Continuing the wave of divisive art-house horror that we have seen as of late with the release of such titles as mother! and Hereditary, Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria arrives ready to face a similar reaction where it’s likely to be both championed and criticised in equal measure.
The 1977 Dario Argento original is considered a classic within the horror genre, but unlike the vibrant, psychedelic feel of that film Guadagnino’s vision is an entirely different beast all together; similar to David Cronenberg’s The Fly or John Carpenter’s The Thing, the director has created a new vision of an already familiar story.
Suspiria opens with a title card informing us we are to witness a story told in six acts and an epilogue set in 1977 Berlin, and after witnessing the fragile state of mind of young American Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz) during the opening moments the forthcoming tale of darkness becomes quickly evident. Not long after Patricia disappears another young American enters to seemingly take her place at the illustrious dance academy she was training at, Ohio export Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson).
Susie’s arrival is somewhat clouded in mystery but it isn’t long before she’s impressing the studio’s head teacher Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton, in one of three roles), and the remaining coven of female-strong staff are quick to follow in her interest of the young, innocent ingenue; Johnson’s quiet, near-nervous demeanour lending itself suitably to her character’s seeming naivety.
Prior to Patricia’s disappearance her ramblings to psychiatrist Dr. Josef Klemperer (also played by Swinton under some serious aged make-up and appropriate prosthetics) were heavy on the belief that Blanc and the Markos Tanz Company staff were witches, and when Susie appears prime for grooming it worries fellow student Sara (Mia Goth), as well as spurring on Klemperer’s interest, leading him to investigate the hidden secrets behind the Academy’s walls.
At a heavy 152 minutes Suspiria is in no way rushing to tell its story, and though the running time may be just one of the many issues unprepared audiences will have, it only enhances Guadagnino’s unique perspective on the story. Only briefly touched upon in Argento’s original, the notion of the dance is given prime focus here, proving just as important as a component in the relationship between Susie and Blanc as well as the witchcraft practiced throughout. Choreographed by renowned Belgo-French freelance artist Damien Jalet, the movements constructed for the film’s centre dance-piece are at once erotic in rhythm but horrific in imagery; one sequence where these two collide sees a disgruntled student’s body flung violently across a studio as Susie dances in a near-by room, unaware that every movement she makes effects the other girl to the point that she’s little more than broken bone and disjointed limbs amongst a pool of her own saliva and urine – it’s a gut-wrenching set-piece that’s brutal to watch yet near-impossible to turn away from.
Further separating itself from the original, Guadagnino’s pallet is distinctly muted with a coldness layered to proceedings that adds to the film’s authentic 1970’s feel; having the film set in 1977, as well as being a neat nod to the original’s year of release, allows the film a turbulent political element that assists in aiding the disappearance of Patricia. There’s also little in terms of obvious CGI when it comes to the film’s effects, and the practicality behind Swinton’s transformation into Klemperer (credited under the pseudonym Lutz Ebersdorf) is an impressive effort in gender dedication.
Speaking of Swinton, unsurprisingly she is stunning in all three of her roles – the chameleon-like actress wholly embracing a trio of personas all radically different than the next. Her brief turn as the school’s matron, Helena Markos, is a work of pure grotesqueness and as Blanc she’s wonderfully stoic but it’s her performance as Klemperer that is the most affecting, utterly disappearing into the persona of an ageing man who carries both the weight of his own demons and his patients. Johnson continues to impress with her precise career decisions outside of the Fifty Shades trilogy that could’ve easily tarnished her, but as much as it is her film it’s Goth who emerges as Suspiria‘s true heart, delivering a quiet, emotive performance that stands as the one we connect with the most.
With a deliberate pace that will bore many, leading through to a wild, bizarre (and gory) finale that will potentially confuse and astound, Suspiria is very much a film designed for a particular audience. It is not an easy watch, and as much as the film’s advertisements have hyped up the horror elements, this is very much a cinematic dreamscape experience, one that shouldn’t be entered lightly by those hoping for cheap thrills and jump scares. This is a beautiful, horrific film that I personally deem as a modern masterpiece, and I dare anyone to not at least acknowledge the film’s impact and scope, regardless of how you personally react to its content.
Susie Bannion, a young American woman, travels to the prestigious Markos Tanz Company in Berlin in 1977, arriving just as one of its members, Patricia, has disappeared under mysterious circumstances. As Susie makes extraordinary progress under the guidance of Madame Blanc, the Company’s revolutionary artistic director, she befriends another dancer, Sara, who shares her suspicions that the Matrons, and the company itself, may be harbouring a dark and menacing secret.
Suspiria (MA15+) is screening in Australian theatres from November 8th 2018.