Susie Bannion (played brilliantly by Dakota Johnson) is drawn to mid 70s Berlin to audition for a world-renowned dance company. But all is not what it seems and as she rises quickly through the ranks, sinister secrets links to witchcraft and hidden underground chambers are revealed. Meanwhile a psychotherapist conducting his own investigation into the school after one of his patients, a dancer, mysteriously disappears. This divisive Luca Guadagnino remake of the Dario Argento giallo, supernatural horror classic starts and ends strong. The carefully used set pieces and insane ending are totally worth sticking around for. However it falls flat under its own weight in the middle.
The original Susperia is known for its excess, from extreme garish colours to its prog-rock soundtrack, but Guadagnino’s first major change is to go for a much more muted palate across the board (though he does intermittently indulges in some fun nostalgic 70s style crash zooms). This being a Guadagnino film, everything visual is beautifully dark; from the excellent production design, the school's old world interiors to the rainy streets of 70s Berlin on lock down. Thom Yorke’s lamenting soundtrack, (though not as iconic as Goblin’s work in the original) fits this films subdued tone perfectly.
The dance school setting is put to much more use in this version. The film's structure centres on a series of sporadic contemporary dance sequences that double-up as highly sexualised supernatural rituals. These incredible sequences lean into an inherent creepiness in serious modern choreography. The horror sequences are suitably gruesome in a Cronenberg body horror style. A sequence in the middle of the film where a dancer’s body becomes mangled which was done with impressively few visual effects is particularly memorable.
Unfortunately Guadagnino tries too hard to explore too many highbrow themes that causes the film to drag on a bit. Laboured by its own pretensions, there's numerous potential plot strands that lead to a series of dead ends. In particular the clumsily inserted 70s political material never amounts to anything and at worst is confusing as the audience tries to reach for connections that don’t ever materialise.
Tilda Swinton plays 3 roles. Her portrayal as the middle aged, male psychotherapist Dr. Klemperer is an odd choice. She is excellent in the part but you never can quite get past the make up. Much like many of the film's thematic digressions, this ends up as a pointless distraction as we strain to find meaning in the choice and are faced with ambiguity, instead. The second, Madame Markos with almost as much prosthetics, works better as an effective cameo. Its Swinton’s main performance as the striking Madame Blanc that is most praiseworthy, giving us a more complicated figure than your run-of-the-mill antagonist and even though the character's ending feels slightly anti-climactic, it is befitting.
Dakota Johnson’s low key performance is excellently pitched. Susie starts off a wide eyed young thing, becoming a much grumbled about Mary Sue type character. She quickly rises through the ranks to prima ballerina, growing into her power and confidence. It seems unrealistic but then unforeseen conclusion turns this brilliantly into something inevitable. Johnson handles the dance sequences very well. Overall the cast is excellent, with further standout performances by Chloe Grace Moretz and Mia Goth who play dancers Patricia and Sara who succumb to the gruesome ways of the coven's evil. As we see and learn more about the mirrored maze of the school, particularly through Sara's journey, the creepiness and disorientation adds to the sense of dread which leads us to the insane ending.
This film will test your patience but when the unconventional finale comes, a complete and utter mayhem, it is surprisingly touching, saves the film by reversing expectations, making it worth the long wait. Guadagnino goes in a very different direction to Argento, even through its shakey moments, the film ultimately stands on its own two feet.
Suspiria is out now.
Words by Hamza Mohsin @lebadass.
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