Dario Argento’s Italian Giallo classic Suspiria is as bizarre as it is vibrant, a flurry of bright colors and unexplainable torments that is more about its unsettling mood than logic or reason. 1977’s Suspiria is light on details, and that vagueness makes the dread more palpable. After a string of light, sun-drenched dramas like A Bigger Splash and last year’s Call Me By Your Name, Suspiria seems like an odd project for director Luca Guadagnino, whose cinematic horrors have mostly revolved around the fear of unrequited love and accidentally killing Ralph Fiennes in a pool.
Unlike Argento, Guadagnino does away with the simplicity of Suspiria, tacking on an extra hour full of flashbacks, side stories, and larger cultural issues in a way to bring some method to the madness. In doing this, Guadagnino packs Suspiria too full for its own good, making it a concoction of ideas that doesn’t necessarily coalesce into a solid narrative. Like the original, Guadagnino’s Suspiria works in bits and pieces, a collection of elements that never completely fit together into a finished horror show.
Without an audition, Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) arrives in Berlin to tryout for the prestigious Helena Markos Dance Company. After impressing Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) with her routine, Bannion is admitted and soon finds herself quickly rising through the ranks of the school. Bannion is admitted during the year because another student, Patricia Hingle (Chloë Grace Moretz) has vanished, leaving an open slot in the program. Meanwhile, Dr. Josef Klemperer (also played by Swinton) investigates the company, which Patricia was convinced had a hidden dark side.
As Susie finds more success in the company, strange things keep occurring. More dancers disappear; Susie and her closest friend Sara (Mia Goth) start to witness and experience things that shouldn’t be happening. Susie’s talents become greater, and she keeps having dark nightmares that are like Luis Buñuel directed the VHS tape from The Ring. While Susie gets deeper into the school’s true intentions, Sara starts to become wary that there’s more to this school than she expected.
Guadagnino puts the occult elements of his Suspiria right up front, instead of hiding the truth until the end like in Argento’s Suspiria. He also makes dance an integral part of the story, with choreography by Damien Jalet, and written into the script by David Kajganich (A Bigger Splash), who found inspiration in the darker, primal work of Mary Wigman and Pina Bausch. Guadagnino intertwines these two with ease, making the performances and witchcraft almost the same, and some of the most captivating scenes incorporate the power of both. In one grisly scene, Susie’s movements torture and mutilate a woman trapped in another room, with each new step bring about a new pain. Considering dance was almost an afterthought in the original, Guadagnino’s choice to put it at the forefront of his adaptation is an enthralling choice.
However, it’s Guadagnino and Kajganich decision to overstuff Suspiria with idea that becomes the film’s weakness. Beyond the coven’s activities at the ballet school, Guadagnino also tries to mix in Dr. Klemperer’s search for answers and his wife who was lost after the Holocaust, Susie’s Mennonite upbringing in Ohio, the actions of the Baader-Meinhoff Group in Germany, and the loyalties of the witches within the coven. The result is a film too full of ideas that are all spread too thin. Little of these diversions feel essential to the story, and become speed bumps to the suspenseful story being told at the Helena Markos Dance Company.
When the film does focus on the activities at the school though, Guadagnino’s direction is often truly disturbing. The aforementioned dance torture scene is an early shock, while the film’s final two dance performances are genuinely unnerving. Guadagnino can build the tension and fear effectively, especially since he’s given no inclination in his past films that he has those tools in his skillset. Guadagnino’s dream sequences can seem almost like art school parody at times, and his liberal use of Thom Yorke’s otherwise fitting score during the final dance scene does undercut the fear at hand, but the overall handling of tone while at the school is well done.
Guadagnino wisely centers his film around two of his usual cohorts – Swinton and Johnson – both of whom give some of their finest performances. Johnson utilizes her sexuality as a tool of power, and the way Johnson controls every scene makes her a commanding star. But continuously remarkable is Swinton in her duel roles. As Madame Blanc, she’s a threatening character who can still show pity and fear when the scene calls for it. Swinton completely disappears in her role as Dr. Klemperer (credited as Lutz Ebersdorf), and it’s shocking how she morphs into the character. The voice makes it clear it’s Swinton, but it almost seems impossible that this could be the same characters as Madame Blanc, regardless of how many times we’ve seen Swinton shape shift in other films. If there’s any justice in the world, Swinton will receive another Oscar nomination – and maybe a deserving win – for her work in Suspiria.
When Argento told his version of Suspiria, the film lost steam whenever he tried to explain the dance/occult school at the center of the story. Guadagnino and Kajganich throw caution to the wind and make an entire film of these types of side stories and unnecessary explanations. Yet the way Guadagnino presents his version of horror and the fantastic performances he gets from the entire cast make this an impressive and worthwhile first attempt at horror. Suspiria might be all over the place, but when it digs into the depths of hell, it’s one of the most haunting, beautifully shot, and awe-inspiring films of the year.