Suspiria, from Call Me by Your Name director Luca Guadagnino, is a remake of a 1977 cult favorite by Italian horrormeister Dario Argento — but don’t feel bad if that means nothing to you. Argento, a legend in horror circles for his genre-defining work in giallo films, never had mainstream name recognition, and while Suspiria was his biggest success in the U.S., it was still a niche offering, making around $8 million in today’s money.
Guadagnino’s moody, nightmarish version is a very loose remake anyway — an “homage,” the director calls it — adhering only to the basic outline of Argento’s: An American dance student goes to a German dance academy that turns out to be run by witches. That last detail, initially ambiguous in the original, is announced right from the start in the new version. No question about it: They’re witches. Not the broomstick-riding kind, but definitely the cackling kind. Hoo boy, the cackling! Such cackling you’ve never heard, at once raucously joyful and, if you’re the thing they’re cackling at, terrifying.
Our American dancer, Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), arrives at the Markos Dance Academy in West Berlin in 1977. That’s the year the original came out, but it’s also the year the RAF’s terrorist activities came to a head. The Lufthansa 181 hijacking is happening in the background, reported on radios and TVs, while events at the Markos academy unfold, leading us to reflect on the parallels.
The Red Army Faction (known in the media as the Baader-Meinhof Group) consisted of Marxists who felt Germany hadn’t done enough to repudiate and eradicate Nazism. Likewise, there is internal strife at the Markos academy, with the beloved choreographer, touchy-feely Earth mother Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), competing with established figurehead Helena Markos (unseen till late in the film) for control — not just of the dance company, but of the coven’s broader agenda. The academy’s dozen or so board members are almost evenly split between the two factions, though the Markosites — the past, the old ways — hold a narrow majority.
Susie Bannion doesn’t know any of this behind-the-scenes stuff. She only knows that the Markos Dance Academy is a supportive, welcoming environment. Preternaturally gifted in the ways of modern dance, Susie immediately earns Madame Blanc’s affection and quickly ascends to the top, yet the jealousy and backbiting we expect from her fellow dancers never materializes. Everyone gets along swimmingly … unless they go against Madame Blanc, as Russian dancer Olga (Elena Fokina) does, before she suffers a grotesque fate.
Grotesque fates are in abundance here, all rendered in Guadagnino’s gorgeous, stylized fashion, captured by CMBYN cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom. For all the ugly actions it contains, the movie is beautiful to look at, full of ethereal grace as well as ghastly events. It’s a horror film in the sense that horrific things happen, and some of the characters are frightened, but it rarely tries to scare the audience. The goal is more to unnerve and fascinate us (until the lurid climax, which is totally bonkers).
This is very much a celebration of female empowerment, though it also reminds us that absolute power is dangerous regardless of the gender of the hands it’s in. The only significant male character, a psychiatrist named Dr. Klemperer, is played by Tilda Swinton in elaborate makeup and prosthetics (credited as “Lutz Ebersdorf”). The good doctor believes the rantings of a patient (Chloe Grace Moretz) about the Markos academy being run by witches, and he sets out to expose it. Perhaps his status as the one traditionally “good” person in the story is why Guadagnino wanted a woman to play the role, lest it seem like a movie about out-of-control females who need male supervision.
There’s a lot going on here, and it goes on for 2 1/2 hours, at times feeling overstuffed. Yet it’s often transfixing in its dreamy weirdness and macabre possibilities, aided by Thom Yorke’s otherworldly musical score. That score, like pretty much everything else in the movie, will be off-putting and unenjoyable to some viewers, total catnip to others. I’ve seen it twice, liked it a lot but didn’t love it, but can’t stop thinking about it. Some kind of witchcraft, probably.