Film Review – Suspiria (2018)
Dario Argento’s Suspiria is a rite of passage for aspiring horror buffs. Beloved for its oddities, 1977’s Suspiria is a wild ride that is still considered a classic today, which makes the idea of a remake that much more curious. But Luca Guadagnino wasn’t satisfied with a simple retelling of this story, and that made for a cinematic experience that is truly its own.
The following review will be spoiler free.
Directed By: Luca Guadagnino
Written By: David Kajganich (based on ‘Suspiria’ written by Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi
Starring: Lutz Ebersdorf, Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth, Angela Winkler, Ingrid Caven, Elena Fokina, Sylvie Testud, Renée Soutendijk, Christine LeBoutte, Malgosia Bela, Fabrizia Sacchi with Chloë Grace Moretz and Jessica Harper as Anke Meier
1977, West Berlin. A generation of young Germans feel increasingly alienated from their current government, leading to mass protests and dangerous left-wing factions. The most notorious one, The Baader Meinhoff, commits acts of kidnapping and bombings in order to defeat the phantom Proletariats within the government.
Psychotherapist Dr. Josef Klemperer attributes the disappearance of one his patients, Patricia Hingle (Chloë Grace Moretz) to a secret murderous left-wing faction which is hiding inside a dance academy she was a student of. In their sessions together, Patricia frequently mused about a secret coven of witches ruling this dance academy, possessing the minds and bodies of their students. Klemperer believes that these “coven of witches” were part of Patricia’s delusion in order to come to terms with the evil she witnessed inside.
Meanwhile a young American dancer from Ohio, Susie (Dakota Johnson), becomes the most promising dancer of the academy after most impressive audition. This brings her to the attention to lead-choreographer Madam Blanc (Tilda Swinton) who quickly takes a shine to her.
As time goes by, Klemperer becomes continually suspicious about the nefarious dealings within the Dance Academy. It seems that anyone who tries to defy the dark forces within are gruesomely dispatched. Susie is continually becoming more spellbound, wanting desperately to impress Madam Blanc.
But her continuing acceptance of the inner management of the academy might come at a soul-crushing price…
What This Remake has in Common with the Original
Anyone who has seen the 1977 Dario Argento classic, Suspiria, can read from its synopsis alone that this is not going to be a straight shot-for-shot remake. The initial premise of a ‘dance academy in Germany run by a coven of witches’ is there, alongside a similar mythological background, but everything else, from its visual aesthetic, musical soundtrack and narrative structure is completely different.
Fans of the original film or from Argento’s Three Mothers trilogy might still find lots to enjoy here. The film is surprisingly faithful to the mythology of three terrifying witches that pervade Argento’s trilogy. There’s also a touching appearance from original star, Jessica Harper.
But the film is its own creature. In this day and age when we receive reboot after belated sequel from classic films — some of them admittedly excellent — you might expect this film to be a symptom of our nostalgia heavy-zeitgeist.
Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria is only a surface-level remake, a film similar in spirit but in a completely different presentation. It’s not a modern update, it’s a complete revision.
The original film was bathed in bright technicolor while this film, while not deprived of color in certain poignant sequences, has a muted color palette. The infamous soundtrack of Prog-rock band Goblin is replaced by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, a daring and inspired replacement. Both films have their own unique style and sound.
But the most noted difference is the narrative. The original was a simple, descent-into-occult madness. A dancer discovers a coven of witches is controlling the dance academy. Anybody who discovers this secret are killed by a fiend with a sharp blade. It’s as simple as that. It was a slasher film with a supernatural twist.
The dark magic is more at the forefront here. There are sharp objects penetrating human flesh but most of the bodily harm is induced via Wiccan incantations. Both the original and the ‘remake’ are equally gory but the 2018 remake focuses heavily on a creepy atmosphere. The remake is drenched with paranoia, similar to a Roman Polanski thriller.
In short the 1977 film and its 2018 ‘remake’ are two very different films. Yet both films deserve the acclaim bestowed upon them, as the 2018 version is an absolute masterpiece.
Genuinely Creepy and Disturbing
2018’s Suspiria is more than just a horror film. Guadagnino obviously had more in mind than just making a solid scary thrill-ride. The film, clocking at around 152 minutes, also takes its time, establishing the mood and the characters. But when the scares do happen, they come with a vengeance. They assault the senses and refuse to go easy.
As an established horror-veteran, I don’t scare easily. But even I had to catch my breath at times. What’s great about Suspiria as a horror film is Guadagnino uses all the different styles of the genre. Sometimes the scares are just about mood and anticipation. Other times it’s about gore and bodily dismemberment. Other times it’s a cringe-inducing torture scene via invisible black magic. The film even boasts arguably this year’s greatest jump scares.
Besides the visuals, a lot of the scares come from the psychological torture the victims endure at the hands of these witches. These matriarchal fiends seem to invade the mind of their host, toying with their deepest fears in order to make them as vulnerable as possible. They seem to feast on their victims’ fears, possibly using it to appease some dark lord or to increase their power of the dark arts. The sadistic torture their victims endure, the images of their broken body and spirit are some of the most disturbing you will ever see in the genre.
