For better or worse, depending on where you stand on remaking film classics, Italian director Luca Guadagnino’s SUSPIRIA is nothing like the 1977 original by Dario Argento.
For folks like me who have been so looking forward to this one as to even avoid the trailer just to be able to see it perfectly blind, that’s basically all you needed to know. And the fact that it likely goes too far in terms of graphic violence to win over some awards voters should in no way deter you from seeing it splashed on the big screen – a literally jaw-dropping experience not to be missed.
[Spoilers ahead] The film, now structured in chapters and set in 70s East Berlin, begins with a fidgety, visibly rattled young girl Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz) seeking refuge – or just a pair of ears that would listen – at the office of psychiatrist Dr. Jozef Klemperer (Lutz Ebersdorf aka apparently Tilda Swinton in disguise). From there the focus would shift to a nondescript country house in rural America where an old lady lies dying and finally, to wannabe dancer / horror icon Susie Bannion (now played by Dakota Johnson) arriving at a renowned Berlin dance academy under the tutelage of Madame Blanc (reinterpreted by Swinton).
The characters and backdrop might sound familiar, but that’s more or less where the parallel ends. The 2018 version has had a complete makeover in terms of the mythology behind the famously bewitched establishment, the character backstories and relationships, and the addition of a brand new, overtly political element that relates back to 20th century German history. The result is an expanded, intellectualized retelling of a popular witch tale that actually tries to give each of its nasty scares a reason (at 152 minutes, it also runs nearly one full hour longer than the original).
Unsurprisingly, therefore, that the new film also starts off at a more deliberate pace. More than 30 minutes passes before the first major fright. But this scene, in which someone turning their back on the school gets horribly punished via telepathic powers, should give you a clue as to the level of visual savagery the film is committed to depicting. Gradually more secrets about the school, Susie and Dr. Klemperer are revealed as stranger things keep happening until, in the last half hour, all hell breaks loose in an extended sequence of bloodbath so relentlessly shocking it may prove to be one for the record books.
Guadagnino, himself one of the most stylistically inspired filmmakers of our time, opted not to assume the iconic look that Argento chose for SUSPIRIA. The sensational, instantly recognizable colors and lighting are replaced by an altogether more somber, earthy tone. This corresponds optically to the considered, less flamboyant narrative and serves to catch you off guard in the aforementioned astonishing climax. Said scene, staged with symmetrical elegance and featuring orgiastic human formations, gruesome creature design, disemboweled, exploding bodies and deranged dancing all around, is a bombastically red, nightmarishly spectacular trance rendered real. Everything about it, from the look to the sound to the accompanying, casually beautiful music, all feels so wrong you find yourself stunned, helplessly captivated. Next-level stuff.
In that it neither follows the expressionistic fervor of its predecessor nor adopts the jump-scares driven brand of horror of late, the re-imagined SUSPIRIA might turn some puported horror fans off. But in creating its own curious mix of history, supernaturalism, queerness and style, the film deserves to be celebrated as an original, truly fearless piece of cinema.