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How Suspiria turns the color red into a plot point

There’s a subversive brilliance in Luca Guadagnino’s mostly beige reinterpretation of the 1977 horror masterpiece.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 horror masterpiece Suspiria is as remarkable for what it isn’t as for what it is. Guadagnino’s concern with the effect of real-life horror on the body has led him toward a reinterpretation of Suspiria that doesn’t recreate the goriest, most prominent visual aspects of Argent’s film — that is, until it does.

Argento’s Suspiria is not only one of the greatest horror movies ever made; it is also, famously, one of the reddest movies ever made. If you’ve seen the new version, you’ll have noticed that it’s conspicuously devoid of bright colors, cast instead in deep earth tones for nearly its entire runtime.

Its interiors are largely ecru and rust tones; its exteriors are blue-green and overcast. That’s a huge break from Argento’s visual design, but it’s also a brilliant, risky gamble that entirely pays off in the end.

But to understand why it pays off, it’s helpful to understand how Guadagnino’s aesthetic is in conversation with Argento’s (with a nod to their respective production designers, Inbal Weinberg and Giuseppe Bassan), and how the new film’s visual evolution reflects its surprising main theme.

Please note: There are basic plot spoilers for both films below!

Argento’s Suspiria starts out excitedly red and stays that way

Seeing red in Argento’s 1977 Suspiria.

Suspiria uses color as a part of its plot in a way that films almost never do, let alone so effectively. Argento was so committed to creating the most vibrant color palette possible that he insisted on using the same three-strip color process for his film that 1939’s The Wizard of Oz used, even though the technique was antiquated by the time he was making Suspiria in the late ’70s.

There’s hardly a frame of Argento’s Suspiria that doesn’t feature at least a glimmer of red somewhere. The walls of the demented ballet school that serves as the film’s nightmarish setting are blood red, both inside and out. When the walls aren’t red, the backlighting is, frequently casting a red glare over everything. The lipstick on the pale faces of Suspiria’s unwary ballerinas, and their nail polish, is red. And when the horror comes, it’s sumptuously, terrifyingly red as well.

Argento’s Suspiria is famous for its garishly psychedelic color palette, which mixes all this red with electric greens and blues and jagged black-and-white Expressionist patterns. The film’s highly stylized aesthetic was inspired by the color scheme of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), which Argento also drew on for its mythic tone and its presentation of a young, virginal heroine surrounded by evil.

None of Suspiria’s color choices are subtle, but it isn’t aiming for subtlety: From its opening moments, the famous score by the trippy band Goblin shouts, “Witch! witch!” from the shadows, letting you know exactly what kind of movie you’re in for.

Shortly after the film begins, it serves up one of its most famously gory deaths — when an unfortunate ballerina is attacked by an unknown assailant, brutally stabbed, and then hung from a collapsing plate-glass ceiling.

Ballet leads to early retirement in Argento’s 1977 Suspiria.

Even for 1977, all of this was deliciously brazen. Prior to Suspiria, the last time horror had displayed such a dreamlike, stylized quality was during the German Expressionist period of the late ’20s and ’30s, with films like The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari and Cat People, both of which directly influenced Suspiria.

Following the advent of advanced Technicolor processes in the early ’30s, color itself was rarely used to fuel a film’s narrative to such a high degree. But one notable exception is the work of filmmaking duo Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who often used red as code for a release of repressed passion — such as in their 1947 masterpiece Black Narcissus, and especially 1948’s The Red Shoes, a ballet melodrama-cum-horror based on the classic fairytale about a woman whose love for dance ultimately destroys her. Suspiria echoes these films as well, with their mix of modern aesthetic and fairytale surrealism.

Though Suspiria was bred from a generation of Italian Giallo films (read: slick neo-noir thrillers), it essentially out-Giallo’d itself into something new: a horror movie whose shameless self-indulgence and extravagant design heightened the film’s portrayal of the all-encompassing black magic at the center of its plot.

Argento’s Suspiria put red everywhere, right from the jump, because the evil within the dance school was everywhere — and so was the bright red creative passion that fueled said evil. The film’s emphasis on color made death dazzling; it transformed its witches’ gleeful bloodlust into a sensory-overloading, overwhelming breed of terror.

Guadagnino’s Suspiria is more muted at first, then evolves into its blood-soaked frenzy

Dancing to summon demons and power in Guadagnino’s 2018 Suspiria.
Amazon Studios

By contrast, Guadagnino’s Suspiria is thoroughly beige; for the first two-thirds or so, it often contains red, with an emphasis on containment. The color appears in the background of scenes, usually in dark rust shades, and in flashes here and there — like the deep red tank top that our heroine, Suzy, wears when she auditions for the prestigious West Berlin dance company at the center of the film.

Overall, the early scenes of Guadagnino’s film maintain a bleached-out, naturalistic look, offering quite a contrast to Argento’s expressionist fairy tale. You wouldn’t know as much, however, from Suspiria’s trailer or marketing, which have fully embraced the redness of its predecessor; visit the movie’s IMDB page currently, and the background slowly fades from a washed-out beige to a blood red, to match its bright red “S” logo.

