Suspiria is a remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 Italian horror classic about a coven of witches who run a dance academy in Berlin and a young pupil who becomes aware of their conspiracy. Susie Bannion (Jessica Harper in the original, Dakota Johnson in this version) travels from the United States, an outsider in a strange new world, and quickly becomes a star pupil at the Markos Dance Academy.
The original is known for its effervescent primary color template, its odd dream-like pacing and lack of any real depth to its blood and carnage. It is one of my favorite horror movies. This new Suspiria, directed by Luca Guadagnino (A Bigger Splash, Call Me By Your Name) is all winter colors in 1977 Berlin. It, too, is paced like a dream, but one of endless disorientation. Unlike its predecessor, it does have depths (plural) and a focus on its themes so laser-tight that it never feels off the rails despite being a full hour longer than the original without any additional characters or plot points. It may also prove to be one of my favorite horror movies.
It is not for everyone.
While watching Suspiria, I was reminded of several other films I have loved this year, all of which though whole in and of themselves feel like pieces of a puzzle now solved. Annihilation (Aly’s review here), which conveyed a woman’s spiritual and physical metamorphosis. Mandy, (Mitch and I each reviewed), a movie of overwhelming style and aesthetic but, alas, devoid of soul – which is not a problem here. First Reformed, The Death of Stalin, Support the Girls — films about the way in which men — and more importantly women — construct social order and dynamics of power between one another naturally, without thought and at times against their better interests. That’s not to say that Suspiria makes any of these films lesser or supplants their greatness (and they’re all great … except maybe Mandy), but it made me think of them and more importantly, it made me feel them in my soul while watching it.
Suspiria is felt. That’s the most important line of this review — because you may not feel it, and that’s fine. But if you feel it, Suspiria will dig into your gut and open you up.
Suspiria is also pedantic as hell, using a script by David Kajganich (A Bigger Splash) and Guadagnino that never lets you forget the movie is about social upheaval by setting it in a period of unrest. Newspapers, radios and ambient television noise keep the audience up to date on the events of the German Autumn (a series of assassinations, hijackings and kidnappings that hit divided Germany during the Cold War). It is insistent, too, that the pain of the memories of 1940s Germany — of the lives lost and more importantly the lives that helped it happen — remained emphasized and reckoned with. How do such atrocities happen? How do we stray so far?
Is it even “straying” to commit atrocity?
In Robert Eggers’ The Witch, witchcraft is depicted as a gendered expression of suppressed agency. As it…usually is, but I mention The Witch because it’s a recent example of a particularly pure use of that sort of witchcraft in film. That is still the case here, but Guadagnino is disinterested in stopping there, in allowing the women to be defined as ‘witches’ and leave the allegory at that. This isn’t just the case that “these women have powers that stem from the hidden, under-appreciated power of their gender.” The coven beneath the Markos academy is a boiling mixture of women with different agendas and differing systems of belief under their banner. In depicting the coven with such allegorically rich drama, Suspiria sets itself apart from its predecessor and from similar movies. That they are women is not enough to bind them – Susie’s power, and agency, are hard won within the morass of human indignity and strife.
Johnson, made famous starring in Fifty Shades of Grey, brings something here we haven’t seen from her before. Susie is much different here than the original film; here she’s hungry for something she can’t quite express. She comes from a place in which she never belonged — a hyper-religious Mennonite sect — and slowly stumbles into her new world. She has decisions to make. But she can dance. There are two major dance sequences in Suspiria, both violent in more ways than one. Guadagnino is obsessed with the idea of dance as an expression of power. He’s obsessed with a lot of things. You’ll know all of them, by the time the credits roll.
Tilda Swinton is part of what makes it all work. She plays three roles here: Madame Blanc, the leader of the dancers; Helena Markos, one of the lead witches; and, under the pseudonym of Lutz Ebersdorf, Dr. Josef Klemperer. Klemperer is the only male character in Suspiria, and casting Swinton in this role is a smart choice. Klemperer’s story is essential to the overall thematic drive of this Suspiria’s story but also one that would have felt improperly apportioned to a more well-known male actor, unbalancing the narrative. It’s as Blanc, though, that Swinton truly shines. She’s born to wear the long black hair and oddly shaped dresses, to flawlessly guide the choreography of younger, awkward women.
Radiohead’s Thom Yorke provides the music here; the title track, “Suspirium,” is by far the best of them. Yorke acquits himself to this side career really well. It’s hard to say his score is an instant classic like the Goblin music from the original film, but it’s damn good.
Guadagnino takes the raw materials provided by Argento’s version and expands on each and every element to create a richer product. It’s as if the making of this film started from a place of appreciative dissatisfaction with the original — a sense that there was more to be said using the West Berlin setting and a group of women hidden from the eyes of ineffective men who have no understanding of their world. A group of women hidden who have survived through the worst of it … or so they think. As Susie asks in one sequence: “How do we know we’re through the worst of it?”
In a period of social upheaval such as ours, Suspiria feels downright timely.
Suspiria is about how we take for granted the power structures that we think keep our world in order and what it takes from us to change them. How we take for granted what witchcraft means and what we expect from stories about women. What we expect from movies that empower and how those expectations can be simultaneously dashed and renewed. As Mother Blanc says, renewal is painful. I can’t recommend Suspiria enough even as I know it simply won’t work for everyone. It worked for me.