Synopsis – A darkness swirls at the center of a world-renowned dance company, one that will engulf the artistic director, an ambitious young dancer, and a grieving psychotherapist. Some will succumb to the nightmare. Others will finally wake up.
My Take – If the success of films like It Follows, Get Out, The Witch, A Quiet Place and Hereditary prove anything, it’s that the horror genre has moved quite far away from the usual slasher and haunted house flicks. With a certain section of filmmakers are actively indulging their techniques to contribute to the genre by bringing in more and more original content to the table, the other set seem more interested in bringing in remakes of classics albeit with their own vision to mixed results.
By now whoever has heard or read about this Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name, A Bigger Splash) directed film, knows that it is a remake of a 1977 film of the same name from Italian filmmaker Dario Argento, which, in turn, was inspired by Thomas De Quincey’s 1845 essay Suspiria de Profundis, and aims to expands upon the folklore of Agento‘s mixed bag ‘Three Mothers’ trilogy. If I am being honest, the 1977 film is by no means good, as it is filled with terrible acting, a dire script, and laughable effects, yet it’s immensely enjoyable, mainly because it is unusually very colorful for a horror film and just doesn’t seem to be taking itself too seriously.
However, director Guadagnino‘s remake, right from the first preview seemed the polar opposite. It has an intricate plot covering all manner of themes and topics, featuring several new characters, and setting everything against a complex socio-political background; the acting and effects are excellent. Most importantly it takes itself very, very seriously, in an attempt to prove to the audience that it is much more than just a piece of B-gore fest.
Personally I am still not sure if I liked the film or hated it for putting me in such a dire mood for the rest of the evening, but one thing I can confirm is that is sure is going to divide a lot of viewers. While it may not be the masterpiece it’s trying to be, it sure is trying to create something so deeply weird, on so grand a scale, that itself is undoubtedly an accomplishment in itself.
Yes, it had a certain divorce from reality I didn’t think was earned; its surreal qualities weren’t enough to afford its more outlandish aspects. Its grounded-in-the-real-world vibe clashed with the horror instead of holding up a mirror to it. Yet as an experience though, I haven’t come across another film like that made me so repulsed, tantalized, curious, uncomfortable and, above all, so bloody tense for its entire 152 minutes run time.
While director Argento himself has found the film distasteful of his vision, I believed by using the same concept director Guadagnino has forged his own gorgeous and nightmarish path with a story about necessary revolutions and the women behind them, and added small moments of horror which will haunt everyone to their bones.
Set in 1977, the story follows Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), an American who arrives in a divided Berlin to audition for Tanz Dance Academy, prestigious dance school, run a group of women led by chief choreographer Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) and the unseen Helena Markos (Tilda Swinton). Unknown to Susie, she has arrived at a difficult time, as the Academy is still reeling in the effects over the disappearance of Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz), the lead in their upcoming performance of Volk.
However Madam Blanc impressed with Susie’s natural talents, grants her as the replacement role of Patricia and a place in her old dorm room. But when another student of the Academy, Olga (Elena Fokina) also disappears, the Academy ends up catching the attention of Dr. Josef Klemperer (Tilda Swinton, credited as Lutz Ebersdorf), Patricia’s former psychoanalyst. While Klemperer is still deeply affected by mysterious disappearance of his wife Anke (Jessica Harper), back in 1944, he feels responsible for not following up on Patricia’s claims of witches at the dance school.
He connects with Sara (Mia Goth), a bright student at the Academy, and a close friend of both Patricia and Olga, to help him investigate. Meanwhile, outside the walls of the school, a political turmoil is spilling into the streets. As radical left insurgents known as the Red Army Faction kidnap a high profile industrialist, take a plane hostage and assassinate West Germany’s attorney-general. The external violence is conveyed through news reports and the flash of street protesters, an allegory for the power struggle between Madame Blanc and Helena Markos within Tanz’s walls.
Let me start by confirm that this is not a crowd-pleaser and it’s certainly not an easy watch. Those who weren’t prepared by trailers are going to be left shaking their heads and wondering what just happened? This is probably the most ambitious, unsettling, confounding and cathartic film I’ve seen in some time, with some of the most disturbing images I’ve ever seen in a film.
