The way one discovers a film is important. Some films can transfer from simple moving pictures into some kind of transportive experience, where you will remember everything that contributed to the event and its effectiveness. Dario Argento’s horror masterwork Suspiria is one of those films. For me it was a 35mm print that was slightly distressed inside a theater with sticky floors and stale popcorn. It was an experience that I would never forget.
In today’s film world no film is sacred enough to be kept from being remade or reimagined, even a film as well-regarded in the horror community like Argento’s Suspiria. Also, when you mention a film during first encounters with cinephiles as holding a place on your cinematic handshake, as I do, it’s impossible not to have speculations or expectations attached. Director Luca Guadagnino, who last helmed the impressive drama Call Me by Your Name, takes on the daunting task of remaking Argento’s film and transforms it into a wholly individual artistic expression that is equally beautiful as it is completely brutal.
Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) is an aspiring dancer from America who arrives unexpectedly and uninvited to the Helena Markos Dance Company in West Berlin. Provided the opportunity to showcase her talent, Susie dazzles Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) and is summoned to attend the prestigious school. Amidst the all female dance troupe, Susie begins to experience strange occurrences, ones that overtake her when she performs.
Mr. Guadagnino is known for meticulously crafting the elements in his films; from the boisterous emotional content, to the beautifully designed environments, and the luscious locales that richly compose the backdrops, the director understands how to arrange captivating frames and characters you can’t help but get attached to. All of these facets are present in “Suspiria” as well, the film is gorgeously composed on all technical levels. The photography zooms and whips across and through the dance school’s staircases and studios while lingering in disheveled streets and vacant lots in Germany. The construction of the dance facility is a maze of hallways and mirrors swathed with gothic fascinations, an oddly ornamented room or the darkened corners of a hidden dungeon are equally unsettling. The score from composer Thom Yorke is mesmerizing, a mix of ambiance and vocal work that blends nicely into the chaos of it all.
Tilda Swinton, who has worked with the director quite a few times, is fantastic in multiple roles here. Ms. Swinton’s versatility is exceptional, the actress can do anything, even taking on the primary male performance in prosthetic makeup. Dakota Johnson is also good, playing naïve with a wild-eyed charm, but also completely determined to the extent of seeming obsessive. It works for the progression of the character who discovers new things about herself, awoken amidst the witchcraft of the dance she is performing.
The aspect of history is the only, minor, misstep in the film. The script, written by David Kajganich, composes a backdrop in Germany that features 1970’s political upheaval featuring riots, violence, kidnappings and mentions of the Baader-Meinhof group and also the Holocaust. There’s a lot going on beyond the story of evil deeds in a dance school. Whether commentary to discuss the role and abuse of women during times of political dissonance, or how fear induces emotional change over the course of continued trauma, or simply a backdrop to keep 1972 Berlin relevant amidst the chaos of devilish dances and evil enchantments, the writer and director are clearly alluding to some kind of connection.
Still, Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria is absolutely entrancing and hypnotizing. The design elements are stunning and the performances are impressive. The film remarkably transitions between arthouse compositions and grindhouse exploitations; the ballet of blood and brutality is off the charts at times. This re-envisioned take on Argento’s classic stands confidently on its own designs.
Film Score: 4.5/5