From American Horror Story to, we live in a time of witches. As feminine magic hubbles and bubbles in fiction and in real life, it’s the perfect time to revisit one of the witchiest movies ever: Suspiria.
Writer and director Luca Guadagnino follows his Oscar-winning hit Call By Your Name with a remake of Dario Argento’s classic 1977 Italian horror movie, one of the best-known of the Giallo subgenre. Guadagnino’s new Suspiria is a composed study in dark and bloody feminine energy, yet never adds up the sum of its dismembered body parts.
The new Suspiria is in theatres in the US now, in Australia on 8 November and the UK on 16 November. It’ll stream on Amazon at some point in the future.
Act I: Ich bin ein Berliner
Divided into six acts and an epilogue, Guadagnino’s remake is set in 1977 in a divided Berlin. Monolithic concrete, peeling paint and watery grey skies are hemmed in by the looming wall. Nazis are in government and hijackers are at the airport. But this backdrop of chaos only filters in snatches into the Markos academy, where the dancers are enclosed and reflected by the mirrored walls of their studio.
Tilda Swinton leads the colourful cabal of motherly school staff. Poised and aloof, Swinton drifts around the dancefloor in full-length robes like she’s grown from the ground. She’s bewitched by new star pupil Dakota Johnson, the American dancer who may be the key to a power struggle within the academy’s wacky faculty.
Act II: Matriarchs and mirrors
Agitated editing and unsettling sound design evokes the skittering, nervy mental state of those who begin to suspect there’s something weird about this sisterhood. Details are glimpsed in unnerving close-up: Gnarled hands, crowded bookshelves, flashing eyes, twitching lips. The school itself is a tower of oversized windows, looming columns and unblinking mirrors, dwarfing the vulnerable dancers sneaking through its deep shadows and distant sighs. Haunted corridors hold their breath as hidden doorways and staircases glower with temptation and terror.
Dancers spin and whirl, bodies pushed to the edge of collapse as if inviting possession. The magic of Suspiria comes from the physical body, bones flexing and cracking beneath stretched supple skin, feet thumping on unflinching floors, simultaneously powerful and fragile. Set to Thom Yorke’s pulsing, feral score, the human body writes shapes in the air, signs and symbols like poems, prayers, spells.
And everywhere there are eyes. Women prowl and lurk, always watching, their intent gazes reflected back from endless mirrored walls. But what’s behind the mirrors? Something dark, and old and lusting.
Act III: Every witch way but loose
Just as the dancers enter into an unspoken compact with the school mothers, so the audience enters into an unspoken agreement with the movie. You know you’re watching a horror film. You know things are going to get crazy weird. But you make a deal with the movie. The film says, “Maybe something weeeeeird’s going on?” Shining a torch under its chin and putting on a spooky voice it asks, “Maybe they’re witches, wooOOOooo…?” And you go along with it. You pretend like you don’t know there totally is weird stuff going on and they totally are witches.
In return for your suspension of disbelief, the film promises unexpected answers to the questions it poses. Yes, something weird’s going on — but not the weird thing you thought. Yes, they might be witches — but they’re not the monsters you expect.
And Suspiria doesn’t do that.
It’s hard to say any more without feeling like a spoiler. Is it a spoiler to say there aren’t any twists to be spoiled? Is that some kind of anti-spoiler? A nega-spoiler?
Act IV: Mother may I
The internal politics of the school’s mystical troupe underpins the action as they argue over what to do with the new arrival. The witchy, bitchy scheming threatens to be the heart of the movie, but again, the cauldron never quite bubbles over. Even the crazed and blood-soaked finale, as visually extreme and over-the-top as it is, essentially unfolds with no surprises except for the amount of gore involved.
Paralleling the matriarch’s argument is the journey of Susie, the apparently innocent young dancer. She swaps a Mennonite family and a mother spitting vitriol on her deathbed for a new family of nurturing mothers, arch aunts and giggling sisters. One of the most interesting aspects of the story is the dark hint is that when devilish bargains are offered, Susie isn’t the unwitting ingenue others might think. It’s frustrating then that she’s so passive. Her actions barely have any bearing on the way the story unfolds.
Act V: City of guilty men
“Berlin is full of guilty men”, observes one character of a city whose secrets are buried in the shallowest of graves. Men are barely glimpsed in Suspiria, to the point that the only man who may not be guilty is played by a woman. That’s an intriguing creative choice destined to be debated at length by film critics and gender studies students, but while you’re actually in the theatre it’s just a distracting fake nose.
Act VI: Coven version
Following a huge hit, directors are often handed the keys to the toybox to do whatever they want, and frequently can’t resist tinkering with an old favourite. Think William Friedkin following The French Connection and The Exorcist with Sorcerer. Peter Jackson following Lord of the Rings with King Kong. Pretty much everything Tim Burton’s done since 1999.
Aside from the occasional ’70s-style crash zoom, Luca Guadagnino’s Amazon-funded 2018 Suspiria tones down the lurid excesses of the original 1977 Suspiria for measured, teasing dread. Gone are the searing colours, prog-rock soundtrack and women thrashing round in rooms full of barbed wire. As a result, this studied retread isn’t so much a bold remix as a dour cover version with the saturation turned down and an hour added to the run-time. Guadagnino, Swinton and Yorke have fun and Amazon garners some cinephile cred, but aside from the vampy fun of spending time in the company of witches, I’m not sure what’s in it for anyone else.
Suspiria is divided into six acts and an epilogue, each with a portentous title. This pointlessly pretentious flourish doesn’t add anything but tries to make it look cleverer than it is. Which gives me an idea…
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