In 1977 Dario Argento released an original horror film which drew visual cues from Alice and Wonderland and German expressionist cinema, while telling a macabre tale of a coven of witches in a Freiburg ballet school. Now four decades later- Luca Guadagnino, director of Call Me by Your Name, has presented us with his reimaging of horror’s most extravagant moment, Suspiria. The word reimaging is key when considering this film, as the focus of the storytelling has been shifted drastically meaning the film deftly avoids a bland retelling. There are a few similar story elements, in both we follow Suzy Bannion (played here Dakota Johnson instead of Jessica Harper) to a prestigious dance school in Germany which harbours a coven of witches. Only in Gudagnino’s reimaging the dances are contemporary not ballet, and the action has moved from Freiburg to Berlin 1977. Where the oppressive Berlin wall divides the city, and post war depression permeates the citizens and streets they live on.
This tonal shift is key to understanding Gudagnino’s intentions with Suspiria. The original was sensory overload shocking through its excessiveness, while Guadagnino’s version uses gnawing guilt and melancholy to drive the story to its gruesome climax. This naturally leads to a slower pace than previously seen with the film proudly boasting before it begins that it will unfurl across six acts and an epilogue, coming in at approximately two and a half hours. It isn’t until act two that we meet Suzy or see the Helena Markos dance school, as the film initially presents us with a mystery and side character that will make up an integral part of the plot. The side character in question is Dr. Josef Klemperer (Tilda Swinton in one of three roles), a psychotherapist who treats Markos student Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz) and becomes increasingly obsessed with her tales of witchcraft in Markos after her disappearance.
A minor call back to the opening of the original where Patricia meets a brutal end in the first ten minutes. Her death is an uncertainty here, meaning that once Suzy enters the school the pupils are caught in a state of paranoid fear towards the matriarchal leader Madame Blanc (also Swinton) believing she may have some involvement in the matter. To have kept this mystery as the sole focus would have led to a great film probably equating just over 100 minutes of film, however Suspiria decides to take another direction which consistently neuters any tension. We spend a long period of the film following Dr Klemperer, as he crosses between east and West Berlin mourning past mistakes. The justification for these scenes coming from an epilogue containing some extremely clunky exposition. A misstep constantly undertaken by Guadagnino as the film looks to erode any mystery surrounding the coven by blatantly stating their origins and intentions, removing the fear surrounding them.
An extremely confusing decision given how good Guadagnino’s horror is proven to be elsewhere in the film. One scene where a dancer becomes possessed and is forced to copy Suzy’s dance in an adjacent room leads to a grotesque conclusion, and truly visceral body horror buried in a statement about the physical sacrifice professional dancers must be willing to undertake to succeed. There’s also a very clever usage of paranoia that builds throughout the film, with news reports on the German Autumn becoming more explicit in their content leading to expectations of further brutality to follow before the story is over. There’s also some fascinating surrealism within dream sequences controlled by Madame Blanc, that call back to Luciano Tovoli’s vibrant lighting in the original while twisting the subject’s psyche to some very disturbing places. These sequences would be the best part of the film, were it not for the primal nature of the dance numbers choreographed by Damien Jalet.
Madame Blanc tells Suzy “we need to break the nose of every beautiful thing” when instructing her on how to reach her full potential with dance. And this sentiment is reflected through each practise, the girls pushing themselves to physical and mental breaking points in each session as they train for a project named “Volk”. There’s a hypnotic quality to this cruelty, as Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s camera glides between individual dancers between movements, before revealing the ritualistic nature of the dance at its most trance like moment. A sensory achievement which is backed by Thom Yorke’s for the most part excellent score. There are moments where these parts stumble however, as one late on scene uses a melancholic song (Unmade) alongside some dodgy slow motion during an extremely violent moment that has no meditative quality to it, creating an unintentionally funny atmosphere. Similarly, Mukdeeprom’s camera work is slightly too reliant upon constant movement and can be become quite distracting in quieter scenes that would work better with a static camera.
Suspiria is thankfully not a shot for shot remake, but a sign of a director utilising creative license to absolute extremes so they can emulate a project they’re highly passionate about. It’s far from perfect as that sub plot, some stiff exposition, and pacing issues bring you out of the immersion it aims for. When it does trap you in its spell through ritualistic dance scenes, and horror portrayed through several different styles it is phenomenal. It’s also a film that lingers in your mind, where it’ll nestle and shift opinion constantly.