The reason I’ve never been on the front lines of calling for a ban on remakes in the film world is because sometimes a director manages to take the remake in such a different direction, while still allowing certain connections and themes to stay true to the original. I have always been intrigued about the notion of Luca Guadagnino (the celebrated director of I Am Love, A Bigger Splash, and most recently Call Me by Your Name) tackling a version of Dario Argento’s 1977 horror classic Suspiria. The original movie is already so surreal, imaginative, and open to interpretation that, in theory, a redo would have many different threads from which to pull in the hopes of opening up new avenues—visually and thematically—of exploration. So color me pleasantly surprised at the dark and lunatic pathways that Guadagnino and new screenwriter David Kajganich travel down on their journey into a quite creative and horrific pit of hell.
Strangely enough, just a couple weeks ago on this very site in my review of Halloween (2018), I made the case that a horror movie has to at least scare you in order for me to consider it even moderately successful. The original Suspiria certainly meets this definition, but this new version is especially terrifying in a traditional sense. It releases into the world a great number of unpleasant and disturbing images and moments that succeed in ratcheting up the tension and anxiety to such a degree that you’re fairly convinced the film has implanted supercharged nightmare fuel directly into your brain. So in the most traditional sense, the film is not jump-in-your-seat scary, but is almost worse and feels more lasting.
Before we go any further, let me have you read something from the MPAA:
Rated R for disturbing content involving ritualistic violence, bloody images and graphic nudity, and for some language including sexual references.
Ignoring the bit about language, if you’re thinking about seeing Suspiria, that’s an accurate description of what’s in store.
But that’s not all the film has. An intriguing sequence kicks things off in which a young dance student Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz) is talking to her therapist, Dr. Josef Klemperer (billed as being played by Lutz Ebersdorf). One thing I’ll say about the good doctor is he is not what he seems, and I’m not just referring to his motives. Although it’s certainly easy enough to look up the credits of the film online, it’s best to go into Suspiria knowing very little about who plays who, because in some cases, one actor plays more than one character, and that fact only enhances and deepens the movie’s themes of identity and what lives inside us all.
As she did in the director’s A Bigger Splash, Dakota Johnson gives one of her best performances here as Susie Bannion, a mostly self-taught dancer from Ohio who shows up at the front door of an acclaimed West Berlin dance school where she immediately catches the eye of the academy’s director. Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) allows her to audition, and Susie dances what can only be described as a violent, powerful improvisation that is sensual and seems to capture the physicality of a possessed person.
Once admitted to the school, Susie is allowed to try out for the lead in the company’s signature routine after the previous lead dancer effectively quits. But as Susie goes through her first attempt at the piece, we see the previous dancer trapped in a mirror-lined studio, reacting to every movement that Susie makes in another room. It begins harmlessly, but soon turns into a gruesome contortion act that bends and breaks the dancer’s body in ways no human form could endure. Her bones and features are shattered almost beyond recognition, with blood and other fluids leaking out of her so grotesquely, it’s a challenge to keep one’s eyes on the screen. But it’s also a magnificent sequence that resembles someone learning to work a marionette for the first time and getting angry about the complicated process. The twisted wreckage that remains at the end of the routine can hardly be called human, but it also reveals that forces are at work in the academy that have turned a simple dance routine into a ritualistic spell.
Adding to the mystery are mass meetings held by the women who run the company, including those played by the likes of Angela Winkler and the great French actress Sylvie Testud, in which decisions are being made about the fates of certain dancers—not decisions about whether they get to stay in the company or not but whether they are worthy of some greater sacrifice to appease unseen creatures that seem to dwell in the very walls of the ornate building. Mia Goth plays Sara, who befriends Susie, and the two fuel each other’s conspiracy theories about what is actually happening. Meanwhile, after Patricia goes missing in the opening sequence, her therapist attempts to not only find her but also uncover things about his own past that he feels the need to open up and allow the world to bear witness to.
One of the biggest differences between this version of Suspiria and the original is the attention given to dance, both in rehearsal and finished form. There’s an undeniably primal quality to the routines that, again, reveals itself to be more ritual than fluid movement, only adding to our suspicions that evil forces are at play, attempting more to unlock something that simply shows off the quality of the dance itself. And when all of the masks are torn off in the final, blood-soaked act, Guadagnino simply unleashes flood gates of insanity and extreme visuals, and it’s up to the audience to determine if they can keep up and stomach the storm. As good as Johnson is here, not surprisingly, it’s Swinton who dominates as she moves from nuturing instructor to demonic taskmaster with a look or abrupt movement. It’s another in a long line of her performances that shows she can and will do anything to challenge and entertain us.
Radiohead’s Thom Yorke provides a sometimes throbbing, sometimes fragile score, which can feel like he’s playing catch-up to the shocking images. Since the film is set in 1977 Berlin (“divided Berlin” as an opening titles card reminds us), while the world of the dance academy is falling apart on the inside, we get slivers of news from the outside world concerning the Red Army Faction (or the Baader-Meinhof Group) conducting fresh acts of terrorism, which are scary enough to make us believe that some living in the area might have felt the world was falling apart even then. It’s a nice period-appropriate touch that adds authenticity to the story and an extra layer of chaos.
Suspiria might be sensory overload for some, and with a 2.5-hour running time, that’s a perfectly valid response. But if you can make it through to the other side, you’ll experience one of the most ambitious, fleshy, though-provoking horror films in recent memory. The fact that the entire primary cast is made up of women is no accident and makes a strong case that the movie is a feminist manifesto as well (I’ll need to see it again before I figure out if that’s true or not). Despite this being a tough sell to modern horror audiences, I firmly believe that this new Suspiria will be revisited and revered in years to come.
The film is having special advance previews tonight, followed by its proper opening beginning the evening of Thursday, Nov. 1. It’s opening around Chicago, but I recommend checking it out on the giant screen at the Music Box Theatre.
Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by becoming a patron. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!