The delirium that overtakes some of the characters in Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria is almost matched by the fevered anticipation it has awoken in horror fans. That alone is reason to take note. It’s a remake of a beloved horror cornerstone, but from its first trailer, it proved it was determined to be something different, at once more grounded but still creepy. In a way, Suspiria 2018 has already achieved its primary goal: becoming its own distinct entity. But does it succeed at much else?
Guadagnino’s redux is so singular that mentioning Dario Argento’s 1977 original feels moot, other than to reference it as the source of the basic plot elements, and to highlight its own excellence. That film, a shrieking fever dream plastered in ruby reds, stands out as the masterpiece of Argento’s CV, even though its supernatural element means it differs somewhat from his usual giallo-inflected murder mysteries. Its story of a ballet school that hides a darker secret behind its delicate facade lends itself to a heady blend of fairytale and childhood hellscape, albeit with more stabs directly into the heart. For the new version, Guadagnino does a complete about-turn from Call Me By Your Name, swapping a north Italian perfume commercial for a grey, rain-sodden 1970s Berlin. However, both the Fassbinder-esque trappings of the film and the Markos school of dance in which most of the action unfolds hide much more colourful goings-on.
Guadagnino’s reboot starts off in a relatively grounded way, as dance student Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz) desperately seeks a session with her psychiatrist. Scrambling about his dusty office, Patricia claims some ‘thing’ at the Markos school is trying to invade her. Themes of corruption and imprisonment, particularly of women, are at the core of Suspiria. Though directed and written by men (Screenwriter David Kadjanich reteams with Guadagnino after their success with A Bigger Splash), Suspiria boasts an almost-entirely female cast. Patricia’s psychiatrist, an elder gentleman named Dr. Klemperer, is credited as being played by acting newcomer Lutz Ebersdorff, but is actually Guadagnino’s muse Tilda Swinton in adequately convincing latex and makeup. The film is riddled with ideas and moments of performance concealing darker and/or more subversive realities, and Swinton’s performance as Klemperer is arguably the film’s most literal manifestation of those ideas.
As Patricia seeks an escape, Suzie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), the dance school’s newest student, arrives having made an escape of her own. The opening credits, accompanied by a Thom Yorke ditty that should be more distracting than it actually is, show a Mennonite family going about their business. We learn that Suzie is of their stock, but has been given this chance to use her gift for dance as a way to a different life, as promised by the mothers of the Markos school. The school pulses with contradictions. Though welcoming, the students (most notably Moretz’s Patricia and Mia Goth’s Sara) display various degrees of distrust and fear. The matriarchs offer the students all they need, but the building itself is a blue pseudo-gothic Neukoln nightmare. As for the mothers themselves, their varying eccentricities (Angela Winkler’s fusty aunt, Sylvie Testud’s brittle bird, Alek Wek’s towering exoticism) do little to encourage trust in their little club. These diverse personalities are about to restructure their organisation, and it won’t be pretty.
First among others in this yonic order is Madame Blanc, which sees Tilda Swinton in her second performance (of at least three). Tall, elegant, but aloof the the point of being threatening, Madame Blanc is almost a prototype of the kind of role people might expect for Swinton. That is, until you remember she also plays Dr. Klemperer. As the most significant male role in the film, Klemperer becomes a surprising focus for Suspiria’s thematic drive. Having survived (and lost close family) in the Second World War, Klemperer is emblematic of an inherited guilt that Guadagnino is keen to investigate. If Argento’s Suspiria didn’t have much interest in thematics, the redux overstretches itself to redress the balance. The Markos school is very determinedly located beside the Berlin Wall, and the film is frequently soundtracked by radio reports of attacks by the Red Army Faction. Suspiria packs in a lot of events around its central school, which should be fertile ground enough for commentary. However, the script keeps evoking events of the past (Germany’s fascistic past in particular), and makes only vague attempts to link it to what happens in the school. To say much more risks spoiling some giddily gory delights, but there’s never a moment that concretely links the real horrors of the outside (past and present) to the supernatural ones within. Perhaps Guadagnino is able to credit his audience with enough smarts to draw their own conclusions, but it does make Suspiria’s own indulgences (including a 152-minute runtime, an hour longer than the original) stick out like a fractured tibia.
Whether or not Suspiria functions on the level of commentary, it should provide enough to sate horror fans (if not fans of the original. The two are just too different to lump together). The film allows you plenty of time to get to know the inhabitants of the Markos school, and to see where personality clashes may lead to greater horrors. A memorable early scene sees one rebellious student, Elena Fokina’s Olga, find that mere mortal flesh is no match for the power of the dance. That power bubbles under the surface for most of the film, until a final act of gonzo batshit bloodshed that will genuinely surprise. The cast can all prance, pirouette and cackle on cue, but there’s little feeling that any of them are greater than the massacres or messages they are there to perpetrate. The only exception is Ebersdorff/Swinton’s Klemperer, which may be a more invested performance precisely because it has to come from behind so much latex, or maybe because it’s about the only one with an emotional throughline (In that regard, watch out for Jessica Harper, the star of Argento’s original film, in a strangely moving cameo appearance). The film also looks the part, with stunning detailed recreations of Berlin of the period, and a shockingly-muted colour palette, courtesy of Call Me By Your Name DoP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom.
Suspiria has the gore and the atmosphere you’d expect and demand, but its focus seems to be on setting itself apart from the original film. Thus, the message of past horrors fuelling the present feels detached, leaving a film that is at once undercooked and overstuffed, but never lacking in its own enticing sights and sounds. Still, we shouldn’t complain about a film being over-ambitious, should we? The only thing more free-flowing than the blood onscreen will be the off-screen discussions afterwards.