Volktales – A Tale of Two Suspirias

By Guest Writer Alan Holmes

“Three Mothers, lost to time, predating all Christian invention. Pre-God, pre-Devil; Mother Tenebrarum, Mother Lachrymarum, and Mother Suspiriorum: tears, darkness, and sighs.” Such are the trio of goddesses worshipped by a coven in the world of Suspiria.

Suspiria first came to the world in 1977 from director Dario Argento. A modest success, the film’s been elevated to cult status in the years since. A supernatural horror, Suspiria was partially inspired by Thomas De Quincey’s 1845 collection of poems and essays “Suspiria de Profundis,” a Latin phrase translating to “sighs from the depths.” It’s from here the concept of the Three Mothers originated. The movie has been often credited as one of the first in the slasher genre, though it’s also been purposefully designed as a fever dream, one meant to invoke a twisted and nightmarish fairytale.

The dancers of Suspiria.

In 2018, director Luca Guadagnino reintroduced Suspiria to the world. Remakes aren’t exactly uncommon nowadays, though Guadagnino has been fairly insistent that his film is less of a remake and more a reimagining or even a remix of sorts. All things considered, I actually can’t fault him for that claim. Both versions of the film bring something very different to the table. The premise is the same. It’s the same menu, so to speak, but with very different feasts.

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Said menu is not particularly for the faint of heart. Of course, horror is a very subjective genre. I can’t promise either movie will scare you, though the blood bath on display must be seen to be believed. Both movies take place in 1977 and follow Susie Bannion, a young dancer from America who enrolls at a prestigious dance academy in Berlin. It isn’t long before she realizes the academy is a front for something far more sinister.

The original Suspiria is considered to be a Giallo film. My understanding of the Giallo genre is that it is the Italian term for a subset of mystery thrillers and horror. The word Giallo itself is Italian for yellow. Apparently, there were a popular series of cheap paperback mystery and crime thriller novels in Italy, outlined with yellow covers, hence where the term comes from.

Giallo is… an unconventional genre. Many common elements of these movies are the exaggerated use of blood (often appearing in an oddly thick, pinkish tone) and the presence of multiple languages spoken by the cast, dubbed over in post-production. For instance, Suspiria was filmed with some cast members speaking English (such as the lead actress, Jessica Harper), others Italian, others German. For the release of the film in America, all cast members were dubbed in English. For the Italian release, Harper and others were dubbed in Italian. Truthfully, it’s a practice I don’t understand, but I digress.

Suzie stands against a window holding a knife in the original Suspiria film.

The real meat of the original film comes in its visceral effect. The aforementioned twisted fairytale element pervades throughout. As Susie arrives in Germany, she approaches the exit out from the airport, snippets of Goblin’s eerie soundtrack creeping in and out as Susie glances around. The wind catches her off guard the moment she steps outside, a storm brewing. Now the music plays uninterrupted. A close-up of the door shutting behind her signifies that the world she once knew is locked behind her. She’s entered the nightmare. There’s no turning back.

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From here on, the film is bathed in rich, stark, pastel Technicolor. Lavish pinks, blood reds, neon lights of blues and greens. The entire movie is a rich highlight, and much of this design was inspired by Walt Disney’s 1937 film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Susie Bannion herself was purposefully portrayed as a Snow White-like character, a beautiful innocent caught up in a harrowing hellscape. Early in the film, shots of another student running through a thicket of skeletal trees are intended as a homage to the Disney film, where Snow White runs through the woods, and all of the trees appear as monsters.

Suzie enters the dance academy in the original Suspiria film.

The aforementioned score by Goblin (an Italian rock band) is drenched in the atmosphere, lifting the film with that harrowing fairytale quality. It’s still quite dark, filled with whispers and disembodied voices, yet has that touch of whimsy. It’s not a happy fairytale, but a fairytale nonetheless.

From here, the film progresses story-light. There are strange supernatural occurrences and murder after brutal, bloody murder, but the story itself unfolds without overt exploration. This movie is very much about the journey, not the destination. The backdrop of the dance academy is largely irrelevant, and it’s not revealed towards the end that the academy is a cover for the coven of witches. In all honesty, it’s fairly straightforward. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind you. This movie is more about the experience, immersing yourself in the atmosphere it creates.

Enter Suspiria 2018. A stark contrast to its progenitor, this Suspiria is bleak, drained of most of its color in favor of a muted, winterish palette. It’s largely comprised of grays and browns, avoiding primary colors. The music (this time created by Thom Yorke of Radiohead fame) is ethereal in quality. Much of the music is orchestrated and lacks the darker nature of Goblin’s score. The title track which opens the film is predominately a piano-based ballad. Rather than being creepy, it’s quite pretty, purposefully hypnotic in its repetition. More than anything, this film takes the initial concept from the original and runs wild.

