Of all my cinematic sins, never having seen Dario Argento’s original Suspiria is arguably one of the biggest. Considered a genre masterpiece, the 1977 cult horror classic seems to have passed me by in all my years of film watching. With the knowledge that a reimagining was coming to screens this year, I decided not to rectify that particular blindspot in my film history, as all I have read in the run up from people I respect is to go in as clean and as clueless as possible. Hey, you don’t have to tell me twice not to do extra homework!
Directed by Luca Guadagnino, 2018’s Suspiria is set amidst the politically tense German Autumn of 1977 Berlin. Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), an Ohio native and aspiring dancer, auditions and is accepted to the prestigious Markos Dance Company. Noticed and mentored by the mysterious and charismatic Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), Susie quirky rises through the ranks and becomes an important figure in the group, but as certain students disappear and certain odd happenings begin to occur, the audience quickly sees that all is not right with Madame Blanc and the close knit group of other female matrons that run the company.
I’ll keep this nice and simple, Suspiria had me SHOOKETH. No secrets are made about the fact that the central theme of the film is witchcraft and supernatural mythology, and the haunting and at times truly traumatic imagery is ready to catch you off guard right from the start. I’m not exaggerating when I say that there are things in this film that I will remember and think about forever. I’m not sure I have had my mouth hanging open as much as it was since mother!, with the key difference being that I hated mother!, but I love love LOVED this. I thought the wildest it would get for me this year was Hereditary. Boy was I wrong.
I’m a sucker for anything witchy, but there is so much more going on in Suspiria than that key narrative thread. If you wish to dig deep enough, you will find commentary on things like motherhood, abuse of power and even national guilt within the context of the interesting German post-war setting. There is no denying that it is an incredibly dense and at times challenging film, and the one negative I will attest to is that its two and half hours do feel overly long. However, in the same breath, I can’t immediately identify any sequences that could be cut to save time.
This is by no means the kind of horror film that you put on to have fun with during a sleepover or girl’s night, it’s not a popcorn jump scare fest or a trashy slasher, it is much more cerebral, mature, rich and complicated than that. However, at the same time, I do feel like the filmmakers have kept the picture accessible enough not to be dismissed as pretentious arthouse fare. You might not understand every single frame of Suspiria in the moment, but I can promise you that it is a creeping, unsettling film that will continue to stay on your mind and grow on your conscious for days.
As Susie Bannion, Dakota Johnson is finally playing the kinds of roles that her large talent deserves. I could only stomach the first Fifty Shades movie, but I do remember her being the only good thing about it, and she continues to impress here. In a cast filled with interesting and charismatic women, Johnson holds her own as the central protagonist. There is a quiet, unassuming, almost whimsical quality to her acting that perfectly compliments the unnerving and unsettling tone of the film. I’m no dancing expert, but I found her to also be a convincing starlet in that sense too.
Although Johnson is the central audience surrogate, it might also be fair to argue that Suspiria is very much Tilda Swinton’s movie. Not only does she magnetise herself to the screen as Madame Blanc, but she also displays her diversity with two further performances as different key characters. The less I say about that, the better! All you really need to know is that for my money, there is nobody more suited to playing a fascinating, alluring witch in 1970s Berlin than Tilda!
The rest of the large ensemble cast all give similarly engaging performances of varying sizes. Actresses like Chloe Grace Moretz, Mia Goth, Angela Winkler, Ingrid Caven and Alek Wek are fascinating and gripping in their respective roles. You know everyone is doing their job when even though the setting is hellish, you still wouldn’t mind visiting because everything is so damn compelling and interesting! There is even a reverential cameo for Jessica Harper, star of Dario Argento’s 1977 original.
Overall, Suspiria is one hell of a wild ride. While I can’t say that I was ever scared, I certainly was distressed at several key points throughout the film. It is one of the very few pictures I can think of that makes gore and the truly horrific seem somehow artistic and even lyrical. I can’t wait to now go back and see the original film that inspired this, one of my favourite movies of the year.