accused of garishness for its use of color, Guadagnino’s might be accused of the same for its apparent complexity. Again telling the story of an American woman (this time played by Dakota Johnson, transcending the Fifty Shades films with impressive conviction much like post-Twilight Robert Pattinson) who enrolls in a prestigious German dance academy that is more than it seems, this remake swaps Argento’s outrageous palette for more muted tones, and stretches the runtime from the original’s brisk 98 minutes to a slightly bloated 152. It’s a much bleaker film than its originator, but like the best remakes (Cronenberg’s The Fly, for example) it remains spiritually faithful to the source while exploring new themes and aesthetics. The score, this time by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, is far less memorable than Goblin’s, but still appropriate and effective.

Guadagnino’s Suspiria seems to share much of its themes, structure, and tone with Von Trier’s Antichrist, so if you’ve seen that you might have a better idea of what to expect than if you’ve only seen the original Argento version. Both Suspiria ’18 and Antichrist left me wondering, “What the fuck did I just watch?” and both are divided into clearly-marked chapters. But, while Antichrist‘s epilogue provides an effectively chilling and ambiguous final note, Suspiria‘s seems to wrap things up almost a little too neatly to be completely satisfying. Considering that, along with the slightly unjustified length of the film as a whole and the impact of the gloriously disturbing “Mutterhaus” sequence preceding it, I felt most of the epilogue could have been cut to little or no ill effect.

Upon leaving the theater I wasn’t sure what to think of it, though I’m fairly certain I enjoyed it more than my dad. With each passing day, though, my appreciation grows a little. In my heart of hearts I think I still prefer the relative simplicity of the original, but Guadagnino’s version is well worth seeing.

Especially on a big screen in an old arthouse theater.