Review: Suspiria

November 15, 2018

Dario Argento’s horror masterpiece shuns traditional storytelling. The hyper-real, absurdist fairy-tale about a young girl enrolling at a ballet school run by witches takes place in an hermetically sealed doll’s house filled with surreal nightmares. Gaudy, acid-trip visuals and layer upon layer of baroque texture create a sense of claustrophobic delirium that’s been aped – but never bettered – countless times in the decades since its 1977 release.

Call Me By Your Name director Luca Guadagnino takes a different tack with his remake (“reimagining” is more accurate), thoroughly grounding his film in the muted browns and greys of 1970s Berlin.

Even when the bodily fluids start to spill, it isn’t the stylised, cherry popsicle blood of Argento, but a sickly, bilious juice that seeps from a ballet dancer as she’s contorted like a pretzel.

That’s not to say his Suspiria isn’t just as unhinged: it feels like the work of a director who’s well and truly off the leash following a string of commercial and critical hits. The build-up may be slow and steady – it’s an hour longer than the original – but it goes to some wild places, with crescendo after dizzying crescendo coming in a final act that leaves you wondering what, exactly, you just sat through.

Protagonist Susie Bannion is this time played by Dakota Johnson, an intense young American who arrives in Berlin at the height of the Baader-Meinhof terror spree. Politics constantly threatens to invade the dance school: through TV broadcasts and the sound of rioting filtering through the windows; through the guilt of a student’s psychiatrist who lost his Jewish wi­­­fe during the war; through the quasi-authoritarian structure of the witches’ coven.

Guadagnino’s Suspiria is dense and complex, awash with ideas and metaphors, touching upon female empowerment, sexual awakening,  and how creation and destruction often go hand in hand.

He’s also fascinated with the spectacle of dance and the inherent sexuality of young, lithe bodies, with frequent voyeuristic performances that occasionally border on the pornographic.

For all its ambition, though, Suspiria eventually loses its footing, with Guadagnino seemingly unsure how to make the most of a cast that includes Tilda Swinton, Chloë Grace Moretz and Mia Goth. The finale, like the film itself, is a hot mess, one that I’m pleased to have experienced but couldn’t entirely recommend.