How the Director of Suspiria Remade a Horror Classic

Director Luca Guadagnino explains how his lifelong obsession with Suspiria led him to make his own version.

The idea of remaking Dario Argento’s 1977 horror classic Suspiria seems unthinkable in many ways: it’s such a uniquely stylized movie, with its own special atmosphere, a singular score, an incredibly vibrant color scheme and an overall vision that could only have come from its eccentric and legendary director. But Hollywood loves remakes, especially of classic horror films, so sure enough Suspiria’s moment came…and went…and came back as it changed directors and took on a whole different life.

If there was anyone born to take on the challenge, however, it’s probably Luca Guadagnino. For one thing, he’s Italian, so there is perhaps some cultural DNA from that country’s great cinematic history that he shares with Argento and other fellow directors. Second, Guadagnino saw the original Suspiria at 13 and it changed his life, haunting him for years while the idea that he might one day make his own version percolated in the back of his mind.

Guadagnino’s films to date — including I Am Love, A Bigger Splash and Call Me by Your Name — all exhibit a love of the flesh, a distinct delight in the visceral and sensual, and a generous admiration of both sexes at their most emotionally and physically vulnerable and fluid.

Apply that to a movie about a 1977 Berlin dance academy that’s a front for a coven of witches, preparing to unleash a formidable feminine energy upon a city and a world still under siege from the memories of fascism and the contemporary assault of terrorism, and you just might have a remake of Suspiria that could reinvent the original as forcefully as John Carpenter’s The Thing or David Cronenberg’s The Fly did with their source material. We had just a short time to tackle all this when we sat down with Guadagnino recently in Los Angeles.

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Den of Geek: You saw the original Suspiria at 13.

Luca Guadagnino: 13 and a half, like 14 almost. I felt liberated, I felt exhilarated. I had so much projected in my mind what was coming from that film, because I had seen the posters for years before, because I had to find and grasp information about the movie. It was a legend, the movie. I created the legend within myself already when I was a kid. Then when I saw it, I was so full of anticipation, and this anticipation was completely fulfilled by what the movie was, that I now know that I didn’t feel fear. I felt uplifted. I felt that this movie was made by someone who was really able to convey the filmmaker language that can try everything.

How did your impressions of it or its meaning change for you over the years as you became a filmmaker yourself?

For instance, one other thing that happened was that I started to be more and more knowledgeable of the times in which the movie was made. That led me to the decision shared with (screenwriter) David Kajganich to set the movie in 1977. In the meantime, my self-taught lessons in the history of cinema brought me to discover (German filmmaker Rainer Werner) Fassbinder, brought me to understand more about the times in which Dario was filming the movie, and the place in which he was filming the movie. All this led me and David to understand, a few decades afterwards, that what in Dario’s film was taken off of the narrative, we wanted to bring it back — history, place.

You do ground your film very much in the place, Berlin, 1977, and the events going on in the world, whereas the original is almost a waking dream and doesn’t have much to do with the real world outside.

Yeah. I also think that a good dream or a good nightmare is really grounded in reality somehow. One of the greatest dream sequence of all times is Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. The boat in the ocean, the sense of suspension. Something on the one hand is familiar, and something is totally unfamiliar.

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Further Reading: Why Original Suspiria Star Jessica Harper Returned for the Remake

What was the biggest challenge in remaking a film that was very personal to you, and also considered a near-untouchable horror classic?

Well, that wasn’t the challenge, honestly, because I honestly came from a place that was a similar place for people that said that the movie was untouchable. As somebody who really loved the Dario Argento movie so much, and still love it, I’m on the side of those who respect Dario’s film so much.

I think the biggest challenge was not in the approach to the narrative or to make the movie in terms of what we wanted to say and do. The usual challenges, like how do you match your production ambitions with the budget you have, how you make it work, who you cast. These were challenges.

What’s your view on the Italian heritage of this genre? For a long time, people like Mario Bava and Argento didn’t quite get respect from the world of film.

Thank you! Thank you! Now, people says, “Ah! How dare, how dare.” When I was in love with Dario, people hated Dario. The mainstream thought he was a banal B-movie horror director who wanted to try to be successful, and he was. Only after the beginning of the 2000s in Italy, there was a reversal of that.

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It was thanks to America, Japan, and France that Dario Argento started to get the respect due to him. Particularly from very serious journalists and critics, but also filmmakers. I remember when The Evil Dead came out, and Sam Raimi started to become a legend on his own merits. He said in an interview that he went to see Suspiria and (loved) the vision of the movie…What I’m trying to say is that it’s us, the fans, who shut the mouths of the people in the mainstream, who said that Dario wasn’t a great legend. We restored a wrongdoing.

Further Reading: Suspiria Review

Are you a Bava fan, too?

Of course. I am a big fan of Mario Bava, and Dario was a big fan of Mario Bava. No Mario Bava, no Dario Argento, let’s face it. You were talking about the legacy of Italian horror films. I remember in 1987, it was the year in which Demons came out. Directed by Lamberto Bava, produced by Dario. That was a quite great film. I remember Michele Soavi’s The Church. The Sect. Then slowly, slowly, this has been absorbed by TV. Unfortunately, the great tradition of genre in Italy and cinema disappeared.

You and David were working on the screenplay for several years. Are you startled to see things like the issues you’re addressing in the film, like fascism or the rise of a new female power, playing out in the real world today as your movie’s coming out?

I am Italian. In 1994, Berlusconi, a billionaire with very, very authoritative methods become Prime Minister and ruled the country in and out for 20 years. I am very wary of the fact that it’s easy to be allured by the strong man, and that we need to be aware that strong men are not the answer. Ever. Strong women are the answer.

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The film says that female power is the strongest power. Depending on also who’s wielding it; you have Madame Blanc wielding it. You have the witches wielding it. Then you have the dancers wielding their own kind of power. Is that a conflict that was inherent to you in the story as well?

Yeah. Yeah. I think that this is a movie about the multifaceted aspects of a group of women dealing with their own way of accepting power, or refusing it.

What led to the decision for Tilda to play Lutz Ebersdorf, the actor who plays the psychiatrist Josef Klemperer. How did the two of you come up with that idea?

Well, I had envisioned that these three characters that in a way encompass the human psyche — Madame Blanc, Klemperer, and Helena Markos — had to played by Tilda, had to be embodied by her. That was an immediate fun thing to do together along with Mark Coulier, the fantastic makeup and prosthetic artist, and our costume designer Julia Piersanti. It’s true that when we were shooting, we were really shooting this old man. It became more and more interesting to think that I was working with Lutz Ebersdorf. I think Tilda had the idea of herself being Lutz Ebersdorf.

It’s an interesting thing. People on the set didn’t know that that was Tilda. They thought it was an old man. In fact, I always said, “Lutz, do you want this? Do you want that? Can you go that? Can you do this?” It’s a lovely thing to think that such a device like makeup can really polarize a given situation.

Suspiria expands nationwide today (Friday, November 2) after opening in limited release last week.

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Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye

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