'Suspiria' Is an Impossibly Great Horror Story That Will Divide Audiences
Director Luca Guadagnino succeeds at making his own version of a horror film.
You are going to love Suspiria. Everyone else will not. If they can’t experience a movie about dance school witches that’s carried by glimpses of exposition, then they are going to hate it. But you know better. Suspiria knows you know better. You’re in the inner circle now and you can’t leave.
The result is a stylish, deeply unsettling story in the Giallo style, an Italian horror subgrenre that flourished in the ‘60s and ‘70s that’s pulpy (“giallo” is Italian for “yellow”), mysterious and filled with the supernatural. Guadagnino’s film is breathtaking and chilling from start to finish (if a little long), but might also also appear impenetrable to some audiences at first.
Set in 1977 Berlin, long into the city’s East-West division, Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) leaves her sick mother in Ohio to study at a prestigious dance school run by Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). That’s when unexplainable phenomenon begin to occur, ominously introduced by another student (Chloë Grace Moretz) who confides to her therapist that her teachers are all witches.
Rather than retell Argento’s original beat for beat, Guadagnino emphasizes pieces where Argento aimed to be ambiguous. Yes, the teachers are witches, but Argento seemed to want the audience questioning Susie (then played by Jessica Harper, who has a significant appearance here) until the end. Guadagnino effectively says screw it and confirms they’re witches, like, 25 minutes into the story. The real conflict is what Susie means to them, and what shape their endgame takes.
The result is a refreshingly different story, and a different movie, even if it slavishly pays homage to the original with its presentation.
Intensely atmospheric, Guadagnino breaks from his penchant for warm, scenic Italian vineyards for freezing Cold War Germany. Unlike Argento’s film, which was merely set in the time he made it, Guadagnino’s is a period piece that infinitely emphasizes its time and place. While Argento never underscored his movie about dance school witches with contemporary politics, Guadagnino uses hindsight to his advantage, even if the result is just decoration, to ensure the audience is always thinking “Gee, shit’s bad” when they’re not following Johnson or Swinton’s every movement.
But atmosphere is only in service to the scares, which is where Suspiria gets brutally good. Sensory overload and blood — not jump scares — is a staple of Italian Giallo. The first Suspiria memorably has a woman’s pulsing heart penetrated by a knife as its opening scene, and Guadagnino accepts the challenge with his first “kill” — a visually arresting sequence of a dancer crumpled up like a piece of paper.
You won’t forget the crunching of bones and the inhuman groaning. It’s there that Guadagnino’s Suspiria finds its main identity as an homage to the original while simultaneously seeking to be its own beast.
A side note on Swinton: She pulls double duty as the elderly male therapist “Dr. Klemperer.” The resulting media buzz around her performance — the role was originally credited to a “Lutz Eberdorf” — might be because Swinton’s unrecognizable in the prosthetics her role required. It’s something to watch for during maybe your second or third viewing.
Suspiria is the existential horror movie of the moment. Arguably its worst attributes — that it’s too baroque and too long and too self-indulgent — are part of what make it work. The work of film composer and Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, while delightfully eerie, just doesn’t compare to Goblin’s immortal ghostly synths.
The climax to Suspiria is presented like a pretentious music video (I mean this as a compliment), and the 2018 movie’s radically different and far more compelling ending than we see in the original gives Guadagnino serious credit as a storyteller.
Even while Suspiria conjured in me unexpected comparisons to Ryuhei Kitamura’s The Midnight Meat Train or Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Spacy Odyssey, the film ends its story on a smart, logical note that immediately follows the bewildering “final dance.”
Perhaps its reception will mirror Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, in that it’s a brilliant and weird film with a lot of buzz, but won’t please everyone. Suspiria is made for some people. If you’re that some people, you’re in. Welcome to the coven.
Below is the Suspiria trailer: