Film Review: Suspiria (2018)

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A Suspiria remake is a really, really terrible idea.

But luckily for us, Dario Argento and an entire planet’s worth of horror fans, Luca Guadagnino didn’t make one. Taking just the title and the set-up (a coven of witches hiding out in a post-war German dance studio) he shifts much of the focus, losing a huge amount of the fantasy driven styling and focussing on what many would call, the “artier” aspects.

If you’re already rolling your eyes, don’t worry – it’s still a crazed, mystic-driven witch movie to the very core; if anything, the witches here are even more pronounced. Guadagnino’s just really not bothered about horror as escapism. His Suspiria doesn’t take place in the same far-off, twinkly Neverland that Argento’s so brilliantly brings together. There’s no Snow White colour palette or huge, sweeping castle to explore. It’s baked in the bitter browns and dull beiges of the time itself, dragging context to centre stage and finding nastiness in the inescapable outside, as well as in.

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1977 Berlin was caught in a permanent state of paranoia, lost in the shadow of multiple wars and divided through the middle. Controlled. And this take on the original material absorbs so much more of that world, exploding the story into a much more vast, expansive exploration of bodily autonomy. Yes, there’s plenty of difficult, freaky bits and a final act that’ll blow your face off, but so much of Guadagnino’s Suspiria lies in the little details and the many, many layers of its whole.

So if you’re looking for a straight-up 70s nostalgia-fest, you’re shit out of luck. Aside from a very brief Jessica Harper appearance, there’s almost none of Argento’s original here; not in look, tone, and definitely not in pacing. At almost a whole hour longer, it’s a much more drawn-out affair, and its focus is less on scaring its audience and more on gently unravelling them. Guadagnino’s weapon of choice is not a knife but a corkscrew, digging deep and twisting hard. So you really can’t compare the two either – not only are they from different worlds but their aims (and audiences) are totally separate.

And while it’s far from the sort of late-night crowd-pleaser its title might promise, Guadagnino’s drama is fascinating; at once totally entrancing, involving and nasty as all hell. It’s violence comes in frequent waves, tossing its victims around like marionettes and revelling in the grisliness of the kill, whilst its tension and build are deeply uncomfortable to sit through. It’s horror through-and-through, but with a particularly indulgent, wicked edge, always straddling that thin line between high and low art.

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The performances are equally haunting too; Dakota Johnson’s tricky Susie is far beyond the babe in the woods on the page, and Mia Goth’s endearing bestie runs with a really meaty supporting turn. The witches themselves are a cleverly cast bunch, each with their own playful, cackling moment, but naturally it’s Tilda Swinton’s surprisingly understated Madame Blanc that we’re most drawn to. Her double role as the film’s only named male character is a clever stroke too, even if he’s not quite as well relished as those within the academy.

Thom Yorke’s massively hyped score is a moody, understated joy for the most part, though a pair of lyrical bookends drive the film a little too close to pop territory. Because Suspiria’s at its best when it’s embracing its European roots and ignoring the American money trailing it, avoiding all of the cult horror prelude and totally going its own way. Guadagnino’s spin is fresh enough to survive on its own, and while it might be a little too slow and creaky for some genre fans, its drama and mystery will draw in an even wider crowd from elsewhere.

Suspiria was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2018.

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