Suspiria November 2, 2018
Chloë Grace Moretz
2 Hrs., 32 Mins.
n December, 2017, the Italian director Luca Guadagnino, who was still in the midst of promoting Call Me By Your Name, discussed his remake of 1977’s Suspiria with The Guardian. Guadagnino elucidated that the movie, which he had finished shooting earlier that year, was neither a reboot nor a product of a commerce-driven mentality. It was, rather, a cinematization based on a feeling— specifically the one felt when he encountered Suspiria for the first time as a
pre-teen. “I immediately started to dream about making my own version of it … an homage to the incredible, powerful emotion I felt when I saw it,” he said.
The new Suspiria, which runs for about two and a half hours, is a 180 from both Guadagnino’s oeuvre and from its source material. Those who were taken with the serene, erotic beauty of his last film, Call Me By Your Name, and those who were thrilled by the Technicolor, surrealistic jolts of the original Suspiria, might be flummoxed to discover that this remake is bleak, brittle, and malevolent — fashioned almost completely in brutal, violent extremes. Gone is Guadagnino’s appetite for the lush; gone are Dario Argento’s iconically jarring, lollipop-colored frights.
Like its antecedent, the new Suspiria is set in 1977, and concerns an American ballet student named Susie (Dakota Johnson), who is in Germany to study at a prestigious dance academy. It is clear that her stay will not be a sonata of personal growth, though.
Before her arrival, we drop in on a therapy session between the elderly psychiatrist Jozef Klemperer (“Lutz Ebersdorf”) and a troubled young woman named Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz). Patricia, jittery and apparently delusional, is a student at the school at which Susie will soon enroll — the Markos Dance Academy — and swears that the institute, which sits on the edges of West Berlin, is run by witches. Klemperer initially seems disposed to write her off as paranoid. But after she disappears, and after he thumbs through her journals — which are riddled with conspiratorial entries — he gets worried.
A day after Patricia vanishes, which causes much concerned murmuring between the school’s long-limbed pupils, Susie arrives, and is immediately an object of interest among the academy’s teachers. Especially intrigued by her is the willowy, Vampira-looking Madame Blanc (long-time Guadagnino collaborator Tilda Swinton), who essentially runs the place.
Not long after Susie walks into the school’s cavernous quarters, the Patricia-induced anxieties evolve from a whisper to a scream. In what has come to be the movie’s most talked-about sequence, Susie, in an early scene, dances for her instructors and peers. But her quasi-audition has a sinister undercurrent. A young woman, who had previously echoed Patricia’s sentiments in a public, confrontational fashion, has been locked inside a mirrored room down below. Her body, it seems, has been hexed, intestines and all, to move in accordance with Susie’s animalistic jumps and spins — to a point where the hapless victim eventually, and graphically, becomes a pretzeled mess on the floor.
Indeed, this school, so long-ingrained in the minds of its universe’s theatergoers as a beacon of esteem, is a front for a coven. And as Suspiria progresses, we will learn that Susie has become a target for potential sacrifice to the much-whispered-about but rarely seen headmistress Helena Markos. Klemperer, in the meantime, investigates.
It is not so much a matter of if the updated Suspiria is better than the film that inspired it. Thankfully, I rarely, unless bombarded with a modernized version of a character, thought of the ‘70s masterstroke. Guadagnino, unlike Argento, who preferenced nightmarish, abstracted thrills, is interested in placing his movie in the real world, as if to underscore the fact that there will always be unspeakable horrors unfolding under our noses.
Televised updates and radio announcements updating us on the civil strife of the era are constant fixtures. There are mysterious cutaways to Susie’s hyper-religious upbringing in a georgic region of Ohio; the Klemperer subplot is imbued with the guilt and sorrow that has plagued him since his wife (played by Jessica Harper, who played Susie in the original) died during the Holocaust.
Certainly, this Suspiria is a tried-and-true horror film, but its frights are emotionally and spiritually draining rather than miserly and quick. During a climactic, operatic group dance sequence, which is marked by fearsome dread, I found myself shivering and short of breath, my body apparently unsure how to process what I was experiencing. The strikingly red finale, which is admittedly more loco than bluntly scary, is a monument that holistically captures the movie’s audacity.
This story is best suited to be told with a hint of nonsensicality. Part of the appeal of Argento’s original was how it resembled a nightmare from which it seemed unfeasible to escape. Guadagnino’s attempts to lodge the witchy story in the quotidian, then, is admirable but awkward.
Yet there are a great many pleasures to be had, from the meticulous sound editing to the harmonious, period-perfect costume and set design. The performances — many of which are given by world-cinema greats — are vital and unpredictable. Best is Swinton, who is undeniably the actorial centerpiece (she plays three characters here, and exquisitely so); the forever-undervalued Johnson, who is among the pluckiest of young actresses; and the slept-on, idiosyncratically beautiful Mia Goth.
It is difficult to make much sense of Suspiria. The stylistic and violent extremities are so overpowering that to depart the theater with a lucid response is perhaps an impossibility. But however hard it is to unpack, I’m glad Guadagnino felt those feelings all those decades ago. A-
This review also appeared in The Daily.