It's all a mess. The one out there... the one in here... the one that's coming.
There isn’t another film quite like Dario Argento’s ‘Suspiria’. Built almost entirely on its aesthetic, this dizzying 1977 horror classic manages, despite its threadbare story and melodramatic tone, to leave a lasting and emotional impression on anyone who watches it. ‘Suspiria’ is a dream of a film, and for many, it’s a dream that persists. Threats of a remake have floated around for many years, but of all the hands it ended up in, the last anyone would have expected were those of ‘Call Me By Your Name’ director Luca Guadagnino. As it turns out though, Guadagnino has dreamed of ‘Suspiria’ most of his life, and rather than simply giving us a pale imitation of the original, he gives us a view into that dream, one of great reverence and startling singularity.
The initial premise is essentially the same - in 1977, young American dancer Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) auditions for a prestigious dance company in Berlin, headed by formidable choreographer Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). Almost immediately, Susie hears rumours of an old student Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz) who has disappeared from the school, and her friend Sara (Mia Goth) is worried about her. Patricia was convinced that something unholy is happening at the school, a coven of witches locked in a feud over power, and Sara starts to put the pieces together that she left behind. From here though, Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich weave it into a whole new tapestry of horrors.
The result is a film of unbridled, ecstatic insanity, one that twists Argento’s psychedelic fever dream into a full-blown operatic nightmare, dripping with feminine fury and strangled by history. It’s less a remake than a re-orchestration, where the themes of the original are adapted into something that both celebrates its origin and carves its own path. This ‘Suspiria’ is grounded in a reality, albeit an hysterical reality, a Germany not yet at peace with its horrific and very recent past. Like Ari Aster’s monumental ‘Hereditary’ and Mike Flanagan’s extraordinary ‘The Haunting of Hill House’, Guadagninio’s film deals with trauma, inherited and present, but this is trauma on a national scale, the crippling guilt and confusion of the Nazi period and the Cold War splitting of Germany, captured in the microcosm of the company and its demonic inhabitants. The coven, the matrons of the company, are locked in a leadership battle, splitting apart from the weight of tradition and safety and the pull of modernity and evolution, and the dancers, unaware of the demonic games behind the scenes, are unknowingly made pawns in these games, even unwilling accomplices (such as a harrowing sequence where Susie’s dance has horrific consequences on a classmate). For all its aesthetic wonder, Argento’s film was more about experience than psychological depth. This ‘Suspiria’, while still a hell of an experience, is a more haunted entity, one where the weight of guilt and the primal need to survive drive a battle of dominance where the female body becomes a battleground, to be possessed and controlled and manipulated and liberated. It essentially demands you be engaged and committed to it.
He may leave the iconic trappings of Argento’s original behind, particularly the use of colour and the classic Goblin score, but Guadagnino’s film is very much cut from the same cloth. His film echoes the aesthetic and stylistic chaos of the original, unafraid to pivot between dense exposition, camp melodrama, extreme histrionics and sharp, vicious moments of horror. In that sense, this ‘Suspiria’, for all its deviations and differences, feels like such a passionate love letter to its source. In almost every way though, Guadagnino pushes further. ‘Suspiria’ cuts like a razor wielded by a maniac, a hypnotic and disorienting dance of death to the sound of screams and the crunch of human bodies. The camera flies erratically through the cold and austere monolith of the school, cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom leaving behind the summer radiance and careful composition of ‘Call Me By Your Name’ for a desaturated, rough and breathtaking erraticism. Figures are made to look tiny in the frame, dwarfed by architecture and space; images are thrown against the wall with a sickening crack, while Walter Fasano’s editing stabs and slashes with relish. Thom Yorke’s debut film score has none of the knowing menace of Goblin’s original, instead constantly shifting and changing from beautiful to ugly to furious, complemented by a sound design that mutters and cackles and crunches all around you. Watching ‘Suspiria’ feels like a sensory assault in the best possible way, a logical contemporary continuation of the legacy of Argento, and yet grounding it’s aesthetic in its setting and its history, removing the veil and distance of fantasy, making the punches all the harder and all the more pleasurable.
Guadagnino doesn’t waste his opportunity to honour this film he loves so much. Gone is the gentle consideration of his other films, replaced by a sharpness, a kinetic force that’s as breathtaking as it is surprising. His grasp of the changing rhythms and tones of the film are impressive, but his command of the set-pieces is extraordinary. They become a symphony of bodies, striking surfaces and themselves, breaths and sighs and tears and bone and muscle. He treats the film as a living organism, and you can feel and hear and taste every sinew of it. Of course he indulges, both in length and execution, and there are many moments that in the hands of anyone lesser would be too operatic, too ridiculous, too insane, but he commits completely to them, sometimes the only thing that gets them over the line (especially in the ecstatic chaos of its final act). His ‘Suspiria’ is Argento by way of Pasolini’s ‘Salo’ or Robin Hardy’s ‘The Wicker Man’, a pagan and inhuman act taking place against the backdrop of the real world, where we watch from our opera box, the door locked shut behind us.
‘Suspiria’ cuts like a razor wielded by a maniac, a hypnotic and disorienting dance of death to the sound of screams and the crunch of human bodies.
The almost entirely female cast commit to the conceit of ‘Suspiria’, to its thematic integrity and its stylistic bravura. Dakota Johnson is never better than when she works with Guadagnino, and her Susie is an ambitious, driven creature. A question hangs around her, whether she will or won’t submit to the whims of Blanc and the coven, and Johnson lets that question hang in the air deliciously. Mia Goth is the much needed heart of the film, Sara a genuinely kind soul only seeking the best for everyone. As Blanc’s assistant, Angela Winkler’s Miss Tanner is a frightening smiling threat, a cypher for the fractured psyche of the film itself. And then there’s Tilda Swinton, not just playing one role but three, each completely different but integral to holding the thematic structure of the film together, and Swinton handles each with magnificent precision and her very singular personal witchcraft. In fact, all the women in ‘Suspiria’ - even in the smallest roles - have moments of extreme delight, and it’s breathtaking seeing such a powerful cast of women, of all ages, chewing the hell out of this film. Womanhood and motherhood are so deeply entrenched in this film, and the sheer force of the feminine energy of this film took my breath away and had me cheering for its presence.
Make no mistake, ‘Suspiria’ is a film that will divide, and is certainly not for everyone. Just as with ‘Mother!’ and ‘Hereditary’, as many will love it as will hate it - for some, it may be too ridiculous, too idiosyncratic, too pretentious, too violent, too silly, too impenetrable. For others, its blunt brutality and deeply disturbing imagery may be simply too much to handle. For those that fall under its spell though, it is the richest of cinematic feasts, overwhelming in its thematic and aesthetic scale. Luca Gadagnino has created a startling black mass, a dark symphony in honour of Argento’s classic, and in the process created a work just as powerful and unsettling, a haunted meditation on how we deal with our past and what we should expect of the future. I haven’t been able to shake the spell of this film since I saw it, and cannot wait to drown in it again. ‘Suspiria’ is a film that has lost its mind, gone insane, bites and spits and screams and vomits and bleeds, and dances and dances and dances itself to the brink of the abyss. And my god, that dance is a such a wonder to behold.