Suspiria (2018) is one of those rare occasions where it doesn’t classify itself as a sequel, remake or any cinematic label you want to throw at it, but can match its predecessor with an intriguing guile. Dario Argento’s 1977 horror classic set the bar high with its glorious colour-coded cinematography and intimidating sound design. Maybe not so much on its theatricality and dialogue but it was the 70s as an enjoyable product of its time.
Bearing in mind this reviewer has no emotive connection to the original (which I only watched recently), the 2018 version doesn’t even attempt to emulate what Argento does. It’s impossible to replicate those classic feats for a film that is so distinctly impressionable. Whilst it may not be enough to sway the doubters, director Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name) establishes a self-contained creation that can be referred to as a ‘spiritual successor’.
For context, Guadagnino’s version comfortably belongs in the same company as A Quiet Place, Hereditary, Mother!, It Follows, and The Witch as another representation of the bold, new wave of contemporary, psychological horror films. There are straightforward comparisons to be made. For example, each film has a recognisable and dominating female lead. But its most prominent achievement is how they’ve managed to challenge the standard conventions of cinema, confronting the boundaries of art, taste and its intentional and debatable discussion in its aftermath. These films don’t give you what you expect, and Suspiria (2018) is refreshing by those circumstances.
Suspiria’s power comes from its atmospheric lure into a false sense of security. Hauntingly echoed by Thom Yorke’s excellent score (making up for the disappointing decision by the Bond producers for not going ahead with Radiohead’s song for Spectre), the intense technicolour and its sound have been replaced by a gritty and grounded tone of 70s Berlin. Offset by Yorke’s experimental design, this is a Berlin still recovering from the aftermath of World War II yet tragically refortifying its divisions with the Berlin Wall. With the constant background thread of domestic terrorism from the Red Army Faction, mysterious disappearances due to a coven of witches at a dance academy and intrusive religious practices, Suspiria revels in it’s ‘behind the scenes’ claustrophobia. This is a sheltered containment and with the occasional hoodwinks in hypnotism, hidden passageways and witchcraft, this is an evil hiding in plain sight, catching the attention of a psychotherapist in Dr. Josef Klemperer (Lutz Ebersdorf).
With a measured control in its plot-driven execution, its mystery is built on the slow-burn foundations of impending revelations and approaching darkness. Ditching the Fifty Shades of Grey repertoire, Dakota Johnson plays Susie Bannion, a young American who travels to Berlin to audition for the Markos Dance Company. Catching the instinctive eye of Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) begins the malevolent discourse towards an escalating and suspenseful hell.
It’s incredibly telling that Guadagnino savours more of the contextual substance Suspiria offers over the traditional horror in the original. It would have been easy to modernise and transport its themes into new surroundings but credit where it is due, it reverts inwards. Along with screenwriter David Kajganich, there is a depth to the witches, questioning their motivations, systemic practices and their authority by bringing Argento’s ‘Three Mothers Trilogy’ to the forefront. Characters have more of an organic involvement. Johnson’s Susie does less fainting/sleeping than her original counterpart but becomes enchanted, succumbing deeply to the what the academy offers. Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz) and Sara (Mia Goth) become our investigative viewpoint, slowly awakening to the strange happenings of the academy. Infused into every frame of its grounded reality is an exploration into femininity, motherhood, ownership, female trauma and generational guilt. For two-thirds of the film, Suspiria acknowledges its subject. The characterisations are not always perfect, but every decision and movement is an unspoken covenant – you lose your soul to the dance.
Suspiria is high on indulgent pretentiousness and yet vividly casts a spell on you, celebrating choreographed dance as a sensual, primal and ritualistic experience of a darker conjuring. It evokes beauty from its production, costume design and unsettling cinematography but with an unshakeable attack on the senses. It results in an end product that’s not particularly scary. It doesn’t rely on jump scares or cheap thrills. This is a subdued and subtle effect, finding its horror motifs in unsuspecting moments of perceived normality. There’s so much going on in its multi-layered context, effectively accusing modern Suspiria of being overstuffed. However, under Guadagnino’s control, it balances the split perception of beauty with an affectionate tribute to David Cronenberg and his style of body-horror, grotesque violence. That tone is visually represented in Klemperer placing down a hook on a ‘bloodstained’ table or how dance can shockingly inflict pain onto others.
It’s through this absorbing mystery that Tilda Swinton delivers a phenomenal performance, playing not one, two but three different characters. As an artistic achievement (both on and off-screen), the level of mystifying confusion and suspicion feeds into each role. With Madame Blanc specifically, it ventures between deadpan humour to relieve notable tension and the complete submission towards ego, perverse control and art above everything else. In both parallels, she chillingly excels with aplomb, becoming one of the best female performances I’ve seen this year.
Guadagnino’s’s version is far from perfect. For instance, it’s heavily weighed down by its lengthy runtime. Intricately built yes, but depending on your mood, it can venture down the roads of boredom. After taking so much care (like a dance arriving at its final crescendo), its rushes to wrap everything up, leaving some of its inventive and ambitious subtexts lost and undeveloped amongst the bloodbath gore and forced resolution.
Suspiria will undoubtedly split audiences, especially towards fans of the original, horror aficionados, mood dependant enthusiasts or anyone sceptical about its incessant need for a new interpretation. But for those not put off by its open-minded intentions or its visible flaws, it will sublimely leave you bewitched.
SUSPIRIA screened as part of the BFI’s London Film Festival 2018 and will be released in cinemas on 16th November 2018.