“How the hell do you remake Suspiria?!” A valid question all fans of scary movies have wondered since David Gordon Green announced he would repurpose Dario Argento’s legendary Technicolor-soaked supernatural giallo about the sinister events taking place inside an esteemed ballet academy into an all-new experience last decade – an announcement made all the stranger as the project was following his 2008 hit Pineapple Express, though one can argue how a transition from stoner comedy to surrealist horror seems appropriate for him. But as life and the pursuit of creativity goes, Mr. Green left the project to tackle Halloween and Suspiria ended up in the hands of Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino. Alongside writing collaborator David Kajganich, Mr. Guadagnino truly had his work cut out for him on this one, and for this project to be the immediate follow up to his lauded masterwork Call Me by Your Name is a move of either genuine brilliance or unparalleled insanity since this film, a passion project for the director since first experiencing the original in his youth, manages to be one of very few remakes that stands equally alongside the crowning achievement that is its original equivalent. It’s that great.
Mr. Guadagnino makes it clear as fine crystal from the get-go his Suspiria won’t follow any specific direction laid out in his countryman’s blueprints whenever and however he can, quickly announcing a story told in “Six Acts and an Epilogue Set in Divided Berlin”. Not just a Berlin divided by the terror of the German Autumn, but a Germany divided long before by political dissent and the threats of evils too cruel to subdue that already burst the seams, which is the perfect place for such dark magic to unfold. While the outside world is caught up in the threat and anger of the Red Army Faction’s refusal to let the country’s blood-stained past be scrubbed away, all of which is captured in cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s Fassbinder-evocative imagery of muted and moody color palates and genre appropriate zooms, Markos Tanzacaddemie student and radical Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz, in an extended, but quite unforgettable cameo) arrives in hysterics at analyst Josef Klemperer’s home, warning about the witches’ coven in charge of the academy that struggles to maintain their matriarchal hierarchy and a plot to keep their mysterious founder Helena Markos alive before completely vanishing into the storm outside. Dr. Klemperer is a man who’s seen evil and lives with its consequences – the original’s Jessica Harper makes a brief appearance in one of this film’s late sequences that toes the line between heartwarming and heart-wrenching as an integral face that reflects what Klemperer still has to pay – but the idea of witches is too much, especially after something as barbaric as Nazism, and the deepening shadows outside won’t stop him from seeing his patient’s words as delusions begging to tell a real truth; in Patricia’s case, her truth circles around the matrons’ powers and devotion to “the Three Mothers” of darkness, tears and sighs.
* Also by this point, we all know “Lutz Ebersdorf”, the supposed 82 year old actor playing Dr. Klemperer, is really super-actress Tilda Swinton in very convincing old age makeup designed by Mark Coulier, reuniting with Ms. Swinton after his Oscar winning work on The Grand Budapest Hotel, but let’s have some fun and pretend for a moment Mr. Ebersdorf is indeed an actual 82 year old German psychoanalyst who became an actor in his golden years and gives a genuinely touching portrayal of well-intended men powerless to avoid the suffering they unintentionally enable in the face of powers too great to comprehend.
But as one dancer disappears and one man struggles to understand why, another woman is ready to rise as Mennonite farm girl Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) steps foot into the looming building directly facing the Berlin Wall, ready to hone unparalleled talent under the tutelage of the Bausch-esque company director Madame Blanc (Ms. Swinton’s primary role), even at the cost of leaving her dying mother (Malgosia Bela) behind in Ohio to pursue her calling. This is an audacious approach to this character, a meager woman of strict religious upbringing coming to understand and embracing the strength of herself and her sex as its emboldened by witches and what must be sacrificed to achieve these goals, especially when taking the waif-like damsel of the original’s Suzy, and it’s both a physically demanding and emotionally layered performance Ms. Johnson fearlessly jumps into without a thought of looking back. Between this and her work in Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale a few weeks prior, she’s finally telling those who judge her solely for her Fifty Shades of Grey work – and even her performance in the first film had support behind it – that time is past and characters like Susie are what you’ll get from her from now on.
The matrons themselves, played by an eclectic range of Europe’s most iconic actresses of the 70s era – including Angela Winkler as the treacherous Miss Tanner, Ingrid Caven as the vampy Miss Vendegast and Renée Soutendijk as observant Miss Huller — and a bevy of talent from fashion model Alek Wek to Call Me by Your Name’s Vanda Capriolo, are each distinct figures who wear pride over their abilities and their faith; where other films would suffer from losing distinctiveness in its ensemble, Mr. Guadagnino and Mr. Kajganich are wise to develop the whole group. And what can be said about Ms. Swinton as Madame Blanc that most haven’t already said where her abilities as an actress are concerned? She can command a room just by the way she glides across the room or how her body is just as crucial to convey her feelings over the direction the coven is heading in. They’re the right level of funny when called for, they’re all frightening and intimidating and they’re all beautifully dressed by costumer Giulia Piersanti, perfectly capturing the spirit of the era and of each character.
