Luca Guadagnino reforms an old horror classic into a new one with the radical, haunting Suspiria
If there’s any grand narrative about the film industry right now, it’s that the horror genre is in the midst of a rebirth. Chalk it up to the cyclical nature of what captures both audiences and filmmakers or to the general sense of anxiety permeating our dark political times, horror has made a dynamic “comeback” (was it ever really gone?) both financially and critically. From Halloween storming the box office to Hereditary dominating critical conversation in the early part of the year, it’s hard to deny the leading role horror has played in the recent cinematic landscape. It begs the question: why is horror suddenly considered relevant again? It’s largely because many consider it to be getting smarter, striving to flesh out our modern anxieties in ways few other genres can even dream of.
Suspiria, Luca Guadagnino’s (Call Me By Your Name) reimagining of Dario Argento’s 1977 horror classic of the same name, is a grandiose vision of that mission. It’s visceral, grimy, and has enough buckets of blood to please any splatter film aficionado, but this is all a consequence of its actions, not its drive. What the film really finds horrifying is the past, the ghost of memory that stretches through time, leaving pain in its wake without consideration of its victims. It’s a sprawling, mesmerizing horror epic designed not to scare you but to unravel you, conjuring up the demons of history to twist you into a grotesque pretzel and toss you aside to the dogs.
Picking up some of the bones of the original but mostly standing as an original story, David Kajganich’s script opens with Mennonite outcast Susie Brennan (Dakota Johnson, Bad Times at the El Royale) arriving in Berlin to join the revered and secretive Markos Dance Company, a ballet troupe spearheaded by the severe Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton, We Need to Talk About Kevin). The tension in the air is already thick: the German Autumn rages outside the school as members of the far-left Red Army Faction protest and riot amidst the group’s slew of assassinations and hostage-taking. Meanwhile the dancers are reeling from the sudden departure of Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz, The Miseducation of Cameron Post), the company’s former star pupil who we see tortured by paranoia as she writhes around the office of the meek Dr. Josef Klemperer (“Lutz Ebersdorf”, in reality also Swinton under pounds of makeup) accusing the matrons of the school of being “inside her.” We quickly learn it’s not a baseless accusation, as behind-the-scenes we see the true nature of the company: it’s a front for a coven of witches, engulfed in their own inner power struggle over the future of the group as leader Helena Markos (Swinton yet again) is on the brink of death.
Susie, mysterious, eager, and supremely talented, quickly captures Blanc’s attention, who is under pressure from her fellow conjurers to find a girl fitting enough to serve as a sacrifice to replenish the life of Markos. Rapidly, the film descends into nightmare territory when we first witness the breadth of Susie’s natural talent. As she dances the lead role in Volk, Blanc’s career-defining dance, we see her every move is violently contorting the body of a girl in the midst of attempting to escape the company. The scene cuts wildly back and forth between Susie’s erratic performance and the disturbing dismantling of this poor victim, and we’re quickly keyed into the twisted soul of the film: every movement these characters make, as well the film itself, has purpose, power, and violence bubbling underneath.
Like the dances themselves, this is nightmarish fairy tale that’s equal parts chaotic and hypnotic, blending together subplots and brash moments of horror to form one cohesive work of mad genius. It’s a film just as interested in what’s on screen as it is in what’s lurking just outside of the frame, the demons cursed upon it by memory and history. Dark magic isn’t the only shadow hanging over the film; this is a tale with characters who lived through the Holocaust, still struggling to come to the terms with trauma and survivor’s guilt whilst attempting to navigate the dread of a rapidly changing world. Generational is the perhaps the best word to describes its ethos: like Hereditary, it’s fascinated with the concept that the skeletons in our closet are passed down to those who come after us like a deadly genetic trait. These witches use the younger girls like playthings, dismissing their aspirations and dreams as foolish, yet they intrinsically need them for their coven to live on. They need the dancers to carry on the burden of their demons, and they make little attempt to hide their desperation (it’s telling that Volk, the name of the dance they repeatedly have the company perform, is the term used by Hitler and his ilk to perpetuate ideas of German purity). The sociopolitical interests of the film are no accident: just like the RAF struggles to survive through conflict outside, the matrons engages in their own system of violent appropriation.
Visually the film is a stark contrast from the original, trading in the pulpy swaths of color that defined Argento’s work for muted shades of grey. Yet, the film is intoxicating in its darkness, capturing the moody aura of the Cold War era as if it was period stuck out of time. Guadagnino and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (Call Me By Your Name) layer this film with drab but mesmerizing atmosphere, knowing any indulgent moments of camera work will shatter the illusion the film is casting over you. Those curious as to why Guadagnino would follow the up the tender, aching Call Me By Your Name with a deeply disturbing horror film will find the answer in his camera work. As a director, his main interest is in capturing the unspeakable in full, unafraid detail. Just as the camera lingering on the passionate tension between that film’s star-crossed protagonists was an act of cultivating all the possibilities of their potential actions in our heads, the work here is patient in the name of forcing us to imagine how things can grow worse. The work is aided even further by a haunting score from Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, who scores the film as if we’re slipping in and out of the worst nightmare of our lives. The music assures that the audience is incapable of looking away.
The film’s power comes not only from Guadagnino’s work behind the camera, but also the intensity of the performances of his cast. This is a film with a powerful feminine energy, a willingness to let Johnson, Swinton, and the rest of the film’s ensemble be unabashedly raw. Johnson, giving a physically commanding performance, dances and glares into our souls as if possessed. Swinton’s Blanc glides through each scene like a predator with a guilty conscious, maternal and empathetic but always out for blood. Even Klemperer, played by Swinton despite whatever Amazon wants you to believe, is rooted in the vines of the feminine mystique. His story forms the emotional backbone of the script’s interrogation of the demons of our past, and it’s all brought to life by a woman instead of man. It’s clear the film is invested in the power of the female as opposed to the brash clumsiness of masculinity. It bursts with empowering eroticism, drawing a direct line between body ownership and the thrill of witchcraft. At one point, the virginal Susie even tells Blanc her dance of Volk “felt like it must feel like to fuck.”
Suspiria is certainly not a film for everyone, the sort of insane poetry that is just likely to incense someone as it is to ensnare them. It’s perhaps sometimes too madcap for its own good, sometimes veering dangerously into the realm of pretension. However, it demands to be experienced because like perhaps no other horror film before it, it recognizes the genre is in denial of its own foundational experiences. Even in this newfound era, most of the genre’s works are disengaged from the brutality of history. Suspiria knows that such choices lead to fleeting impressions. It enters into a twisted waltz with the ghosts of history and no one, especially the audience, is able to emerge unscathed.