Suzie practices ballet in the Suspiria remake film.

One of the very first things we learn is that witches run the dance academy. A student (Patricia, played by Chloë Grace Moretz) confesses to her therapist, claiming they’re trying to get inside her. Unfortunately (though understandably), these confessions are initially dismissed as delusions. By the time Susie (now played by Dakota Johnson) arrives at the academy, Patricia is gone, and the coven is looking for a new host.

A host for who exactly? In the original Suspiria, the headmistress of the academy/leader of the coven was Helena Markos. Markos was heavily implied to be Mother Suspiriorum, whereas Madame Blanc- an instructor at the school- served Markos as a loyal follower. Markos’s position as one of the Three Mothers wasn’t revealed until a subsequent film (Argento’s Inferno, acting as an indirect sequel).

However, in the new Suspiria, this portrayal is flipped on its head. Helena Markos still very much exists and claims to be Mother Suspiriorum or at least her reincarnation. Also, similar to the original, Markos spends the majority of the movie unseen. When she is finally revealed, she is seen as a hideous, rotting creature of a woman, heavily aged and mutated. Various limbs (such as, shall we say… extra hands) hang from her fleshy body, folds of overlapping skin wrap her ample frame and gnarled claws pierce through her sore-infested hands. She is dying and fast. As such, she has made her loyal followers search for a suitable host (by way of students in the academy) for Markos to possess and be reborn anew.

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Madame Blanc- Markos’ loyal servant in the original- is at odds with her self-imposed master. Blanc does not trust Markos or her claim to godhood. And thus, there is dissent within the coven. Some agree with Blanc, unsure if Markos is truly one of the Three Mothers. Others fully support and are devoted to Markos, eager to find her a new body to live in. But, the coven is run almost like a democracy. They vote, and while split, Markos wins the majority and remains the ruler of the witches. While Markos is in such a weakened state, Blanc is largely left to lead the academy, but her power in the coven is left as a façade. She must abide by the coven’s ruling and Markos’s bidding. Therefore the search for a host continues.

It’s all too perfect when ambitious Susie arrives, bright-eyed and eager to learn. She proves herself incredibly talented, having memorized the lead role in the challenging “Volk” (the academy’s upcoming dance showcase) through watching tapes alone. Both Blanc and Markos take a shine to Susie, but of course, for very different reasons. Blanc admires not only Susie’s talents but comes to care for her almost as a surrogate daughter. Markos, of course, wants Susie’s strength and youth to supplement herself for years to come.

A coven of witches dines in the Suspiria remake film.

The film is rife with subtext; the dynamics of the matriarchy, the relationship between the students, and the student’s relationship with the coven, which are all backdropped against the “German Autumn” of 1977. I’ll do my best to distill my understanding of the real-life politics happening at the time (it’s important, bear with me). After World War II, the Nazi Party fell, however some of the members of the party persisted and even continued to thrive within German society. The generation that came after the war did not take to this kindly. Infuriated by these Nazis holding positions of power, individuals decided to retaliate, becoming aligned with the Red Army Faction. A series of events sparked by the RAF, often acquitted as terrorism, carried out throughout late 1977 came to be known as the German Autumn. It’s fairly complicated, but suffice to say people were killed, RAF members were detained in prison, an airplane was hijacked as ransom to see those RAF members released from prison… things were bad.

This all came to a head with the kidnapping and murder of Hanns Martin Schleyer. Schleyer had been an enthusiastic Nazi and member of the Schutzstaffel (aka the SS), which was a major paramilitary organization under Adolf Hitler responsible for enforcing the racist doctrine that the “Aryan race” was “superior.” At the time of his kidnapping by the RAF, he held positions of power in the West German government despite his Nazi history in WWII; hence, the RAF wasn’t too happy with the man or how he had flourished post-war. When the RAF ambushed Schleyer’s car, his driver and three police escorts were murdered along with him.

Now, take all of that with a grain of salt as that is a super-condensed and simplified version of events. But I digress. You may be wondering: “What the fuck does any of that have to do with a movie about witches?” You’d be surprised. Effectively, the 2018 Suspiria acts as a very literal metaphor for the German Autumn, incorporating the very real-world events taking place at the time of the original film’s release. At the beginning of the movie, when Patricia goes missing (the coven’s first, aforementioned unsuccessful sacrifice for Mother Markos), Blanc blames her disappearance on Patricia running off to join the Red Army Faction. For the rest of the film, reports on the RAF can be heard over the news, whereas a very similar revolution is happening within the coven itself.

