Luca Guadagnino’s remake of giallo-meister Dario Argento’s 1977 film is set in the same year as the original, for reasons that ultimately seem rather spurious. Indeed, while Suspiria 2018, also concerning a coven of witches running a dance school – as you do – is meticulously made and frequently (ahem) bewitching in its slow-burn dynamics – at an extremely indulgent two-and-a-half hours, it would have to be – it is transparently victim of the mutton-dressed-as-lamb approach taken by filmmakers tentative about approaching what they see as a lesser genre. As such, this is not just a horror movie. No, it has all this other stuff going on to justify its existence, you see (notably, screenwriter David Kajganich professed not to be a fan of the original). Even if, frankly, all that other stuff is largely beside the point, and its inclusion made to seem slightly facile as a consequence.
But still, such overt thematic content makes Suspiria rich pickings for critical analysis, the pollination of horror films with ripe subtext having always been the first love of the habitual voyeur. You can analyse the motherhood theme, and the implications of matriarchal authority tending to the extreme negative, but it amounts to little more than salad dressing. As do the in-vain (and vain) attempts to parallel the activities of the coven mothers with the Nazis’ abuses of power and news footage of then-current events.
The Holocaust theme comes via Dr Klemperer, a bizarrely and distractingly cast Tilda Swinton again – again, since she’s already playing academy artistic director Madame Blanc, and distractingly if you’re watching Amazon Prime and the name comes up when you press pause – since its apropos nothing other than, perhaps a bid to Peter Sellers her (although, possibly Jack Nicholson in Mars Attacks! would be a more appropriate comparison).
Klemperer’s is a subplot that could have easily be removed from the movie without any adverse effect; indeed, Swinton wanders about in (very good) old-age makeup doing very little for most of the movie, Klemperer’s actions designed to parallel doing very little under the Nazis, which the witches point out to him, thus rather undermining what little validity there was by hanging a neon sign around the character. (Swinton said she took the part for the fun of it, but you might, should you want to read it thematically, see Klemperer as a point on the scale of her other roles here, representing the evil of doing nothing about evil, as opposed to the evil imposter and the evil but relatively amicable art director).
Dakota Johnson’s Susie is the focus, though (no one else really gets a look in, not Mia Goth, a cameoing Jessica Harper, and certainly not Chloe Grace Moretz, who ends up a vassal in the attic in a manner suggestive of The Hunger as much as Bowie-alike Swinton’s old age makeup). And she’s very good, possibly too old for her part, but adept at the necessary unreadability. Rather like RPatz, Johnson’s been unfairly maligned for her association with a crappy franchise.
Susie/Mother Suspiriorum embodies a dispenser of justice and righter of wrongs, so making her a “compassionate” force of evil – and one pissed at Mother Helen Markos for posing as her (Markos being the other Swinton performance, resembling a grotesque combination of Dan Aykroyd in Nothing but Trouble and Baron Harkonnen). It’s fairly well signposted that Susie isn’t all she seems, and indeed, it’s chiefly this aspect that maintains interest, which really is little more than your standard twist. But again, dressed up in art-house trappings (if this weren’t an intrinsically “worthy” film, Thom Yorke surely wouldn’t have volunteered his sensitive scoring, wanting some of that Jonny Greenwood PTA-acclaim flavour).
Stylistically, though, Suspiria is impressive. The 1970s milieu feels drably, austerely lived-in, and one could quite easily imagine it occupying the same universe as Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (even if it’s much more literal in scope than Roeg’s highly symbolic sphere). At times, I was also put in mind of The Witches, Roeg’s Roald Dahl adaptation, just with all the malicious fun hypodermically extracted.
The dance choreography and schooling sequences are transfixing; indeed, Guadagnino shows the greatest accomplishment in this area, with the interactions between (apparent) pupil and tutor. The sound design wouldn’t be out of place in a Peter Strickland picture, and if the dream sequences tend to the mechanically processed veal, they’re still of a piece.
As such Suspiria is a highly atmospheric film without being especially scary; it’s all brood and mood, and even the gore and splatter, unrestrained as it is, is limited to very particular moments (a sequence in which Elena Fokina’s Olga is thrown about, twisted hideously like a puppet on a string, as Susie, now inhabiting her role, dances her moves, is as masterfully achieved as it is repellent… and then come the meat hooks).
I think we can be grateful David Gordon Green didn’t direct Suspiria as originally planned, then – one only has to look at his functional and determinedly unremarkable Halloween retcon sequel for reasons why – but on the other hand, he surely wouldn’t have felt the need to attempt to boost the picture’s cachet artificially, and in so doing draw unflattering attention to its deficits (his idea was more operatic, so who knows, Argento, who slated the remake, might have liked it).
It isn’t as easy as Kajganich thinks to graft themes onto existing material; they tend to look exactly what they are, so ensuring Guadagnino has made an engrossing – and highly gross, albeit usually when the dancing starts – film that staggers under the weight of its desire to be more than its humble self. If you can get past the self-indulgence of its pretensions, and stay awake, this is art-house horror nevertheless worth a look.