Writers: David Kajganich (script), Dario Argento, Daria Nicolodi (1977 script)
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton Angela Winkler, Lutz Ebersdorf, Mia Goth, Chloë Grace Moretz
Running time: 152mins
What’s the story: 1977, Berlin. Susie Bannion (Johnson) arrives at the Markos Dance Academy, not knowing it is run by witches.
What’s the verdict: Remake Suspiria at your peril was the consensus opinion. Director David Gordon Green realised that and abandoned his attempt, having more success with 2018’s Halloween remake-sequel. Darren Aronofsky paid homage in Black Swan rather than tackling head-on.
Dario Argento’s 1977 horror masterpiece is too delirious, too of-a-moment, too one-man’s-vision to be effectively replicated decades later. Someone ignoring all that was Call Me By Your Name director Luca Guadagnino and early signs did not bode well.
He stated his film would not replicate the original’s astonishing visual style. At 152-minutes it bolted almost another hour onto the run time. The trailers recalled the self-important lifelessness of Let Me In.
Apt then for a film about witchcraft that Guadagnino’s Suspiria is magically a success. His is an effective remake that does not break the original. Creating an intoxicating atmosphere all its own, it threads in plot points and motifs from Argento’s film.
If Suspiria 1977 is adrenalised panic, Suspiria 2018 is a mysterious malady.
Guadagnino and writer David Kajganich set the film in 1977, but relocate the action from Freiburg to divided Berlin. As conveyed by never-ending news reports, The Baader-Meinhof Gang and the Red Army Faction are creating havoc in the city and on hijacked airplanes.
Against this backdrop of terror, Dr Klemperer (Ebersdorf) is concerned about the growing delusions of patient Patricia (Moretz). A dancer at the Markos Dance Academy, Patricia is convinced the school is governed by witches who have cursed her.
Concurrently, American Susie Bannion (Johnson) arrives to audition at the academy. Under the eye of Miss Tanner (Winkler) and the enigmatic Madame Blanc (Swinton) she impresses enough to win a place. But, others are aware of the atmosphere in the school, including Susie’s friend Sara (Goth), who suspects something is terribly awry.
Argento and co-writer Daria Nicolodi moved the horror centre stage and kept explanations until the climax. Guadagnino executes the opposite.
The coven is outed early on, often in voiceover conversations, while the camera prowls empty rooms. A couple of major shocks aside, Guadagnino saves gory mayhem until far into the run time.
Suspiria 2018’s concerns are obsession, dark family histories, burgeoning sexuality, warring religions and the ritualistic nature of dance and music and magic. It is grandiosely ambitious and revels in its pretentions. While reminding audiences that modern horror can strive for more than another zombie outbreak. The film conveys a genuine sense of dark magic and evil (along with the healing that often had women in history being charged with devilry).
Like the original there is also a subtext of discovering how terrifying and exciting the adult world can be. This telling may not strive for the fever dream logic of its source, but it’s feverishly erotic as death and dance frequently intertwine. Johnson is a long way from the 50 Shades films here and is a revelation as a mercurial Susie rather than the reluctant sleuth of Jessica Harper’s original character.
Guadagnino presents his period with tactile textures in the set and costume design, fusing Rainer Werner Fassbinder with Argento. Berlin is convincingly depicted (an impressive replica of the Wall runs outside the academy), while the interior of the school is an off-kilter haunted house, filled with mirrors but hiding secrets.
The palette may be muted, but the visuals are never dull. Scenes cut to unexpected perspectives, zooms crash onto characters’ faces and low-angles literally bring walls and ceilings down on the students.
Shocks are present, the standout being Susie’s dance recital diabolically contorting another student who has realised the truth about the academy.
Swinton delivers her usual fascinating alien as the ambiguously motivated Madame Blanc. Goth is permitted to do more with her character here than in the dreary A Cure for Wellness. Ebersdorf is excellent as the psychiatrist motivated by past guilt, and his casting is magical itself (we’ll let you discover why).
Only the gore-drenched climax disappoints, tipping the carefully sustained atmosphere of dread and sickness into hysterical camp. But, this film presented in “Six Acts and an Epilogue” uses that epilogue to restore tonal balance and provide a few final surprises.
Better than anyone could have dreamt, you are left wondering what Guadagnino would do if he turned his gaze to Argento’s 1980 Suspiria follow-up, Inferno…