Some remakes come and go unnoticed while others are met with loud and angry resistance. Suspiria — a remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 horror classic — is, somewhat fittingly, destined to be among the latter. The original’s place in horror history is so secure that nothing will dislodge it, but more importantly, fans and non-fans alike should rest comfortably knowing that Luca Guadagnino‘s (Call Me By Your Name, 2017) adaptation is an entirely new creation that honors Argento’s vision while forging its own gorgeous and nightmarish path with its story about necessary revolutions and the women behind them.
1977 Berlin is a city aflame in bombings and bank robberies in the guise of radical calls for revolution, but newcomer Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) arrives with a far simpler goal. She’s there to audition for the world-famous Markos Dance Academy, and the artistic ferocity of her performance — along with something special the academy’s instructors all sense in her — secures her acceptance. She begins her training under the tutelage of the legendary Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), but something dark is swirling beneath the school’s surface. A former student (Chloe Grace Moretz) has gone missing while another gives an angry outburst before malevolent forces quite literally bend and break her into submission.
The women of Markos, you see, are witches… and something is brewing between them.
Guadagnino and writer David Kajganich (Blood Creek, 2009) take the initial premise of Argento’s original film (co-written by Daria Nicolodi) as the setup here before quickly diverging into their own tale. Brief mention of “The Three Mothers” remains — of Sighs, Darkness, and Tears — but while this new iteration builds towards a Grand Guignol-worthy climax, the story being told is one that’s ultimately very human in its key themes. Rebirth is necessary for growth, and the struggle to achieve it is often painful. The streets of Berlin are experiencing it first-hand as Germany sees its young adults outraged by the nation’s past, and that call for revolution is also echoing in the halls of the dance academy. Old powers and new are colliding, and the fallout is made of equal parts carnage and wonder.
As the mystery of the Markos school unfolds — a mystery more for the film’s characters than for viewers — a parallel story emerges involving a psychoanalyst named Dr. Josef Klemperer (Swinton, but credited as Lutz Ebersdorf) who has grown concerned with one of his patients, Patricia (Moretz). His inquiry leads him to another student, Sara (Mia Goth), and to contact with the school’s witchy headmistresses. He’s a man who’s dedicated his life to helping women identify and overcome traumas, and it’s in part a way to help absolve his own guilt over a decision made decades prior that may have led to his wife’s death. These threads combine in thought-provoking, elaborate ways as the shared sinew between guilt, forgiveness, and rebirth comes into the light.
Suspiria is the kind of film guaranteed to be loved and hated, but only two tangible exceptions exist to its overwhelming and intricate beauty. First is the casting of Swinton in the role of the film’s only real male character (outside of a pair of bumbling cops). It’s thematically important that Klemperer be a female performer beneath the prosthetic makeup — it maintains the film’s feminine angle and adds both weight and context to Klemperer’s later encounter with the witches — but it’s so clearly Swinton as to be a distraction. You constantly wait for a narrative reveal explaining why it’s her, but none is forthcoming. Second, the film’s big, bloody set-piece in the third act suffers some unfortunate post-production work in the form of stuttered, staggered editing. Combined with a red tint (the film’s most garish nod to Argento’s color palette) the sequence is rendered unappealing to the eyes. To be clear, the events unfolding still captivate, but after a film constructed with exquisite care and beauty the ugly nature of this scene feels jarring for the wrong reasons. It’s unclear if it was done to “hide” unsatisfactory visual effects or if it’s a deliberate choice, but it’s a rare visual stumble for the film.
These are minor issues, though, as the film’s overarching power, beauty, and awe affects and informs with every frame. A familiar criticism of Argento’s original is its lack of real narrative — a fair comment as the film is far more interested in a visceral, sensory effect which it achieves beautifully — but no such complaint can be leveled Guadagnino’s way. His film still appeals to the senses with gorgeous cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, an appealingly ethereal score from Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, and a cast of attractive, charismatic, and interesting performers, but the narrative here is every bit as present.
The cast is exceptional with strong work from the usual suspects including Swinton, Johnson, and a fantastic Goth who finally gets to flex beyond her usually smaller roles. The various women heading up the Markos household are a perfectly cast ensemble and all deserving of praise, but Angela Winkler is especially deserving of being singled out. So much is conveyed through her shifting expressions and the look in her eyes, and she becomes the film’s pulse personified.
Art is expression consisting of more than just words, and it’s often a rare outlet for those far from power. The film is a call to arms, of sorts, and to some degree an unexpected rally cry celebrating the worth of women’s voices. The film itself is art, and within its frames our lead character explores her own artistic endeavors through dance. The sequences are aggressive and angry, violent and visually arresting, and as a stand-in for vocalizations it’s made clear that power is found in their execution. As remakes of forty-year-old films go, this is as much a product of the present as it is an acknowledgement of the past.
Suspiria is a story about change. Change by necessity, change by force, and depending on where you’re standing when shit gets very, very real — change for the better.