In 1978, Italian film director Dario Argento released a movie that would not only become one of the most influential horror films ever made but an artistic triumph of brutal, violent beauty. The name of that film was Suspiria. The film’s influence can be felt not only in horror classics like Wes Craven’s A Nightmare On Elm Street and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, but also in modern classics like Baby Driver and even American Horror Story: Hotel.
Forty years later, Suspiria remains one of the goriest and most shocking slashers ever made and one of the most beautifully shot movies ever filmed. To celebrate its’ anniversary, a 4K restoration was released on Blu-Ray to restore the film to its’ original beautifully gory glory. To coincide with this, Amazon Studios financed a long-in-development remake, which was released to select cinemas.
Directed by Call Me By Your Name director Luca Guadagnino, Suspiria finds American Mennonite girl and aspiring dancer Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) traveling to Berlin in 1977, during the violent backdrop of the German Autumn, where Lufthansa Flight 181 was kidnapped and its’ passengers and crew held hostage by The Popular Front of the Liberation of Palestine.
Armed with some money and a dream, Susie heads to the highly regarded Markos Dance Academy of Berlin – a dance studio she secretly worshiped as child behind her strict family’s back – in the hope she can dance with them. Although she has no formal dance training of any kind, she wows the staff with her audition, especially head choreographer Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). She quickly rises as a stand-out star of the academy, but there are strange goings-on at the academy that threaten her success.
Meanwhile, German psychologist Dr. Josef Klemperer (also played by Tilda Swinton), is not only wrestling with his own personal demons, but the demons that, at first, he thinks are just in the minds of the dance academy girls who see him. As increasingly inexplicable events occur, Dr. Klemperer takes notice and feels that there may be more to the dance academy than what the world thinks. Coming to believe in the possibility that evil witches like those in fairy tales might exist, Dr. Klemperer embarks on a mission to uncover the truth.
To reveal any more of the plot would be a great injustice to you, dear readers. So I shall say no more.
There is honestly no way to compare this remake to the original film, because they are both presented on separate but equal levels that hit the viewer with the same forceful impact. While the Argento film gave us bright colors and dream worlds, this new version sports a look and feel that makes the movie seem like a long-lost 1970’s art-house horror film. Guadagnino not only manages to replicate the color palate and the fashion and art styles of the 70’s, but the way the films of the time were made as well. Combine this with some incredible make up effects (particularly Swinton’s make-up in her multiple roles) and a creepy musical score by Radiohead‘s Thom Yorke and the results are a breathtaking feast for your eyes and ears.
The story of this remake is also different and screenwriter David Kajganich manages to take one piece of art and use it as the base to create an equally effective piece of art. Those worried about Suspiria being a gore-fest (or those praying for one) must know that this film is not that gory. The film relies more on uncomfortable dread to scare than blood and visceral horror. That said, blood is most definitely shed when needed.
What really stands out the most in the story, however, are the non-horror moments; the bonding between Susie and Blanc, the dance pieces (brilliantly choreographed by Damien Jalet) and the human moments with Dr. Klemperer. These scenes effectively lure you into concentrating and absorbing the plot only to surprise you with the horror, like Leatherface hitting you on the head with a mallet. Coupled with Guadagnino’s direction, this results in one fine film.
Another outstanding element of Suspiria is the acting. Both Tilda Swinton and Dakota Johnson deliver powerhouse performances and I will not be shocked if Swinton gets an Oscar nomination. The rest of the cast round out this film well, presenting a festival of impressive acting from its female ensemble. Even the smallest roles make an impact here, proving the adage that there are no small parts. Everyone here, even the actors without dialogue, have a need and place to be, in order to complete the story.
The glue that holds this film together are the deeply-layered themes that begin to resonate once the film is over and you get over the shock of what you just watched. Guilt, the female voice in a man’s world, destiny, youth vs wisdom, paganism vs religious fundamentalism and more are all explored here. You just don’t realize it until after the film is over and you process what was it you just experienced. To say this will be a polarizing film is an understatement, but I encourage you to see it. In fact, I command it!