Tilda Swinton plays

The Markos Dance Academy itself is situated directly across from the Berlin Wall, which was erected to divide East and West Berlin, keeping the “Western fascists” from entering East Germany. A very similar fracture exists between Blanc, Markos, and their respective followers. I think it can be argued that Markos’s side is a similarly fascist regime. Markos herself is essentially a survived Nazi, claiming false godhood. Her followers believe in the fascist regime, whereas those who believe in Blanc are similar to the Red Army Faction. Similar to the RAF, despite ideals, they’re not exactly innocent.

Blanc herself curses a defective student to a horrible fate. Distraught by Patricia’s disappearance and believing her instructors’ claims to be witches, a young girl named Olga attempts to leave the academy. Blanc seemingly casts a spell on Susie while she is practicing a challenging round of choreography. As Susie goes through the steps, swinging her body through the motions, Olga’s body is thrown around, violently contorted from the dance. As she is further and further unable to keep up, her bones break and organs twist in one of the most visceral and brutal death scenes you’re likely to ever witness on screen. Poor Olga is also not allowed to die, seemingly kept alive by magic to feel every excruciating detail; punishment for her betrayal.

Which at long last brings us back to “Volk.” Volk roughly translates to mean “people,” though, in political terms, it’s more of a statement: “The People.” Volk as terminology was essentially used by the Nazis to create a false mythology, a way of empowering the downtrodden German people to think of themselves as superior. The People were great once, and The People can be even greater once again, but only under Nazi rule. Suspiria discusses how the Nazis created a kind of shared mass delusion that “Aryans” were superior, that “German things” were actually “Nazi things,” or at least “The People” were made to feel that way. A character in the film even suggests that that’s where the notion of witches comes from. A mass delusion. Except that, unbeknownst to most until it’s far too late, the witches are all too real. Mother Markos has created such a delusion with her claim to godhood, but the coven is as real and dangerous as the ground beneath your feet or the air we breathe. That evil is real.

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And Volk? Volk is so much more than a dance routine, more than a show for an audience wanting a night out at some live theatre. It’s the ritual needed to let Markos possess a new, young body. It is through dance the witches cast their spells.

With that, I say,… holy shit. It’s difficult to fully put into words the finale that the remake of Suspiria descends into. Beneath the academy in a hidden sanctum, the witches chant a haunting incantation to begin the ceremony while the hypnotized students of the studio writhe naked, passionately thrashing the choreography of Volk. Three enormous dresses are hung along the back wall as a tribute to the Three Mothers. But as a mere pretender to power, Mother Markos finds she’s bitten off more than she can chew.

Dakota Johnson as Suzie.

Susie Bannion is brought in as the sacrificial lamb. Yet, here she unveils that she is Mother Suspiriorum. With Markos revealed to be a fraud, the delusion is shattered. Susie summons an incarnation of Death. A red glow bathes over existence, the movie for the first time resembling the intense colors of the original. And Death kisses Markos, dragging her to hell. Then it approaches each of the witches who accepted the delusion, causing their heads to quite literally explode in an orgasm of gore. The coven members who believed in Blanc are spared, as is one witch who voted for Markos, left as a witness to the horror, perhaps a lesson or warning for the future. Susie frees the tortured souls the coven had previously attempted to sacrifice, releasing them into Death. In a manner of minutes, the incarnation of death returns from whence it came, the wall of red dissipates, and the hall is left washed in blood—a baptism from the corrupt past.

What is evil? Can evil be punished?

Susie, as a reawakened Suspiriorum, believes that The People need guilt and shame. Such is needed to move on from evil that we as people perpetrate. But not everyone’s. Sometimes shame needs to be let go to move on and live life. But when is such shame required? Does it matter what side of the wall you’re on? How do you know what side is right…

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In the Mother of Sighs own words: “Why is everybody so ready to think the worst is over?”

The 1977 original and the 2018 reimagining create an interesting dyad. In many ways, they are completely different films, with heavily differing stories on completely different ends of the spectrum. The resemblance starts and predominately ends at the concept and basic premise. In my opinion, I believe this gives the 2018 Suspiria much greater validity for its existence. Rather than attempt to rehash the same film with new technology and a new cast, it spins a new, far more complex story. The 2018 version is not without flaws and is undeniably pretentious at times, but it creates something fresh. It arguably manages to achieve what its’ matriarchal villain could not. Regardless of which side of the wall you stand on, the witches stand there too, whispering, waiting in the shadows of tears, darkness, and sighs.

Death to any other Mother.

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