Let’s talk about the 1977 Suspiria, shall we? In the grand scheme of 20th-century horror, it doesn’t really get much finer than Suspiria. Sure, it’s pretty light on substance and heavy on style, much in the vein of other horror films of the time period, especially the more notable ones like Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Despite this similarity and its issues with language dubbing, Dario Argento’s Suspiria has more substance and style than the previous three combined. Still, its strange approach to supernatural horror was difficult for American audiences to engage with at the time, leaving Suspiria in the “underrated” category for decades.
The prospect of a Suspiria remake wasn’t really an “if,” but a “when.” Optioned by Luca Guadagnino for production in 2007, the film was originally to be helmed by David Gordon Green (who has his own excellent horror reboot, Halloween, in theaters now) with Isabelle Fuhrmann and Isabelle Huppert in the lead roles. Financing for the film fell through and Suspiria once again fell into disarray until 2015 when Guadagnino took the directorial chair for himself after successful films such as I Am Love and A Bigger Splash, both starring Tilda Swinton. During this time before release, Guadagnino also found immense success in the director’s chair with Call Me by Your Name, which picked up multiple Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, in 2018. Suspiria is admittedly a strange film for Guadagnino to go to after such success with quietly romantic films with bite, but Suspiria holds a lot of romanticism at its heart, and while its heart gushes copious amounts of blood, Guadagnino shows it off spectacularly.
Unlike the original, Guadagnino approaches the film in an entirely different light. Rather than a brightly-colored, jewel-toned slasher film with supernatural elements, Guadagnino paints the world of Suspiria in a cold, harsh light; one that reflects the dark nature of 1977 West Berlin almost more effectively than the horror at the core of the story. This is not a remake in the traditional sense, as almost nothing at the center of the film remotely resembles the feel of the original.
And here’s the thing, it doesn’t have to. Guadagnino doesn’t seek to make light of Argento’s original but to expound upon it in a new and intriguing way; one that’s as gruesomely shocking as it is quietly haunting.
Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) is an American girl from a Mennonite family who is accepted into the Helena Markos Dance Academy in West Berlin in 1977, during the events of the German Autumn. At the head of the dance company is the singularly hypnotic Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), a tough, but loving, choreographer who takes Susie under her wing. As Susie begins to climb through the ranks of the company, she soon begins to see inside the truth that lies at the center of the company.
Johnson, known primarily for her roles in the Fifty Shades of Grey films, finds great strides as Susie in the film. Expounded upon in a way that creates an entirely different character than that created by Jessica Harper (who makes an appearance in the film) in 1977, Johnson’s Susie feels more silently chaotic and morally challenging than the clean-cut protagonist we’ve come to love. Swinton, pulling off multiple performances in the film, does so with a strange sense of understated elegance that one wouldn’t expect from a take on acting such as this. Of course, her playing multiple roles of different sexes is a stunt, but it never feels like one, if only because Swinton is so excellent in all of her roles. Honestly, had I not known Swinton would be in multiple roles in the film, I would’ve never even guessed that she played anyone but Madame Blanc in the film, and that really would’ve been enough.
Suspiria treads the line between shocking and subtle in strange and subversive ways that often play off of each other to throw the audience off balance. This results in an experience that can only truly be described as “disorienting.” At times, we get the subtle beauty of I Am Love, contrasted sharply by sequences in the vein of Darren Aronofsky’s mother! or Ari Aster’s Hereditary, even if more gruesome. Split into six acts and an epilogue, I found myself with my jaw squarely on the floor during the entirety of the sixth act, with a finale so jarring that I felt physically disparaged by it.
And because of this unorthodox approach, Suspiria will not resonate with many audiences, as its simply too strange and “out there” for many subjective tastes, which I think Guadagnino was aware of getting into a film such as this. In a world of objectively straightforward horror films, let alone horror remakes, the abilities to take risks and make large jumps in directions one might expect is admirable in itself, even if it doesn’t land for as many audience members. Of its risks, only one really didn’t land for me, but it’s such a nitpick and commendable risk to take, I can excuse it as a first viewing expectation.
At 152 minutes, this Suspiria is nearly an hour longer than the original film, but it doesn’t always feel it. Even if its pace is slow, Gudagnino is slowly, yet deliberately, leading audiences into a trap, one that’s inescapable once it grabs its hold on you. This isn’t a film to save all of its shocks for the final act, but it does ramp up the intensity of the scenes with each act that passes, and is one that ebbs and flows into something so viscerally jarring, and yet poetically calculated, that it leaves you unable to move.
And we haven’t even talked about the dancing yet, something that takes a much more central position in the film than previously. Rather than using a ballet school as a setting for a witches’ coven, Guadagnino, screenwriter David Kajganich, and choreographer Damien Jalet use the medium of contemporary dance, like that of Pina Bausch and Mary Wigman, as a conduit for horror in ways not yet seen on screen before. This is Black Swan on bath salts, and is equally as grisly as it sounds. It’s a beautifully unusual combination of esoteric art and objectively impressive physicality and one that the entire cast embodies incredibly well.
Suspiria, in being so noticeably different than the original from the outset, is simultaneously everything, and somehow nothing, you expect from the film. Knowing Guadagnino’s work on other films, you expect the quietly poetic nature of the film’s slower parts and the elegantly crafted direction, but expanding upon the non-singular nature of Guadagnino as a filmmaker, the film breaks off into something far more jolting and horrific than anything you could’ve expected. It turns everything you thought you knew about Argento’s 1977 classic on its head and creates two separate, singular viewings that have to be experienced to be believed. Both frightfully haunting by their own unique means, both are nearly perfect exercises in rattling terror.
Final Score: 5 out of 5.