A Beautifully Moving Picture as Well…
But as I said before: it’s not just a horror film. Even though the viewer will be bombarded with some of the most shocking imagery he or she will see this year, it’s also a powerful film. It’s equally interested in the dramatic pathos of the characters as it is in trapping them in the most frightening of circumstances.
As Susie’s mind is being exploited during her nightly dreams at the academy, we receive glimpses of the emotional and physical abuse she endured at the hands of her pious parents. We also become acquainted with Dr. Klemperer’s mourning for his missing wife, who travels a long way, even traveling to East Berlin, to sit beside his wife’s former garden house, hoping she will magically return to him. We see him sitting there, in the cold snow, eating a sandwich, just hopelessly waiting for his wife.
These plot threads are all concluded in emotionally resonant ways. Without spoiling anything, the story about Klemperer’s missing wife leads to the film’s most heartbreaking and moving scenes. This is especially aided by Lutz Ebersdorf’s beautiful performance.
As many readers probably know by now, especially fans of Tilda Swinton, when I’m talking about ‘Lutz Ebersdorf’s beautiful performance,’ I’m actually talking about Tilda Swinton since she plays the eighty-year old psychotherapist draped in some seriously impressive prosthetics. This rumor went on for a long time but was recently confirmed by Swinton herself. In case you’re wondering, yes, she also wore a prosthetic penis throughout filming.
Swinton actually plays three roles. She plays the grieving senior psychotherapist, Madame Blanc and Madam Markos, who we see only glimpses of during the film.
While the performances are great across the board, from Dakota Johnson — who suddenly attains thespian credibility even though she starred in three of the dumbest movies these past few years — to Mia Goth as the inquisitive dancer Sara, Tilda is the real star of this film.
Even by knowing it’s her behind those prosthetics, she completely embodies the performance in her mannerisms and also her ingeniously detailed German dialect. While Madam Blanc at first seems like a typical cold wench, something Swinton can play in her sleep, she still manages to imbue the character with a subtle empathetic note. It’s undoubtedly one of the greatest performances of her already illustrious career.
A Jaw-Dropping, Insane Finale
I was initially fearful that the ending would veer into more conventional horror territory. It felt like it was going to lead up to a downbeat finale, something that’s quite popular in the genre. While I won’t spoil what exactly happens, I will say that the ending is beyond anything I could dream up in my wildest dreams. I would love to describe it with a barrage of expletives, but let’s just say, it’s the craziest thing I’ve seen all year — equaling Nicolas Cage’s unleashed insanity in Mandy.
While I absolutely adore the original Suspiria, I always felt the ending was a little underwhelming. This is its exact antithesis. It’s disturbing, gruesome and heartfelt all at once. It’s just pure, unadulterated insanity that ends with a perfect and surprisingly tranquil cathartic note — and it even has one hilarious dark moment of humor.
It’s probably the moment that divided many critics. To me, it was the moment that cemented it as an instant classic.
Rich in Depth
2018’s Suspiria is much more historically and socially aware than its simple predecessor. It’s a film that deserves scholarly exploration, something I cannot do here — though the Internet is already filled with interpretations regarding the film’s themes. Let’s just say that besides the thrills and emotional treats, 2018’s Suspiria is also an intellectually engaging film.
It’s a film that delves into the existential struggles within Germany at the time. The growing awareness of its nations crimes against humanity had a profound effect on the hearts and minds of the young. This partly led to the appeal of the terrorist organizations such as The Red Faction. Meanwhile, the older generation, especially the Jewish population, still have vivid memories of living and narrowly surviving a tyrannical government. Some, like the character of Dr. Jozef Klemperer, are continually haunted by it.
The film is also an actual feminist film. It actually deserves the moniker rather than many recent Hollywood blockbusters who are merely paying lip-service to it. It muses about the fear of female sexuality, especially in religious circles. It’s about female empowerment but also about the importance of not descending into the tyranny of the patriarchy, something that happened to many of the disenfranchised when they suddenly acquired power.
It’s a film that opens the door for long and intricate discussions about human nature and confronting our painful past. It isn’t afraid to venture into the darkest of places but at the same time, it refuses to uphold a defeatist stance. We must transcend the past and move into a brighter future.
My Only Tiny Gripe
My only grip is that some of the gory effects were mostly created through CGI, which honestly, would have looked more convincing if they were practical. To be honest, I didn’t care that much because I was too enthralled with what was going on. But the graphic spectacle would have looked so much better if it went the old-school route — as Dario Argento has shown time and time again.
2018 has proven to be one helluva year for horror films. After Hereditary, Mandy and Halloween, Suspiria has risen among the ranks as the next big thing in the genre. This is an exceptional achievement for Suspiria, especially since it’s a remake of a beloved classic that could have easily been dismissed in comparison. But through it all, Luca Guadagnino‘s Suspiria manages to become its own unforgettable entity. As horror remakes go, this belongs in the same category next to 1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1982’s The Thing and 1986’s The Fly.
The polarizing reception notwithstanding, this is an intellectually challenging, jaw-dropping and gruesome cinematic treat. If you love horror, drama or cinema, you owe it to yourself to see it.
It’s not only one of the best horror films of the year, it’s one of the best films of the year.
Thank you for reading! What are your thoughts on Suspiria? Comment down below!
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