Surprising no one other than a few not-so-nosy festival goers, the much buzzed about secret screening of Fantastic Fest 2018 was that of Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria. I can’t consider myself a super-fan of the Dario Argento 1977 film (I only saw the original for the first time a couple of years ago), but like much of the horror community – I was hesitant when this one was announced. Protective even.
But those apprehensions melted away after watching the first trailer back in June. It answered so many of our burning questions and worries with a sooth and calming voice. This won’t be the same thing. It looks different. It feels different. It explores an entirely different variation of the original story, utilizing Dario Argento’s perfect premise: a coven of beautiful, perfect ballerinas.
“Suspiria is enthralling, disgusting, and entertaining. But when the ballet ends, we’re waiting for the curtain call to explain which role belonged to whom”
Now, having seen Guadagnino’s vision, I’m not so sure. The film is a collision of dreamlike visuals – some of them from the recesses of even a witch’s worst nightmares, culminating in the erotic and rhythmic choreography of desperate dance movements. Arms outstretch, reaching, grasping. Suspiria is enthralling, disgusting, and entertaining. But when the ballet ends, we’re waiting for the curtain call to explain which role belonged to whom.
Perhaps the best thing about Suspiria is its awareness of the audience’s understanding of the premise and overall plot. It behaves as if Dario Argento’s film exists – I don’t mean within the actual universe of this film (There’s no scene of Dakota Johnson popping a Giallo flick into her dorm room’s VCR) – but it doesn’t lead us through an exact carbon-copy storyline of the original. We don’t follow a doe into a lion’s den. We follow a cub, apt to become a lioness.
Susie (Dakota Johnson) is that cub. Though she’s an assumed novice, coming to the esteemed Marko’s Dance Academy in Berlin all the way from Ohio – she impresses the instructors so much in her audition that even the director, Madam Blanc (Tilda Swinton) sneaks a peak.
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During her first class, Susie boldly volunteers to dance the lead role, as the previous lead Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz) has gone missing. Madam Blanc is reluctant, the academy has preparing this dance for ten months already, but Susie confidently reassures her. She was born for this.
“The final act is a fever dream on fast forward. When the scene devolves and characters get their moment in the spotlight, I’m sitting in the audience just wishing I had a program.”
Meanwhile, Susie’s roommate Sara (Mia Goth) grows suspicious of the academy’s motives after being contacted by Dr. Josef Klemperer. He having been visited by a manic Patricia prior to her disappearance, spewing rumors of witchcraft, hair cutting, rituals, and altogether un-ballerina like behavior.
As Sara begins to uncover the secrets of Marko’s Dance Academy, Susie hones her craft. She’s been appointed as head dancer, and there are plenty of jumps to master before the final dance. Susie’s a natural talent, writhing and convulsing with a forceful intensity. She has the gusto and the conviction, and she just might be perfect for the part.
When the coven’s true intentions are made known, the film evolves into a chaotic scene of erotic ballet and violence. It swaps the 70’s upholstery of drab browns and light falling snow for acid trip red. Convertibles and Coca-Cola dispensers. Or, just plain old-fashioned blood and devil worship. Guadagnino employs a devolved camera technique that I’m honestly going to compare to early Rob Zombie. The reduced framerate and digital blurring looked straight out of House of 1000 Corpses.
Unfortunately, much of the lore of this film is still lost on me, and I’m still stewing in the overall hierarchy and rules of Suspiria’s universe. The final act is a fever dream on fast forward. When the scene devolves and characters get their moment in the spotlight, I’m sitting in the audience just wishing I had a program. Even a family tree would suffice.
Dakota Johnson is enigmatic as this new incarnation of Susie, but though I enjoy watching her haunt the screen – I don’t altogether understand the character’s motives, origins, or ultimately.. what she becomes. Tilda Swinton’s Madam Blanc is comprised of silk sweeping across the ballet floor and a tall and rigid gate alongside her trademark stoic, emotionless demeanor. I want her to command more power than she ultimately does, instead her role becomes that of almost a cautious and reserved woman than a perfectionist Dance Director and y’know, witch.
“Suspiria (2018) gets points for its brazen attempt to reinterpret a beloved, and stylized vision – creating something anew that still feels like Suspiria, but doesn’t tread on bent grass.”
Suspiria (2018) gets points for its brazen attempt to reinterpret a beloved, and stylized vision – creating something anew that still feels like Suspiria, but doesn’t tread on bent grass. Unfortunately, this film is perhaps more complicated and complex than the original – which may ultimately alienate it from modern audiences. This isn’t just a delightful romp with covert witches in Berlin. And we already have Suspiria the art piece. We aren’t ready to replace the one that’s still sitting on our mantle.
Suspiria is scheduled for limited release October 26th in New York and Los Angeles before going wide November 2nd and celebrated its US premiere at Fantastic Fest 2018. Check out all of Nightmare on Film Street’s Fantastic Fest coverage here!