‘Suspiria’ (2018) reviewed

Luca Guadagnino’s take on Dario Argento’s masterpiece is a striking work that manages to perplex as much as it enthrals.

It is a bold move for anyone who dares to remake anything from Dario Argento’s golden age, particularly his colourfully blinding and ear-splitting masterpiece Suspiria. The crown jewel of his Three Mothers trilogy, the fever dream like story of witches, ballet students and some of the greatest murder scenes ever captured on film is pure cinema. For art house darling Luca Guadagnino, coming off the success of his Oscar nominated gay romance Call Me By Your Name, it is an especially bold move, not only for attempting it in the first place but for trying his hand at something that bares zero resemblance to his previous filmography in style and content.

For the most part he succeeds admirably. His very different take on Suspiria may not please all of the people all of the time, especially Argento purists and those used to his more, shall we say, genteel sensibilities and in terms of remakes it may not reach the heights of Carpenter’s The Thing or Cronenberg’s The Fly but it is a striking, personal, flawed work that still manages to be more successful than any other horror remake in recent history.

Guadagnino’s take on the material clocks in at over two and a half hours, over an hour longer than the original. This extra hour packs in various themes; motherhood, rebellion, fascism, artistic expression and feminism, yet Guadagnino manages to make a full-on horror without it getting bogged down or coming across as a treatise on them.

So where to start with Guadagnino’s own directorial choices? The aesthetic for one is the complete opposite of Argento’s which aimed for and often hit pure sensation. Even without the copious amounts of blood that were spilled the original would still count as the most colourful horror film ever made. Here the action takes place in the Markos Dance Academy, a ballet school located in a divided, always damp and wintry Berlin. Shades of grey dominate the screen from the low sky to the chilly dorm rooms as radio sets broadcast the latest terrorist exploits of Baader Meinhof, helping contribute to the films already oppressive atmosphere, even before the supernatural and gruesome exploits committed in the name of the Three Witches (Suspiriorum, Tenebrarum and Lachrymarum) kick in.

A heavy sense of occult dread lingers throughout as American dancer Susie Bannion, an impressive Dakota Johnson, flees her oppressive American midwestern upbringing to study under Madame Blanc, the always great Tilda Swinton. The script by David Kajganich, who also wrote episodes of this year’s fantastic TV series The Terror, wastes no time in revealing Madame Blanc and her fellow tutors diabolic intentions but still gives them a disturbing and mysterious quality. The film’s pacing, taking in “Five acts and an epilogue”, is another radical departure from the original template. Guadagnino’s take on the material clocks in at over two and a half hours, over an hour longer than the original. This extra hour packs in various themes; motherhood, rebellion, fascism, artistic expression and feminism, yet Guadagnino manages to make a full-on horror without it getting bogged down or coming across as a treatise on them.

There is an obvious love for the original material and its creator here. Argento’s Inferno is also referenced folding some of that film’s own revelations of the Three Mothers into visual and dialogue expositions that at times threaten to overwhelm a casual viewer. Like those original films you may often find yourself regularly confused and bewildered by some events and plot beats that take place here, including most noticeably one involving one of the teachers that seems to have next to no reason or explanation for the viewer at all.

Where Argento used the camera in a precise way with its numerous elegant pans and glides, Guadagnino often twirls his own around like he was on roller skates. Crash zooms and whip pans pile on top of each other here as characters dance, glare and manipulate energy to distort reality and each other’s bodies. It contributes brilliantly to the atmosphere and sense of supernatural evil that always feels on the verge of being unleashed on the unsuspecting pupils. Echoes of this year’s other arthouse horrors, Hereditary and Climax, surface here also, in the way light is used to evoke spirits in the former and the use of dance to communicate a sense of a close group of people on the verge of utter chaos in the latter.

This is a film that manages to perplex as much as it enthrals. The lack of a dominating male presence is refreshing but the idea of contributing to this further by having Swinton, or as the films cast list would have us believe; Lutz Ebersdorf, play the films lone male protagonist, the elderly Dr Klemperer, is an idea that works better in theory than in practice. The climatic point of this particular storyline seems bolted on gracelessly to give it a point other than an audience surrogate to investigate what is going on at the Markos Dance Academy. Where Swinton often plays androgynous characters convincingly she never really convinces here.

The direction also sadly stumbles with the film’s climatic set piece. Without going into spoilers this should be the films crowning achievement but mystifyingly, after everything that has come and impressed before, Guadagnino directs it in such a heavy handed and schlocky manner that only reminds you of the unimaginative low budget dreck you would find late at night squirreled away at the arse end of a late night slot on television as you flick across the channels looking for something good. Aesthetically it is not only at odds with Argento but with itself as well.

So many more pleasures can be found here however. From Thom Yorke’s eclectic score, which sonically amplifies the otherworldly atmosphere, to the cast which includes sirens of European cinema from yesteryear such as Renee Soutendijk, Ingrid Caven and Angela Winkler. Johnson eradicates the memory of the bland Fifty Shades trilogy with her enigmatic portrayal, elevating the role of the female protagonist usually found in this genre. This could also be the start of an exciting new chapter for Guadagnino’s career, particularly if he follows through on his wishes for also completing the trilogy. With the quality of the recent spate of horror remakes and reboots to compare it to this is certainly an exciting proposition.

The dancing is good too.

❉ ‘Suspiria’ (18) received its UK premiere on 3 November 2018 at Leeds International Film Festival. Director: Luca Guadagnino. Cast includes Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth, Lutz Ebersdorf, Angela Winkler, Ingrid Caven. Running time 153 mins. It will be released in the United Kingdom by Mubi on November 16, 2018.

 Iain MacLeod was raised on the North coast of Scotland on a steady diet of 2000AD and Moviedrome. Now living in Glasgow as a struggling screenwriter he still buys too many comics and blu-rays. Has never seen a ghost but heard two talking in his bedroom when he was 4.

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