In 1977, Dario Argento released Suspiria, which became a classic and influential entry in the Italian Giallo horror genre. A remake has been in the works for a decade, only gaining proper traction when Luca Guadagnino, of A Bigger Splash and Call Me By Your Name fame, signed on to direct. The result of his take is strange, intense and ultimately worthwhile.
It’s Berlin circa 1977 and Susie Bannon (Dakota Johnson) is an American who has just arrived and is joining a major dance academy. She quickly impresses head teacher Madam Blanc (Tilda Swinton) and becomes the lead of an upcoming dance performance. It soon becomes obvious that there is something going on with the academy, especially with the disappearance of former student Patricia (Chloe Grace Moertz). Both student Sara (Mia Goth) and psychiatrist Josef Klempler (Lutz Eberdorf) start trying to get to the bottom of the mystery.
What is surprising about Suspiria (2018) is just how different it is from Guadagnino’s previous films. The intimacy and uneventful storytelling of his “Desire” trilogy is replaced by darkness and constant tension. This change was necessary for the material he was adapting, with Guadagnino showing that he understands that his style would have to be shifted to match the same tone or style of the original film.
But, despite this, Guadagnino has a unique vision that makes this film stand out from Argento’s original. Rather than make a stylised fairy tale, he blends realism and dream logic. Though the setting’s war-torn chaotic nature creates a dangerous, almost apocalyptic, feel in the environment, it is still grounded in the reality of how Berlin was in 1977. Despite this, there are several surreal sequences that remind you of the film’s fantasy-horror trappings. The overall theme is the evils of history and how we remember them, which comes in through Dr Kempler’s backstory as a man who lost his wife in the Holocaust and a well-integrated subplot of the Red Faction Army hostage crisis taking place in Germany at the same time. The themes of Suspiria (2018) and Guadagnino’s vision are what make it worthwhile and necessary as a remake.
The least compelling aspect of the film is the narrative, whilst the story is well told and coherent, it does not feel as exciting as it should. The film is never boring, but it is weaker when it focuses on a mystery that the film does not even attempt to mask and outright lays out in the prologue. There were portions of the film where I was not fully invested because I was waiting for the shoe to drop. However, praise must be given to the film’s final plot twist, one that should have been completely obvious but is instead incredibly surprising. The finale also goes into strange territory that could have easily lost the plot (and did get a couple of laughs out of me due to its sheer audaciousness) but ends up being mesmerising and beautiful, culminating in a chillingly acted final scene and a perfect final shot.
Dakota Johnson starts out giving a sweet, ditzy performance that admittedly made me see her as an actor and not a character, but it soon turns into something much darker, confident and more enigmatic. Her physical dedication alone proves that she has a future as an actress far beyond the 50 Shades trilogy. Tilda Swinton brings her usual iciness to the role, but she also makes her character feel believable and grounded (Swinton also stands out for a spoiler reason detailed below the rating). These two actresses have great chemistry together and their relationship is surprisingly human.
Technically, this film makes up for decades of boring, unremarkable horror films. The cinematography is beautifully gritty and engaging, the violence is visceral and gruelling, with brilliant effects and gross imagery. The editing is some of the best I have seen recently, especially during the first dance number, a strong contender for one of the most disturbing and intense sequences you will see this year. Because of the fast-paced editing, the long running time flew by and every moment felt important. Thom Yorke’s debut as a composer is also impressive
Suspiria (2018) is up there with The Thing and The Blob (1988) as a horror remake that will be remembered just as much as the original. It is entertaining, complex and intellectually satisfying. I welcome any future films set in this universe because Guadagnino has certainly earned the right to take this mythology in even newer directions.
On Swinton’s double roles (major and minor Spoilers):
Tilda Swinton has made headlines for the fact that she plays more than one role. Lutz Eberdorf is just an alias, with Swinton wearing drag, intense makeup and even a prosthetic penis. The transformation is remarkable and although Swinton’s voice sometimes slips into sounding like an old woman rather than an old man, it is a testament to how fearless she is as an actress to play two completely different roles. The only issue with this choice is that is does result in Kempler getting less focus and screen time than he should have for such an important character, probably to maintain the illusion. So it might have been better to cast an old man but this experiment was still interesting.
She also plays Helena Markos, the leader of the witches. This was not disclosed before release because it is much more of a spoiler, but it is even more impressive because I did not know it was Swinton. The makeup is so inhuman that no one would suspect that the graceful Swinton was under it. It’s an especially great showcase of editing when her three characters are all in the climax, that manages to make them all feel present even though they could not all be onscreen at the same time…