Suspiria (2018) Directed by Luca Guadagnino. Starring Dakota Johnson, Chloë Grace Moretz, Mia Goth, Tilda Swinton and Jessica Harper. Amidst the violent political turmoil of 1977 Berlin, young American dancer Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) discovers that her elite ballet academy is run by a coven of bloodthirsty witches feeding on the student body in this remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 supernatural horror classic.
Mild spoilers follow.
In the opening scene, we meet paranoid and half-crazed ballerina Patricia Hingle (Chloe Grace Moretz) as she seeks help from her German psychotherapist Dr. Josef Klemperer (Tilda Swinton in heavy prosthetic makeup). Patricia travels across a Berlin on edge due to terrorist bombings and kidnappings by the Baeder-Meinhof Red Army Faction in a tumultuous real-life era known as German Autumn.
She arrives safely through the bomb-blasted streets and tells Dr. Klemperer that her school, the Markos Dance Academy, is secretly the home of evil witches wielding fantastic powers. According to Patricia, academy founder Helena Markos is actually the sinister sorceress Mater Suspiriorum. Mater (The Mother of Sighs) and her deadly sisters Mater Tenebrarum (Darkness) and Mater Lachrymarum (Tears) form The Three Mothers, a coven that predates Christianity.
Naturally, Klemperer thinks the girl has gone mad. Patricia dashes off into the night, leaving behind her detailed journals in his office. As Klemperer begins reading them the following morning, he becomes drawn into an elaborate mystical history of arcane rituals and sacrifices. Before Christ and Satan, there were ancient women beholden to no God or demon. Speaking of evil, we learn that Josef’s wife Anke vanished while fleeing the Nazis in 1943. He is unsure of her fate and still holds on to hope that she will one day return decades later.
This subplot takes on greater importance and resolves in a complex and beautiful epilogue.
Meanwhile, American ingenue Susie Bannion arrives at Markos Academy and wows the instructors with her primal and gutsy dance audition. She lunges and writhes through a somewhat violent routine that catches the eye of teacher Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) and sets the stage for Susie to become a rising star. We learn that our heroine was a Mennonite from Ohio, and that her mother is slowly dying at home from an undefined illness which causes her to eerily sigh as she draws tortured breath. The American newbie befriends fellow dancer Sara (Mia Goth) as strange events plague the school: a disgruntled student intent on leaving literally dances to death in an intense body horror sequence, the staff hide bodies in secret chambers behind the mirrored walls of studio spaces, and a strange asthmatic breathing can be heard echoing in the corridors at night.
Josef then discovers that Patricia has gone missing from the academy, and sends two police detectives to get answers. In a humorous bit, the macho cops prove absolutely useless against a coven of powerful women and become enchanted slaves. Susie begins having bizarre dreams filled with bloody images and mutilation, and Sara makes a terrifying discovery in the basement that eventually leads her to a collaboration with Josef. As the student provides evidence of murder and the mind-controlled detectives tell him to leave it alone, Klemperer is convinced to check out the school himself.
“Do you believe in witches, doctor?”
“No. But I believe in a group of people organizing for the purpose of perpetrating crimes and calling it magic.”
Sara unwisely goes undercover at the Academy as it prepares for its presentation of the fictional ballet Volk, which features Susie dancing as the protagonist.
Horror unfolds in the grimy stone tunnels beneath the stage floor as the dancers leap and spin in front of an audience that includes Josef. During the spirited and rather erotic performance, the psychotherapist sees concrete evidence of supernatural power at work and flees. He is later taunted by visions of Anke returning in a cruel ploy by the witches.
The school’s instructors and staff privately meet and discuss ousting unseen founder Helena Markos as head of their coven. The sickly woman is the direct cause of the frequent magical homicides within the building. She is also the source of all their powers. If Markos dies without transferring her soul into a younger body, the coven fears it will lose everything. Still, they hold a vote. Some choose the more reasonable and emotionally conflicted Madame Blanc as the new leader, and fearful others remain with the ailing Markos.
