Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria is every bit as twisted, stylish, and violent as its 1977 counterpart. In the same way that David Gordon Green’s Halloween is a faithful throwback of the John Carpenter classic, Guadagnino adheres greatly to the creepy uneasiness that made Dario Argento’s original film such a nightmarish trip. And while the film is sure to be deeply polarizing for going insane with its panic, terror, and gore, the boldness of its insanity makes it all the more interesting for never watering down the giallo gruesomeness.
It’s 1977 Berlin, and there’s something fishy going on at a German dance academy for women. There’s a fearful sensation that can be felt the moment you set foot inside, with the enormous interior and the female staff scurrying about the echoing halls. It can also be felt with Thom Yorke’s sinisterly sad score, which creates an eerie mood, and the often frantic editing, which creates a sense of panic, even during scenes where there doesn’t appear to be much intensity. There’s such a darkness and dreary nature to the décor that when the young and impressionable Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) strolls into the academy seeking a position, her long red braid stands out starkly. We’re drawn to her and the curiosity she has to take her dance to the next level and to shed her rocky relationship with her religious family in America.
Naturally drawn to Susie is Madame Blanc, a strict yet encouraging dance instructor played with a fierce allure by Tilda Swinton. She is hoping that Susie will be a perfect addition to her coven of witches—they haven’t been very successful with other girls, who seem to break under pressure before they’re literally broken, as in closed-door scenes of vicious witch spells that contort, crack, and mangle these young women. While she inspires Susie to go further, we can also sense a desperation in Blanc’s voice that suggests there’s more to this secret witch collective then she lets on. She can’t possibly prepare Susie for the most shocking displays of a phantasmagoric climax.
The film is a stark contrast to Guadagnino’s previous film, Call Me By Your Name. While that drama was comforting and charming, Suspiria is darkly awkward and uncomfortable, slowly easing in the needle of the grotesque and the occult. There’s a slow nature to how the story weaves in outside elements of the revolutionaries bombing institutions and the insider conspiracies of the order of witches. Slight hints appear here and there of dark magic at work, eventually exploding in scenes of a mirror-laced dance hall turned torture chamber and a dungeon of bloody satanic rituals. One telling sign is a very uncomfortable dialogue between Johnson and Swinton about having sex with animals.
Part of what makes Suspiria such a deliciously dark adventure to follow is its refusal to compromise. The hidden nature of the witches always feels secluded, as the film refuses to reveal everything fully. Even when we reach the gory end, there are still a few more questions than answers. And it should become apparent at this point who the film is intended for most: those who enjoy the ride rather than question its assembly. Any attempt at making an allegory, a character, or even a kill seem simple will be gutted by our expectations, leaving a sense of terror about what could possibly happen next. And given all the awkward conversations and frightening displays of witch powers, there’s a level of uncertainty throughout that is truly chilling.
For as much as I dug the dreamy nature of Suspiria’s horror, it’s an ambitious experiment that still has a few nicks in its artistic finish. There’s a subplot involving an elderly psychologist who takes an interest in the dance academy after one escaping student confides in him; while his story is interesting, including the backstory of his lost wife, it’s not exactly a seamless role, as you’ll be able to recognize the mystery actor playing this part rather quickly. And while the editing has an appeal for the shifting of cautiously slow to furiously frantic, it borders on the simpler art-house affair when trying to stage dreams that convey Susie’s sordid past.
Suspiria is not a film for the squeamish, with its unsettling and ugly nature amid beautiful sets and haunting music. Perhaps the best scene to showcase its wonder and weirdness is in the dance academy’s stage performance of red-ribbon costumes and fierce moves, punctuated by an injured dancer who is drearily lured into the dance with a broken leg. It’s a gutsy production for never holding back on its artistic and fearless nature, crafting a world where women have a terrifying power and men exist as helpless onlookers, mere victims in the domain of the dance academy. Guadagnino’s direction takes a few odd routes but still deeply satisfies a need for horror to go out of its way to be more than the standard affairs of slashers and hauntings. Recommended for the horror lover who wants something that’ll deeply chill the soul yet still dabble in a delirious destruction of the human body.