SUSPIRIA (Directed by Luca Guadagnino, 152 minutes, USA, 2018)
BY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC When discussing Italian horror’s influence on cinema as a whole you would be remiss if didn’t name check Dario Argento’s 1977 supernatural masterpiece Suspiria, a surrealist nightmare about a young girl who is sent to a dance school run by a coven of witches set to the score of prog rockers Goblin. As a devout horror fan, my initial response to the news that a remake of Suspiria was in the works was akin to hearing someone had planned to remake The Godfather. But director Luca Guadagnino was an intriguing choice to say the least, especially given he was fresh off of his awards darling, the exquisite love story Call Me by Your Name.
As with the original, the remake is the story of Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) a young American from Ohio who in 1977 is recruited for an interpretive dance school in Berlin presided over by the enigmatic Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). While the film still retains the skeleton of the original, it is a much different animal altogether. You still have Patricia who inexplicably leaves the school before Susie’s arrival, triggering the mystery of what is going on at the Markos Dance Academy. But this time it’s Patricia’s psychologist Dr. Jozef Klemperer, also played by Swinton, who is tasked with solving the mystery of just what happened to his former patient. In this version, as Susie is groomed by Madame Blanc, we are introduced to the mythology of the Three Mothers that has split the dance school right down the middle.
The screenplay’s equation of feminism with a coven of witches is a dicey proposition, but Guadagnino makes it work with this cerebral, densely-layered mediation on transgression, terror and female empowerment shielded from the objectification of the male gaze that doubles as a terrifying new take on the supernatural perils of witchcraft. Guadagnino transmutes the jagged, avant garde choreography of modern dance into a ritual for casting spells and, we soon learn, Susie is not just a precocious young dance student fresh off the farm but a natural born sorceress. The first scene we see her unleash this power washed away any thought I previously had that this film would shy away from the disfiguring abominations of the original. The film also echoes Guadagnino’s previous film when Madame Blanc takes a less than platonic interest in her new star pupil, and Susie quickly rises to the top of the pecking order at the dance school. Spoiler alert: by the end, she turns the tables on the diabolical coven in a bloody, apocalyptic showdown.
Like Mother!, Suspiria is a divisive film you will either love or hate. Deeply. Most male horror fans will probably simply dismiss it due to its primarily feminine slant. That being said Suspiria is not simply a remake, it feels like another story within the creepy cosmology Argento crafted. It’s a haunting slow burn, accented by Thom Yorke’s bleak yet ethereal score, that climaxes in an orgy of blood and gore that baptizes a new horror classic. Johnson is a formidable force on screen, even opposite Swinton who is positively magnetic in her dual roles as both the middle-aged head mistress and the elderly Dr. Jozef Klemperer. Suspiria is a stunning cinematic masterwork that is, like all the best horror, both visually mesmerizing and profoundly unsettling.