Inside the academy, Susie quickly becomes friends with dancer Sara (Mia Goth), a kindly girl concerned about Patricia’s disappearance, more so when her path crosses with Dr. Klemperer. Ms. Goth, familiar to genre fans because of her roles in unsettling thrillers like Gore Verbinski’s A Cure for Wellness, is tasked with her own demanding part, that of the audience’s avatar into the world of the supernatural. It’s not an easy role, but she up to whatever tasks her director sets ahead and gives Sara real charm and vulnerability, provoking genuine fear for her descent into the witches’ labyrinths deep inside the school.
Her arrival also provokes the hysteria of Olga (dancer turned actress Elena Fokina), whose anger and fears over Patricia and the matrons results in a tearful announcement of leaving the company – and calling the matrons “witches.” For those who’ve followed the news about the film on this site on online, Olga is quickly dispatched as Susie first dances the company’s signature piece Volk – and quite frankly, the articles describing that sequence’s debut at CinemaCon last spring don’t even begin to capture the absolute horror of actually watching the supernatural transgressions committed against Ms. Fokina’s body as the adjacent dance physical violates her or the horrific sound work used to annunciate each bone twisting or snapping or the bodily fluids spilled in the process. That blood isn’t one of them isn’t a blessing here. Suspiria has quite the pokerface when its violence is concerned, reserving it for those moments when their impact will truly be felt, and this sequence is a testament to such ideals.
Speaking of the dance, the numerous sequences, choreographed by famed Belgo-French choreographer Damien Jalet, are a beautifully delirious form of spell-casting all their own. While the original ultimately used dance as a background, this Suspiria fully embraces their power. A key set piece – the featured performance of the Volk – is a glorious fusion of acting from its three leads, Mr. Guadagnino’s direction, Mr. Jalet’s choreography, Ms. Piersanti’s gorgeous bondage rope costumes that flick through the air like indiscriminate bloodstreams, editor Walter Fasano’s sleek precision in frenetic editing and, last but certainly not least, Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke’s hauntingly dissonant sound intrigued parties have familiarized themselves with since the first teaser’s release earlier this summer. Much like bandmate Jonny Greenwood and similar to how Sufjan Stevens helped expand Call Me by Your Name’s emotional resonance with his awards nominated songs, Mr. Yorke’s dark and sinister foray into the world of film composing earns its position as one of the best scores of the current decade with the kind of sound that only nightmares could generate.
And there’s also the film’s feminist spirit. This is a story populated almost entirely by women; and outside of Dr. Klemperer, the most prominent male figures are two detectives, one of whom actually ties in to the good doctor’s past, sent to the academy to investigate and ultimately subject to the matron’s humiliating whims, culminating in another of the film’s many unforgettable images. But the real meat comes not only from witchy women holding a special sway in a patriarchal society but from the relationship between Susie and Madame Blanc, wonderfully realized by Ms. Johnson and Ms. Swinton. Over the course of any of their innumerable scenes together, it’s easy to feel the power axis shift, fluctuating – perhaps even evolving – from tutor and student to mother and daughter to lovers bound not by sex but just being to just women entwined together by a hand fate isn’t ready to play just yet. Such developments feel rare for a horror movie, but they’re openly welcomed.
Once its reached the climactic sixth act, appropriately titled “Suspiriorum”, Suspiria transcends what came before into an orgasmic triumph of bravado filmmaking and the genius of certain insanity that only horror can convey, where truths are unveiled that subsequent viewings may offer fresh perspectives and the discussions of the Three Mothers is paid off with… well, you’ll have to find out for yourself. It’s also where the strongest argument for the film being this year’s frontrunner for every Makeup award is showcased – even more than the makeup for “Mr. Ebersdorf” – in the long-awaited appearance of Mother Markos (and guess who plays her?), a ghastly sight of perverted feminism that is not easily described, much less shaken after having been witnessed, and the most beautiful idea of Death since Guillermo Del Toro reunited the world with Hellboy back in 2008. There’s definitely going to be some heavy backlash against this film for any number of reasons, most notably from those turned off by scary movies that delve more into ideas than tawdry thrills or argue Suspiria never needed to be remade – but to be fair, many movies don’t need to be remade yet are and Mr. Guadagnino’s is a sterling example of the best way to do it – and those intimidated by the film’s 152 minute runtime. And if you ask this humble cinephile his opinion, it’s about damn time we got a horror movie with a length to match the epic scope of its ideas, much like William Friedkin and Stanley Kubrick each did with The Exorcist and The Shining – and let’s not forget how divisive The Shining was back in its original release.
Earlier, it was mentioned that Suspiria’s original director David Gordon Green left this project due to difficulties that arose and went on to do Halloween, currently dominating the box office in time for the original John Carpenter film’s 40th anniversary. This Halloween season, there’s something comforting about two legendary properties with such vastly differing viewpoints on fear playing to sold-out crowds nationwide. Halloween is a souped up haunted house that reconnects with pleasant memories whereas Suspiria is an unforgiving journey into the soul’s darkest recesses and making sense of past, present and future, not just where the horrors of the big screen are concerned, but the horrors that life’s experiences have brung. The complete experience is tantamount to the idea of each Mother: the sighs you let out from tension and awe are numerous, the darkness it bathes you in is relentless and the tears its profoundly tragic ending leaves you with is unprecedented.
* Suspiria, courtesy of Amazon Studios, is currently playing in New York and Los Angeles before expanding nationwide on November 2nd. However, check your local listings for special advance screenings on Halloween night.