The film is upfront about the existence of witches and the strength of their power, but the question behind their purpose is less forthright than it seems. The film is more about dream logic than real logic, more web than timeline. That it starts the year director Argento’s film was released feels right: The spirit that animates that one feels reborn in this one which, in a sense, is its point — a spirit of rebellion and subversion against authoritarian powers, particularly patriarchal ones. Female energy and crafty women working in secret, it suggests, are responsible for keeping the world’s creative heart beating, even while skirmishes and wars and insurrections fight to beat it down.
There’s a lot of symbolism scattered throughout the terrifying corridors of the Tanz Dance Academy, ideas about war guilt, motherhood, why accusations of witchcraft remain so potent, terrorism, matriarchy versus patriarchy and body horror. At 152 minutes, the film is nearly an hour longer than director Argento’s 1977 original. Although that will undoubtedly make it a slow burn for some of the horror-going public, the expansive run time allows director Guadgnino, screenwriter David Kajganich, and the rest of their team to actually build upon the source material, rather than just revisit it. By the time we finally do get to the blood and guts, the filmmakers have laid such an artful foundation that the viscera is just another part of the film‘s hypnotic modern dance.
The sharp modern choreography used here is entrancing and adds a physicality to the magic that gave it impact, even more so than in the original. The force and energy in the academy’s signature performance Volk, accented by the red rope-bondage costumes, convinced me that dance might actually be a little bit magic, and a lot powerful. Although it’s decidedly not a slasher film, director Guadagnino’s film has its fair share of blood and guts (and brains and bone and urine). Early on we see a spell being channeled through Susie, as her first performance in front of an audience is inter cut with a woman trapped in a mirror-lined room. As Susie moves and twists so too does the woman below only in traumatic fashion. We see the student’s body twist and break, and the sequence comes to a crescendo of brutality — and then continues for several more minutes. Susie’s nightmares also reflect the violence to come as well as the violence we never see but only hear about.
The most fascinating thing about the new version is that director Guadagnino takes that story and uses it to create an entirely different spectacle. Gone are the original’s fluorescent reds and blues, replaced with natural lighting and the earthy tones of postwar Germany. Here he largely sidesteps those for most of the film, rendering a muted Berlin in grays and browns, and when he finally slips into director Argento’s visual style it’s all the more terrifying by contrast.
The ending, without revealing too much, can be read as a purification by blood. Stomachs are opened, heads explode and throats are slit in one of the goriest, visceral and intense finales ever put to screen. As Thom Yorke’s often muted score reaches an unexpected operatic peak so too does cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s unorthodox but reverent camerawork. Many of the technical elements of the film, particularly the lighting and framing, reflect the metamorphic performances on display.
However, some of the more head-scratching decisions in the film can best be summed up the terrorism subplot, an event never directly witnessed, but terrorists have kidnapped a group of people and a days-long event unfolds surrounding the school. At first, it adds a certain ambiance to the film, and it works really well in establishing the unease of the world outside of the dance company, as though the coven of witches are affecting the world at large around them.
And then, this plot line just sort of drags along and becomes, strangely, a series of news reports, as though the film we’re watching is being interrupted by an unrelated documentary. It never ties into the narrative as a whole, it’s just a distraction that, like the Dr. Josef Klemperer story, that should have been left on the cutting room floor. In heavy prosthetic makeup but still recognizable as Swinton, we are given a sub-plot which doesn’t have the same visual impact. While the connecting threads do come together smartly towards the end, there is always a desire to spend more time at the dance academy with Madame Blanc and Susie. I am curious how having another actor take the role of Dr. Klemperer would potentially impact my enjoyment of the role as it proved to be more of a distraction than a benefit to the story.
Performance wise, Dakota Johnson is likable and mysterious and gets to add interesting new layers to her character late in the film. Mia Goth turns out yet another magnificent performance following her role in A Cure for Wellness. However, Tilda Swinton is the star of the show, playing her three roles with wry humor, imperious grace, and a deep well of melancholy, depending on who she’s inhabiting. An excellent actress who still doesn’t get the amount of love she deserves. Unfortunately, Chloë Grace Moretz and Jessica Harper are wasted in small roles. On the whole, ‘Suspiria’ is a visually vivid and incredibly brutal horror tale that won’t appeal to everyone, but will certainly earn its place the pantheon of moody art house horrors.
Directed – Luca Guadagnino
Rated – R
Run Time – 152 minutes