Suspiria is a bold, epic arthouse reimagining of Dario Argento’s Italian horror staple.
The original Suspiria is a cult classic in a few ways, and not just because of its story about a dance company run by a very cult-like coven of witches. Known for its vibrant visuals and eclectic prog rock score by Goblin, its style is arguably more famous than its overall execution. I have to admit that even after two viewings, it doesn't really do much for me (I'm more of a Deep Red guy), but I appreciate why people love it.
Whether you like Argento’s or not, you owe it to yourself to check out this new and wildly ambitious vision of the film directed by fellow paisan Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name, I Am Love, etc.); an exquisitely-made supernatural horror epic that greatly expands the scope of the narrative to mostly wondrous results. At 152 minutes (nearly an hour longer than Argento's), this is not an easily-digested horror film, and genuinely one of the longest that I can think of. But for those willing to take the plunge, you will be treated to one of the most audacious horror films in ages.
Unlike the original, Suspiria 2018 doesn't shy away from the fact that the Markos Dance Company is more or less a front for a coven of witches, as we're told from scene one that there's something fishy going on there. It actually shares quite a bit of these story elements from the original film, much more than I had anticipated given its clearly different execution. It also adds a hefty post-war Germany B-story that occupies a decent chunk of runtime, and whose value to the overall story is debatable. Upon reading some other reviews, its inclusion makes more sense, but I have to admit that it didn’t register for me while watching it. It was the only thing I left the theater scratching my head over, but not necessarily in a bad way. While I didn’t quite get much out of it on a story level, I certainly enjoyed what I saw.
Part of the reason is thanks to the terrific performances throughout, particularly from Tilda Swinton who plays a number of roles in the film. I wasn't aware of two of her roles until I looked it up afterward, and I urge anyone interested in the film to stay away from any articles that give them away. Part of the charm of her disappearing into roles you may not expect is not knowing what roles she's actually disappearing into. Suffice to say, I was thoroughly hoodwinked by her this time around, and it strengthened my belief that she's one of the best on-screen talents we have today.
Dakota Johnson is no slouch either, using her body to create beauty, chaos, and horror on screen. Guadagnino wisely expands how much actual dancing is in this film about a spooky dance company. I don't remember how much actual ballet was in the original Suspiria, but there's contemporary dancing all over this film, and it's used to chilling and beautiful effect thanks to Johnson's command of the form. Contemporary is a much better fit for this type of film than something as delicate as ballet, and the varied movements add to the unsettling nature of the film. There are a few dance sequences in particular that stand out as some of the most effective and terrifying I've seen all year.
This film is a hot sensory buffet. Never content to settle on one visual technique, at times the film recalls the horror of the 70s and 80s while filming other scenes with a more contemporary look. The camera moves with a dance-like naturalism and precision, sometimes from the perspective of a fellow dancer, sometimes from the watchful eye of the teachers. It always fits whatever the moment calls for, whether things are grounded or heightened. Music is very important to this film as you might imagine, and Radiohead's Thom Yorke brings the goods on his first attempt at a score. Fittingly, I've seen Yorke's music used for several contemporary dances over the years, so while he may be a bit unorthodox for a horror film, he is right at home here. Listen to his main theme:
Having spent my whole life as a Dance Brother™ to my dancer sister, I've become more familiar with dance than I ever thought possible, both the art itself and some of the politics behind the scenes. Suspiria could be read as a supernatural commentary on not just the dance world, but on creative endeavors in general. I could be reading into it too deeply, but this is the kind of film that invites a mental deep dive. It's not a casual viewing experience. This is a film that requires your undivided attention, but it’s also a film that very easily earns it thanks to everything mentioned above.
The first person specially thanked in the credits is Paul Thomas Anderson. I found this interesting and telling, because at times, Suspiria feels cut from the same cloth as PTA, or even Kubrick. I don't make these comparisons lightly, but Suspiria is one of the few modern films I can think of that recalls these two masters so well while also having its own identity. Warts and all, it’s a remarkable horror film that I can’t wait to revisit. Rarely is horror imbued with such artfulness (for lack of a better word), and while it certainly won't work for everyone, it worked wonders for me.