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Movie Review: “SUSPIRIA” casts a different, engrossing spell

Monday, September 24, 2018 | Review

By MICHAEL GINGOLD

Starring Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton and Mia Goth
Directed by Luca Guadagnino
Written by David Kajganich
Amazon Studios

Not since Stanley Kubrick adapted Stephen King’s THE SHINING has a filmmaker from outside the genre gotten ahold of a beloved horror property and so drastically reconfigured it to his own concerns. Luca Guadagnino’s SUSPIRIA is going to fascinate some viewers and infuriate others, but no one’s going to come away from it without a strong opinion.

Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA has been described by some as the zenith of the giallo genre, but has little in common stylistically with those typically plot-driven procedurals. From first frame to last, it’s all about sensation, its scenes linked not by story but by Argento’s never-more-flamboyant visual sense and Goblin’s hysterical, powerful score. Guadagnino, working from a screenplay by David Kajganich, has other ideas—many other ideas—about how to approach the material, which is evident right from the start. When the film describes itself at the outset as “Six acts and an epilogue set in divided Berlin,” and the title only appears as a destination sign in the corner of a shot of a train station, you know this is not your father’s SUSPIRIA.

That train station is the entry point for the slightly renamed Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) to enter a world far removed from her Mennonite upbringing in the American Midwest. The Berlin she arrives in is being torn apart by radical violence, and the dance academy she has joined at first appears to be an oasis of calm and creativity amidst the city’s chaos. There’s no panicked student for her to witness as she arrives, as Jessica Harper’s Suzy does in the original; instead, this SUSPIRIA opens with a distraught Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz) arriving at the office of her psychotherapist, Dr. Josef Klemperer, convinced she knows the truth about witchy doings at the academy, and that they’re coming to get her.

The major new addition to the SUSPIRIA ensemble, Dr. Klemperer represents rationalism in a world overrun by political madness, seeking truths that will lead him into the world of the supernatural/irrational. (Part of his journey incorporates a sweet extended cameo by Harper herself, making the most of her brief appearance.) He’s devoted to uncovering what’s hidden, which may be part of why he’s played—in the current film scene’s most conspicuous open secret—by Tilda Swinton under prosthetics, though if you ask anyone connected with the movie, they’ll tell you he’s a real-life psychoanalyst named Lutz Ebersdorf doing his first turn as an actor. All the dodging and discussion so far about this bit of trickery has tended to overshadow the fact that Swinton is terrific and fully convincing in this role; if her voice and her eyes didn’t occasionally give the game away, the illusion fostered by Mark Coulier’s prosthetics would be complete. (Hopefully the truth will be allowed to come out in time for Coulier to contend for richly deserved awards for his work.)

Elsewhere, Swinton is just as good as the imperious Madame Blanc, who runs the academy and sees something special in Susie, who has impressed with a completely uninhibited audition. She ends up replacing classmate Olga (Elena Fokina) as lead dancer in a forthcoming production called Volk, and Olga’s departure from the company comes in the most horrific manner possible, in a scene that has already and deservedly become a key talking point for SUSPIRIA. While Susie first performs the routine, hurling and contorting herself around the studio, Olga, in another room downstairs, is simultaneously twisted and broken into a grotesque travesty of the human form (more excellent, and much harder to watch, work by Coulier).

It’s the most frightening scene in SUSPIRIA, and emblematic of one of Guadagnino’s key themes: dance as an expression of intense emotion, and as such directly tied in to the black magic practiced by Madame Blanc and the rest of the academy’s staff. (When the dancers perform the final production of Volk, the staging, decor and lighting combine to give the routine itself the air of a supernatural ritual.) Guadagnino and Kajganich make it evident fairly early on what this coven is up to, so even for those who haven’t seen the original, there isn’t a great deal of mystery to the proceedings. What’s important is what the narrative framework allows them to say about the self-empowerment of women (even as collateral damage is occasionally wreaked on female characters), the tragedy of history and the (witch) craft of artistic expression.

With a two-and-a-half-hour running time, SUSPIRIA has room for all this and scary stuff too, which is sporadic but arresting when it occurs. The horror content alternates between blunt-force shock and surreal weirdness (up to the lengthy climax that combines the two) contrasting with the measured pacing of what surrounds it. Rather than make you jump or squirm at regular intervals, Guadagnino means to envelop you in atmosphere, and in that respect is perfectly served by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s eerily muted cinematography, Inbal Weinberg’s evocative production design and especially Thom Yorke’s hypnotic score. Johnson fully immerses herself in the emotionally and physically demanding role of Susie, as her ambitions lead her to become drawn inexorably to the dark side. As she loses herself, Mia Goth—whose slightly otherworldly look has previously led her to be cast as “the strange one” in past movies like A CURE FOR WELLNESS—is equally good taking on audience sympathies as Susie’s friend Sara, who tries to save Susie from her descent.

So, submitted for your approval (or disapproval): a movie that is identifiably derived from Argento’s SUSPIRIA, but very much its own thing. I found it captivating and sometimes confounding and couldn’t take my eyes off it, as much out of curiosity over what new directions Guadagnino and Kajganich were going to take it in as for what was happening on screen. Unlike many remakes, which seek simply to trade off popular past favorites and attempt to recapture their thrills, this SUSPIRIA defiantly goes down its own path; its makers may use the Argento film as a template, but in no way are they knocking him off. Some fans may not be ready or willing to accept any second SUSPIRIA, while others will be entranced by the very particular and impeccably wrought new vision that has been brought to it. Your mileage, as they say on-line, may vary depending on your point of view on the validity of this project, and the way in which it has been approached. But do see it for yourself.

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and spent 28 years as a writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. In addition to RUE MORGUE, he currently writes for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM, IndieWire.com, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM and others. His book THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press) is out this fall, and he has contributed liner notes and featurettes to a number of Blu-ray and DVD releases. Among his screenplay credits are SHADOW: DEAD RIOT and LEECHES!, and he is currently working on THE DOLL with director Dante Tomaselli.