By Jason Sawyer – Jan. 29, 2009
*AVAILABLE ON VOD/BLU-RAY/DVD*
Released Oct. 26, 2018
Rated R – 2hr 32min
Directed by Luca Guadagnino
Starring Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth, Chloë Grace Moretz
Berlin 1977, and the city is in the throes of political strife, eventfully known as ‘The German Autumn’. It is in this heated moment that bright-eyed American Suzy Bannion (Johnson) arrives to join the renowned Markos Dance Company, under the instruction of famous instructor Madame Blanc (Swinton). Meanwhile, star pupil Patricia (Moretz) has gone missing, but not before informing her therapist Dr. Klemperer (also Swinton) that she suspects the dance troupe is a front for a coven of witches. As his suspicions lead him further into harm’s way, it would seem the women of Markos Co. may be interested in Suzy for more than her preternatural talent.
I wish I could clearly say, but I’ll try my best. Suspiria certainly does not lack for ambition – its epic runtime, unorthodox story structure, elaborate dance sequences, hallucinatory visuals, multi-faceted intertwining allegorical narrative – easily surpasses, among similar films, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan in its challenging difficulty to decipher. It is not an easy watch, nor does it have any intention to be.
Narrative: Uhhhh…….Ok. Ok – gotta figure something out here. Alright, here it goes: Suspiria begins with a mock playbill card informing the audience that the story will be presented in six acts and an epilogue, and if that strikes you as an odd way to begin a film, then buckle up – it only gets weirder from here. There’s a lot of story to unpack, and some of it is presented without context only to supply something of an explanation later, provided the viewer can keep it all in mind as the movie rolls on – I felt as if I should have taken a primer class before diving into this. However, despite its sometimes disorienting subplots and bewildering structure, the story at the heart of the matter isn’t all that complicated and is what could have been initially expected – an expansion upon the plot of Dario Argento’s 1977 original. There’s more characters and more plot points, all with greater depth and detail than the source material, and when focused, illustrates a great untapped potential to the mythos of Argento & writing partner Daria Nicoldi’s Three Mothers series of ancient malevolent witches installed in high places across Western civilization. There’s a lot of superfluous and indulgent stuff here though – it may supply greater rewatch value or it may be really extra; time will ultimately sort that one out. Also, it’s a ‘big twist’ film, but as you watch it, it becomes obvious that there’s going to be one, or everything would just play out as intended, and that’s rarely how stories work. Whether that big twist sticks the landing is debatable, but it’s revealed during one of the most bizarre climactic sequences I can recall, so I’ll be damned if I know for sure.
Acting: If I had gripes about the narrative, I have none here. Firstly, Tilda Swinton is amazing in this. She’s one of those with a reputation for generally elevating anything she’s in, as she does with her more orthodox role as instructor Madame Blanc, but it’s her part as octogenarian male psychologist and WWII survivor Dr. Klemperer that’s a showstopper. Unrecognizable and fully immersed, she becomes a frail and guilt-ridden old man who believes he has enough fight left in him for a bid at personal redemption from the ghosts of the past, but grossly underestimates the nature of what he’s up against. That’s not to undersell Dakota Johnson though. Unfairly maligned from her involvement in the Fifty Shades trilogy, which I intentionally have not seen, she puts forth a physically demanding performance both bold and nuanced that should rightly erase any doubt anyone may have had in her abilities. The rest of the supporting cast, led largely by Mia Goth, all do a fine job as well. That’s a good thing too, because Suspiria – with its lofty aspirations – would have been doomed on arrival with any weak links in the acting chain.
Before this, I would have scoffed at the idea of a scene with someone being danced to death. Not now though.
Direction: Here is where the comparison between this version and Argento’s original must be made. Argento’s was visually stunning – a colorful and dreamy atmosphere periodically shattered by sudden outbreaks of horriffic violence. That creation of discomfort through the juxtaposition of beauty and atrocity is a hallmark of Italian horror cinema of its age, as defined by Argento, Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci, and others. Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria, on the other hand, exists in an ugly and brutish world of stark and largely drab colors, and seems generally more interested in ferocity than beauty. In fact, the difference between the two films is so great that they barely have anything in common beyond the shared premise and, I never thought I’d use this phrase, but Dario Argento made the more coherent version. That’s not a failure on Guadagnino’s part though, because it’s extremely obvious that his was made to be difficult to consume and digest. And despite the bleak color palette, there are a great many standout sequences within – often using dance and contortion to create hypnotic and cryptic imagery – but perhaps none more so than the mind-melting climax. It’s even difficult to find words to explain – perhaps if Andy Warhol and Ken Russell collaborated on hosting a bloody nudist Grand Guignol sativa-soaked rave in a cobblestone crypt? It’s baffling.
Horror Elements: While there’s little in the way of tension or suspense throughout Suspiria – opting instead for anxiety and contemplative unease – there’s certainly some top-notch gore FX. One sequence in particular – outside of its splatter-filled sixth act – involves an unfortunate dissident in the dance troupe being literally broken every which way through a spell cast via ritualistic dance that is absolutely brutal to watch. It’s among the worst beatings ever adminstered in the history of film – no joke. It’s representative of the way that the movie is not here to play around. There’s also some pretty notable makeup work down the final stretch – the demonic servant of the lead witch, in particular.
Mother Susperiorum’s little helper.
Music: One of the best-known attributes of Suspiria is that it is scored by legendary Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, and that fact is apparent far more than expected throughout the film. There are multiple scenes where actual songs with lyrics play out as opposed to the typical musical accompaniment, and the effect can be rather jarring, as Yorke’s vocals compete for attention with the action and dialogue on screen. While I assume Yorke merely delivered exactly what was requested from him, it’s especially distracting during the movie’s bonkers finale, although this is totally the type of flick where the lyrics are likely carrying some kind of additional subtext on top of everything else going on because it has no qualms with being excessive.
TL;DR: Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria is assuredly not for everyone, horror fans or otherwise. While the story is straightforward enough, it is rife with details that are difficult to follow or decipher. The ambition is admirable though, and if you have any interest in it at all, you should see it, even if you ultimately hate it. It’s ironic that a remake would deliver something so unquestionably unique, even if it makes for a difficult watch.