Suspiria: A Film That Stares Back
Don’t try to pigeonhole Suspiria (2018). Slasher, gothic, and body horror influences combine here to form a film that is like the original in name alone. Characters are bolder, more complex, and the campy humor of the original is all but gone. The setting is dark and deceptive, less vibrant the Tanz Dance Academy of the 1977 classic, also referred to as the Markos Dance Company; but there is something much darker at the heart of Luca Guadagnino’s latest, something that justifies the change of tone; Dario Argento’s original film is a kaleidoscopic slasher masterpiece that has gone on to inspire dozens of art house directors; Guadagnino’s remake looks toward modernist horror like Hereditary and mother!, in a film that feels grafted from the corpse of the original onto a new and bulkier body.
What sets this remake apart from others? 2018 saw a (second) new take on Halloween, one of the big three Hollywood monster flicks, but it is likely to be forgotten. Horror remakes rely on characters, making a straight rehash of Friday the 13th or A Nightmare on Elm Street a safe, if devoid, bet. Audiences will turn up for the legends of horror history. Guadagnino understands that there is little value in this type of film, save an opportunity for a director to relive their golden age of cinema, or make as much money as possible. Suspiria’s appeal comes from the way it draws the original out of the dark and into a blistering new light; the film is still set in the past, it aims to scare, and there is a happy ending, but the ways in which it arrives at these places could not be more different than the original’s.
There is no mystery to this film. From the start it is learned that witches control Tanz, murder is commonplace, and men are the playthings of powerful women. The sole male lead is played by Tilda Swinton, although it is credited to a Lutz Ebersdorf: Swinton in heavy makeup. Where the whodunnit mystery was, Suspiria inserts an aching feeling of rot. As soon as Susie (Dakota Johnson) arrives at the Markos Dance Company, dreams crawl into her psyche and students’ moods turn perverse. Her arrival coincides with the departure of Patricia Hingle (Chloe Grace Morëtz), the most promising student at the famed academy: This leaves space for Susie to demonstrate her talent, and as she takes the lead for a dance she has never performed, the students and instructors stand in awe; a touch from Madame Blanc, the woman who choreographed the dance, and Susie’s jumps are higher, her landings sharper. She is smooth, lean, possessed by a fury she could not have expressed herself. The delicate poison from Blanc is transferred as her movements affect a disgraced student trapped in a mirrored cage below, and rather than shudder at the feeling, Susie embraces it.
If there is a moment where events begin to turn sour, this is it; the contorting of imprisoned dancer Olga is bloodcurdling, performed with precise special effects that rival Game of Thrones’ carnage. The audience is shocked, but Suspiria demands more; increased appreciation. By the end of the film, violence has become so desensitized that there is nothing left but appreciation, and that is exactly what the film aims to draw out.
In an earlier scene, several witches of the Markos Dance Company are seen mutilating police sent to investigate Patricia’s disappearance. This scene can come across as light, but the carelessness in which the witches humor themselves with the helpless police officers quickly turns the scene rancid. Susie spies the officers, enchanted and unable to move, while the witches have their way with them. It’s played for laughs, and whenever I thought back on it I couldn’t help from smiling: The Tanz Dance Academy is a shrine to women who have lived for thousands of years, feeding from the purity and talent of their students, and in 1970s Berlin women are prey not only to misogyny, but the fierce violence and cultural upheaval of the decade. It’s horrifying to watch Susie’s transformation into a head-exploding super-witch, but there’s a sense of euphoria in her power being released in response to the other witch's minor interference in the patriarchal world: Horror with a righteous purpose.
An ethereal score from Radiohead’s Thom Yorke strikes a balance between distant and confrontative. Secluded synths rush to the forefront, booming percussion turns a dance into a dirge, and the influence of Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Vol. 2 looms in the background of tracks like “Volk” and “A Choir of One.” Suspiria is centered around the dance, which naturally asks for appropriate music. Yorke’s score is frequently used as musical selection for the film’s dances, “Volk” taking its name from the dance it is based on. Scenes in which the actresses are dancing mix everything there is to love about this film: Dense sound design, dominant yet gentle performances from Swinton and Johnson, and deeply troubling music, not to mention the expressive choreography and costume designs, all worthy of the awards they lost to Black Panther and Green Book.
The power of dance is an echoed statement in Suspiria. The 1977 original contained almost none, and while a masterpiece of Italian slasher horror, is decidedly campier than 2018’s Hereditary, possibly the best horror film of this decade. Guadagnino’s film takes cues from the original, but choreographs its own dance of rebirth through mutilation. It can be ridiculous, overlong, and difficult to watch, but Suspiria does what few remakes have done before: It creates a new, and essential image.