“Suspiria”—both the beloved 1977 Giallo and the undoubtedly divisive one which premiered last week—is an experience. The new film, reimagined from the Dario Argento classic by Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino, unfurls with an unusually sinful kind of decadence and convulsive rigor. As a horror film, it’s visceral, filled with stretched moments of dread that are enamored with lurid soundscapes and imagery spliced with the precision of a surgeon handling a scalpel. It unfolds like a long, drawn-out fever dream that, when it arrives at its insufferable, most beautifully fucked-up ending, you come out of it scarred, mangled, bludgeoned over and over, sure as shit that you’ve watched a film that you’ll carry with you forever.
The idea of remaking a film as revered as Argento’s 1977 original will absolutely slight a sample of its devoted fans, and doing it so with such a skewed approach will surely summon a good number of detractors. That’s all occupational hazard in the business of movie remaking, and it’s one from which Guadagnino defiantly rises. The new “Suspiria” is utterly terrifying, transfixing, and grotesque, crafted with an exacting sense of grace and assertion that far outweigh the original’s hyper-stylistic uber-cathartic horror machinations. And spellbound by its exquisite streak of non-sadism (or repelled by it), it’s quite easy to obscure what the film invites us to reach into, of which there are plenty.
First, there’s the coven. Patricia, a cherub-faced young dancer played by Chloë Grace Moretz, tells her shrink that its witches reside at the Tanz Dance Academy, a mostly innocuous school for femme hoofers. Dr. Josef Klemperer thinks sanity had escaped the young woman, and in turn placidly neglects her fidgety pleas. At the academy, a prodigious Ohioan dancer named Susie Bannion, played by Dakota Johnson, auditions by way of rapid violent twirls that Madame Blanc, the school’s headmistress played by Tilda Swinton, takes an instant shine from. When Patricia goes missing, it becomes clear that there’s more to the academy than solely the art of dance. Later, a fellow dancer named Sara, played by Mia Goth, points out: “Madame Blanc’s incredible—the way she transmits her work.”
From this seemingly straightforward story about witches fronting as a dance troupe sprawls a story fragmented by the steep valleys of denial, specifically to horrors that are known to us or those that we sense are just around the corner. In spirit, it’s a film about confronting personal demons, both literally and figuratively. Guadagnino having the academy stand barely a foot from the Berlin Wall is anything but arbitrary, neither is setting the film during the German Autumn—a grueling six months of social and civic unrest, fueled by a string of terrorist attacks and kidnappings. Somewhere, a link is chained: “It’s all a mess,” sighs Susie, with an air of Faustian defeatism in her voice. “The one in here. The one outside. And the one that’s coming.”
The film effectively mirrors life’s horrors in varying contexts, from the personal to the domestic and to a scale that’s far bigger than us, as individuals, and as collectives. It inquires to our human reaction to instinctually neglect such horrors when their claws don’t extend well enough to scathe us. Dr. Klemperer’s arc, for instance, is all about the guilt he carries for not ever finding his wife (Jessica Harper, who played Johnson’s character in the original film); later, he finds out that she had died, rather gruesomely, at a concentration camp during the Holocaust. This collective neglect that’s echoed throughout the film rings even truer to us, Filipino viewers, having another fraud for a leader who didn’t bat an eye in taking lives for his own personal gain. “Long live Markos,” chants the coven—the film’s scariest part.
Neither Guadagnino nor screenwriter David Kajganich (“A Bigger Splash”) are much too concerned covering the film with a veil of subtlety, and there’s a certain assertiveness to “Suspiria” that can feel as mystic as a hex or as palpable as physical assault. And that, in essence, is what the film becomes: a cinematic right hook that breaks our otherwise beautiful nose—a face-first plunge into absolute madness. Where Argento’s original felt like it’s designed to arrest your senses, Guadagnino’s new film demands you resign yourself completely to it. Yep, that whole “give your soul to the dance” voodoo business.
“Suspiria” isn’t perfect. There are a handful of creative touches here that carry little weight. But these are mostly the most minute of details, you can easily attribute it to being my usual pedantic self. When the credits roll, you’re already tipped on one side, either gobsmacked or revolted by the whole pandemonium. There’s no escape, even after you shuffle outside the darkness of the cinema.
Based on how it looks, sounds, and feels, “Suspiria” is gorgeous. It’s a collaborative masterwork, one in which each contributor pulls through with such inspired output: Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, who scores the film, crafts a bewitching layer to the film, sonically, making beautiful harmony with ‘s splicing, which in itself is a dance and its own music, with every spasmodic cut and instinctive decision to refrain from cutting. Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s lensing is ever-gorgeous, as exquisite as it had been in his past work like Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Uncle Boonmee” and Guadagnino’s “Call Me By Your Name”. The cast, led by Johnson, are tremendous, but Swinton, who in the film plays all of Madame Blanc, Helena Markos, and the “actor” that played Dr. Klemperer, is the film’s true star. The film, which has a (mostly) all-female cast, owes all its glory to Swinton, “Suspiria” is not a film without its true supreme.