Recently, Italian horror director Dario Argento said that Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Suspiria “betrayed the spirit of the original.” Anyone who goes into the two and a half hour film expecting a shot by shot remake of the 1977 giallo masterpiece is going to be disappointed. They are vastly different films, similar in name only and some key plot points. Guadagnino’s “remake” should be viewed as a separate entity, and if viewers are willing to do that, they will find much to enjoy.
Like the original, Guadagnino’s film focuses on a prestigious German dance studio run by witches, specifically three mothers who oversee a coven and are interested in a young dancer named Susie (Dakota Johnson), who possesses uncanny skills and talent. Since she was a little girl, raised in a religious household in Ohio, Susie dreamed of attending the school. Susie eventually becomes the favorite pupil of the mysterious Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), the school’s central choreographer who commands every frame she’s in, whether chain-smoking and instructing the young dancers or using Susie’s body as a vessel to punish any young dancer who challenges her authority.
The most harrowing scene occurs about 30 minutes into the film, when Susie showcases her talent, hungry to earn the lead role in a performance. As she twists, crawls, and stomps, another dancer, trapped in a mirrored studio space bellow, is yanked violently around the room, her body twisted and contorted in excruciating ways. Guadagnino seamlessly cuts between both scenes, as the dancers build to their crescendos. For any horror fan, this footage is a must-see.
Following that mesmerizing scene, Guadagnino takes his time building the setting and exploring every crevice and shadowy hallway of the dance studio. This is another area where his film differs greatly from the original. Argento’s body of work, and giallos in general, are known for their popping technicolor and gore. Guadgnino’s tones are bleak, and even the outdoor shots feature pounding rain and muted gray tones. The historical backdrop and the lasting repercussions of WWII loom over the film, especially through news reports about social and political upheaval. This is a Germany of the 1970s that has not fully reconciled or confronted its past. Susie’s red pony tail is the only splash of brightness throughout much of the film. This bleakness is underscored by Thom Yorke’s haunting score, which enhances the mystery and the cackles and whispers that echo in the hallways.
Some of the film’s middle acts sag, more specifically the story of Dr. Josef Klemperer (also played by Swinton under a lot of make-up ), who doesn’t bring much to the film. Yes, he helps jumpstart the narrative and Susie’s story, and he works with student Sara (Mia Goth) to uncover what the witches are up to, but the film feels overstuffed at times. However, the mind-blowing sixth act, which features an orgy of red tones and blood, is well-worth the wait and will satiate any horror fan.
Overall, Suspiria is a grim meditation, a film where men are pretty much useless and female energy reigns supreme. The voodoo doll dance scene, the interactions between Blanc and Susie, and the blood-drenched conclusion, elevate the film, but patience during the middle acts is needed to reach the crescendo.