This all arguably creates an additional tension for the viewer who’s a fan of the original film. When I saw the new Suspiria, I was mildly distracted by the ecru-ness of it all; I kept wondering: Why isn’t this film red? I was promised red, when will it become red? So for me, the film’s aesthetic became a point of suspense, an unresolved question.

Its non-redness also configures its main storyline as a tale of repressed passion and the release of that passion, in keeping with its title’s meaning, “sigh.” (The movie’s glaring lesbian subtext doesn’t hurt this reading, either.) The accompanying gore is similarly contained, at least in the beginning and midsection of the film: Where Argento’s Suspiria exults in blood early and exorbitantly, Guadagnino’s version is relatively bloodless until the very end.

Dakota Johnson — and just as important, Dakota Johnson’s red hair — in Suspiria (2018).
Amazon Studios

I’m not the only critic to remark on the new film’s washed-out tone; the New Yorker castigated it for its “pictorial dullness,” while Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson praised it, noting, “Guadagnino largely sidesteps [color] for most of the movie, rendering a muted Berlin in grays and browns, and when he finally slips into Argento’s visual style it’s all the more terrifying by contrast.”

As Wilkinson indicates, Guadagnino intended me to keep my questions about the lack of red in mind as I was viewing, because ultimately, the way he introduces red is deeply cathartic. When Guadagnino’s Suspiria finally turns red, it turns red.

Guadagnino’s Suspiria uses its color evolution to argue for violent revolution

Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 Suspiria
Go red or go home.
Amazon Studios

Suspiria uses its eventual transition from earth tones to blood red as a code for violent social upheaval. But the shifting color scheme also doubles as an effective argument for the casting-off of oppression as it works on the body.

Guadagnino gradually allows his reds to seep in, first through natural means, like the costumes featured in the showcase dance near the end of the film. And then they arrive through highly supernatural means — at which point the film finally overflows with color, even giving way to the red filter that Argento used in the original Suspiria.

By withholding it until the very end, Guadagnino transforms the red that foregrounded Argento’s Suspiria into a plot point: It begins to seep into the movie more and more vividly alongside a steady buildup of tension, heralding the ultimate unleashed carnage to come.

And where Argento’s use of color was partly fetishistic, indulging in a gleeful orgy of violence, Guadagnino uses it to argue that violence — specifically violent social revolution — is not only cathartic but necessary and even inevitable.

But instead of being dark and bleak, Guadagnino’s Suspiria frames this violence as a catalyst for positive change, a way for the oppressed — in this case, a new generation of women overthrowing the matriarchy — to rise up and institute newer, better, progressive institutions.

Tilda Swinton in 2018’s Suspiria.
How to dress for the revolution.
Amazon Studios

Yes, all this violent catharsis is completely demented — but that’s a byproduct of the process of repression and release that the film explores, especially with regard to the pressures placed directly on the body through dance.

Recently, as part of the country’s collective reevaluation of creative institutions that has been sparked by the #MeToo movement, BuzzFeed published an in-depth exploration of the nascent quest to reform the institution of ballet, asking, “Is there such a thing as ballet that doesn’t hurt women?” Its author, Ellen O’Connell Whittet, examines recent attempts to reform a system that has, for centuries, overwhelmingly placed men in positions of administrative and creative power while expecting women to suffer deep physical pain and body-altering trauma in order to perform their art.

That basic fact — that women who study dance have chosen to internalize appalling amounts of pain and suffering for their craft — becomes one of the driving elements of horror in Guadagnino’s Suspiria. The women of the studio have worked for years to build their power as a collective, but they’ve sacrificed one another to do it, by allowing their supernatural “mothers” to siphon physical strength and life from their young dancers.

This trade-off happens with the complicity of the elder dance instructors, but it brews an anxiety that chips away at the school’s serene facade. And as the new generation of dancers begin to rebel against the sacrificing of their bodies, the film slowly turns redder and redder. By the end of the movie, its formerly pale, washed-out tones have given way to scenes that are ultimately drenched in red — an orgy of violence and upheaval that is roughly equivalent to all of the pain that the dancers have internalized up until now.

It all works to create a metaphor for the film’s even larger point, about the cost of living under oppression. In Guadagnino’s Suspiria, the aftermath of World War II still lingers over a divided Cold War-era Berlin, backgrounded amid anarchist bomb threats and tales of lovers forever parted during the Holocaust. The film implies that seismic geopolitical changes take a physical toll on the bodies of the marginalized, one that manifests onscreen in the bone-cracking agony of dance and ultimately erupts in geysers of blood.

Argento’s Suspiria used its aesthetic to celebrate a witchery that was inherently otherworldly and stylized, producing a rapturous symphony of violence for its own beautiful sake. Guadagnino’s Suspiria uses its aesthetic to argue that perhaps that violence is beautiful because it can lead to galling, anarchical social change.

It may be horrific — deeply so — but perhaps, in 2018, the horrific is the mother of the good.