The back room election leads to a dramatic suicide, and the final preparations for the transference ritual are undertaken.
Susie is chosen to be the vessel that will serve as Helena’s new body. This infuriates Blanc, who has come to care about the girl during their intense training sessions prior to the performance of Volk. Blanc recognizes that she’s a witch and tied in some way to all the deadly goings-on, but she has grown weary of the bloody mayhem and the use of mystical power for the advancement of evil.
In one scene, she helps Susie endure a particularly grueling routine by transferring white energy into the girl’s ankles and arms. A maternal warmth grows between them, and motherhood both compassionate and dangerously smothering is the thematic heart of this picture. Susie’s own biological mother fading away in death; the relationship with Blanc and the sick desire of Helena Markos to live not-so-vicariously through her pupils.
Klemperer, Susie and others converge on the Academy and are lured to a massive marble ceremony room, where the hideously deformed and nude Helena (Tilda Swinton in tons of nightmarish prosthetics) waits to transfer her corrupt spirit into Susie’s younger and healthier body.
“I want you to picture your mother dying in your mind. See her, and banish her! I am your mother now!”
Of all the roles Swinton plays in the film, refined and coolly mysterious Madame Blanc, frail and wise Josef-Helena is my favorite. She’s a cackling, selfish and petulant monstrosity with moving tumors shaped like grasping human hands growing from her lumpy and desiccated flesh. Her complete disdain for clothing makes it worse. She resembles a distant cousin of root cellar ghoul Henrietta Knowby from “Evil Dead 2.”
That the ritual does not go as planned is an understatement. It involves a gruesome partial decapitation of a major character, heads exploding into raining showers of blood, a vagina-like portal opening in Susie’s chest, and the literal arrival of Death itself.
If you’re throwing a little party at your ballet school and Death crashes it, you KNOW you messed up.
The denouement’s plot twist is a major deviation from Argento’s straightforward good vs. evil tale, turning it into something more complex and thoughtful.
The remake ditches Argento’s vivid color scheme for a no less distinctive 1970s flatness and color saturation that gives the film an accurately retro look. In place of prog rock legends Goblin’s score, we have a moody and contemplative soundtrack by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke.
The wrong way to remake “Suspiria” would be to set it in a modern American school populated by the latest teen heartthrobs from YA television shows. Instead, Luca Guadagnino’s direction and David Kajganich’s script throw the temptation of making it accessible out the window. It’s nearly 3 hours, unfolds like a play over the course of six acts separated by title cards, is mostly in English-subtitled German and features zero explosions or car chases. Despite the blood and gore and effects-laden deaths, it’s an art house project all the way. But a mesmerizing one, thanks to some incredibly provocative cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom that calls to mind Argento’s pans and sudden zooms, and incredible dance choreography by Damien Jalet.
I’m not cultured enough to typically appreciate fine choreography, but this is so elaborate and unique that I took notice.
Dakota Johnson’s Susie, an intuitive and ambitious heroine harboring a secret that threatens her tormentors, is the center of the film and she’s believably virtuous. The actress also actually danced her challenging routines, instead of relying on a stunt performer.
You really can’t express enough admiration for Tilda Swinton and her remarkable versatility throughout her storied film career. Here, she plays three wildly different roles to perfection and any one of them could garner her an Oscar nomination. The prosthetics makeup she wears as Josef and Helena are top notch, but even the best masks need a spirit to animate them.
And then there’s the epilogue, which is titled “A Sliced-Up Pear.” Hinging on the climactic plot twist, the film resolves with a singular act of humane kindness committed by a character who we expect villainy and terror from. It’s an unfortunate modern sentiment to say that what we thought was the truth all this time is eventually revealed as another distortion, as the unexpected light of compassion turns black to a complicated grey.
“Suspiria” stands as further proof that shot-for-shot remakes don’t work, but a new visionary can take a familiar story and bend it into surprising angles that maintain the soul of the original while giving us more to chew on intellectually than the classic battle between good and evil.