Suspiria was reviewed at Fantastic Fest and hits screens at the end of October.
What is Suspiria?
A young American dancer travels to Berlin in 1977 to audition for a world-renowned troupe. But she soon discovers that the company harbours a dark secret, one that puts the artistic director and a grieving psychotherapist on a collision course, and puts her own life in danger.
Remaking a Classic
Remaking a horror classic can be dangerous. As for every The Fly and The Thing — new takes that either improve on the original, or do something sufficiently different — there are scores of bad ones made to make a fast buck rather than respectfully pay homage to their predecessors.
So it came as a surprise to hear that Luca Guagagnido would be remaking Suspiria. As with films like I Am Love, A Bigger Spalsh, and Call Me By Your Name on his CV, the Italian arthouse king doesn’t seem like the go-to guy for horror.
But Guagagnido has harboured ambitions to cover Dario Argento’s Suspiria since his teens. Which he has done so via “six acts and an epilogue in Berlin.” And the result is a marvel; a shocking, terrifying assault on the senses that develops and expands on the mythology so that it plays less like a remake of the original, and more like a companion piece.
Achieving Perfect Balance
Dakota Johnson plays Susie Bannion, an ambitious dancer from a tiny Ohio town, who in 1977 travels to Berlin with plans to join a famous company, rumoured to give their members “perfect balance.” But they don’t want her. Tell her she isn’t qualified. And very nearly send her away.
Susie insists on an audition however, and nails it, dancing without music, and delivering a performance of such violence that artistic director Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) immediately invites her to join the troupe.
It’s at this point the audience discovers that this is no ordinary troupe, but rather a coven of witches. So where Argento took his time delivering such news in the original, here it’s out in the open for the audience. Meaning screenwriter David Gajganich can truly delve into the inner workings of such an institution.
So we learn the politics of such a lair — which has apparently been underground since WWII — the women achieving their own brand of power in a male-dominated society. And we witness first-hand how that power has corrupted its members; trouble brewing within the ranks as they argue about the best way to move the coven forward.
Meaning the problems have already started when Susie arrives at this self-styled “Palace of Tears.” Yet while — unbeknownst to her — she’s ostensibly there to be the victim of their next ritual, Susie quickly rises through the ranks of the dancers. Via steadfast confidence in her own abilities. And also because of some pretty remarkable performances on the floor, most notably a brutal dance with death that has devastating consequences elsewhere, underlining the fact that these witches are all-powerful, and don’t need potions or broomsticks to do their worst.
Such scenes look amazing, Guadagnino using the rich red colours of Argento’s original within the coven, and juxtaposing them with the grim, stark, cold aesthetic of 1970s Berlin outside. Making Suspiria once of the best-looking movies of the year.
What follows is a lengthy battle for power within the lair, one that pits new star against ageing director. And builds towards a truly grandstanding public performance that turns into a waking nightmare of blood and barbarism.
What Doesn’t Work
And if this was all that was going on in Suspiria, it would be enough. Unfortunately there are a pair of sub-plots that don’t quite work. Largely due to a couple of questionable performances.
The film kicks off with Chloe Grace Motetz visiting a psychoanalyst to complain about what’s happening at the coven, and her hysterical and over-the-top delivery threatens to derail proceedings before they have properly begun.
But it’s that psychoanalyst — Dr. Josef Klemperer — that’s the real problem. He starts investigating the coven, and his story — which deals with the German fallout from WWII — is undoubtedly an intriguing one, intertwined as it is with the fate of the witches.
But — in a piece of painful stunt casting — he’s played by Tilda Swinton, giving her two roles in the movie, and taking the audience out of proceedings whenever her unconvincing male incarnation is onscreen. It might have seemed like a fun idea at the time, but it really doesn’t work in the finished flick.
Is Suspiria Good?
But those are minor quibbles about a movie with pretty major ambitions. And which succeeds on almost every front. It’s a film about hefty themes like motherhood, martyrdom, religion, death, and rebirth. While politics frequently takes centre stage, with new Suspiria unexpectedly holding a mirror up to what’s happening in the world today.
Ultimately however, it’s a damn-fine horror film, anchored by a smart script that subverts expectations at every turn, and superb central performances, most notably from Johnson and 50% of Swinton. All overseen by a director who has taken what he loves about the original, and remixed it in an exciting and exhilarating way that’s well worth 152-minutes of your time.