Luca Guadagnino’s disturbing, cerebral remake of the Dario Argento giallo original is an ice-hot knife to the cerebellum, its scares shrouded in terrifying mystique.
It’s been three days since I’ve seen Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria, and I still can’t get it out of my head. Two and a half hours of agonizing, blood-red existential terror, a collage of images ripped from Hieronymous Bosch, Ingmar Bergman, and yes, the classic Dario Argento giallo throat-ripper. The 2018 Suspiria is a movie that will stick in your craw, digging a razor-sharp hook into your brain stem not unlike the ones so prominently used by the film’s coven of craven witches and drawing out implacable fears about death, destiny, and the inability to escape mankind’s greatest emotional demons. It’s a hell of a hard watch, but its utter confidence in its craftsmanship, and confidence in its ability to scare the shit out of you, is undeniable.
As an adaptation, the bones of Argento’s original are there in Guadagnino’s presentation – a waifish American dancer named Susie (Dakota Johnson) comes to an elite dance school in Germany, headed by the mysterious Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). That the teachers of the dance company are a coven of witches, hoping to find the perfect vessel for their rituals to restore the life of master witch Mother Markos (also Swinton), is hardly a secret – subtitled discussions between the headmistress and her teachers make this clear, and, well, we know what kind of movie this is. But this new version is further complicated by a greater emphasis on Madame Blanc and the coven’s plans for Susie, as well as the potential interference of an elderly German psychoanalyst and Holocaust survivor (again, played by Swinton under old-age prosthetics, under the nom de plume Lutz Ebersdorf) led to the mystery of the school by fleeing student Patricia Hingle (Chloë Grace Moretz). All this amidst the historical backdrop of the German Autumn of 1977, radio and TV broadcasts spelling out a society in collapse. Perhaps the apocalypse will already get there before the witches can even complete their pagan rituals.
But Suspiria’s terror lies in its presentation, the slow burn of dread that passes over the viewer over its 150-minute runtime. As fun and pulpy as the giallo sheen of the Argento original can be, Guadagnino’s arthouse sophistication leads to filmmaking that is as painterly as it is petrifying. His previous works, including A Bigger Splash and Call Me by Your Name, are deeply sensitive works concerned with age, sexuality, and the appreciation of aesthetic beauty. Suspiria both leans toward and away from these instincts, Guadagnino’s visual approach fitting somewhere between the Expressionistic sensibilities of Argento and the deeply considered stateliness of his previous works. 70s-era crash zooms glide elegantly within Kubrickian wides and sensitive studies of his players’ faces. All the while, Thom Yorke’s groaning, creaking incidental score worms its way into your lizard brain and keeps you on your toes, a highly unconventional soundtrack that is as perfect a fit for Guadagnino’s waking nightmare as Goblin’s prog-rock propulsion was to Argento.
The scariest part of Suspiria is the filmmaker’s deep understanding of the grotesque, whether it’s a dissenting company member getting bent into pretzel-like shapes by the magical movements of a dancer, or the eventual bloody ends that meet many of the film’s characters. At night, Susie is plagued by nightmarish visions, which play out like Guadignino is remaking the opening of Bergman’s Persona every twenty minutes – evocative flashes of tableaus, caterwauling unpredictably between the pastoral and the cacophonous hellscapes that await her. Even if the rest of the film didn’t teem with unrelenting dread, these sequences alone are liable to make your heart skip a beat. This is to say nothing of the film’s climax, a mysterious, abstracted Grand Guignol bloodbath that must be seen to be believed (if only half-understood).
In a film so focused on aesthetic, it could be tempting to overlook the performances – certainly Guadagnino’s approach occasionally toes the line towards his cast as puppets to be moved to and fro, just like Susie finds herself spun around by forces unknown. Johnson, like Jessica Harper before her, is initially a tabula rasa as Susie, before the film’s latter half allows her naivete to give way to a disquieting menace (not unlike her arc in Fifty Shades of Grey). Obviously, it’s Swinton’s show through and through, her triple role offering myriad opportunities for her uniquely skeletal mystique to shine. As Madame Blanc, she’s imperious, sensitive, uniquely attuned to both Susie’s mental state and her place in the company’s fluctuating sectarian factions. As Dr. Josef Klemperer, the prosthetics never fool anyone for a second; Tilda’s unique grimace and her high-pitched rasp give away the game long before you see the plasticity of the makeup. And yet, Guadagnino must know this, making Klemperer’s character a study in the uncanny – a woman inhabiting the body of a man in a film about the politics of a feminine ecosystem. We’re aware of the wrongness of Klemperer in every scene he’s in, an invader in a world steeped in female power. At every turn – whether it’s Johnson or Swinton or Mia Goth’s later-film ingenue Sara, or the host of ominous witches who facilitate the surreal horrors found at the academy – Suspiria’s cast is perfectly attuned to the heart-stopping horrors on display.
Love its ambition or hate its opaqueness, Suspiria is a horror film that will stick with you for a good long time. It’s confrontational and abrasive, daring its audience to endure its horrors for a glimpse into the beyond, for Guadagnino’s greater discussions of man’s cruelty and divisiveness. Its images are immediate and visceral, even as they don’t coalesce in an easily understandable manner. But perhaps that’s the point; it feels shortsighted to discount its seeming lack of import or passion as thoughtlessness. Apart from a few coy moments at the end, it foregoes Argento’s pitch-black comedy for a middlebrow stateliness that paradoxically invites you to scrutinize it. Dare we decipher Susie’s dreams, or make sense of the table-turning, blood-red climax? Is the film a celebration of feminine power, or does it treat women like overly competitive mean girls for whom the audience should relish the desecration of their bodies? It honestly feels too soon to tell. But its aesthetic mastery is unquestionable, and within those aesthetics further critical discourse can glean some meaning from Guadagnino’s glimpse into hell.
Suspiria dances its way through the depths of Hell and into Chicago theaters Friday, November 2nd.