Suspiria review: A breathtakingly inventive remake of a cult horror movie

Luca Guadagnino has reworked Dario Argento’s 1977 blood-drenched horror into a highly stylised and self-reflexive performance piece 

Geoffrey Macnab
Thursday 15 November 2018 12:56
Trailer for Suspiria from Amazon Studios

Dir: Luca Guadagnino; starring: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth, Jessica Harper, Chloë Grace Moretz. Cert 18, 152 mins.

Suspiria is horror as high art. In the brilliant Italian director Luca Guadagnino’s hands, the cult movie first made by Dario Argento as a blood-drenched, supernatural gore-fest is reworked as a highly stylised and self-reflexive performance piece.

This new version is as much in the spirit of German filmmaker and provocateur Rainer Werner Fassbinder or of radical choreographer Martha Graham as it is of Argento himself. The six Acts and an epilogue that Guadagnino serves up may not be especially frightening or suspenseful, but they are endlessly intriguing.

The first film was made in 1977. The remake is set during that year. Guadagnino makes sure we know exactly the social and political context of the time. We are in Berlin in the middle of the “German Autumn”, when members of the Red Army Faction are unleashing a new wave of terror in a bid to get the authorities to free their imprisoned comrades. Copies of the news magazine Der Spiegel with the words “TERROR” emblazoned on its cover are left lying around. The atmosphere is very jittery indeed.

It is here that young American Susie Bannon (Dakota Johnson) has come to try to win a place in Madame Blanc’s dance school. She is a novice with no training or references but her raw talent impresses Mme Blanc (played in very chilly, Rosa Klebb-like fashion by Tilda Swinton.)

Susie is from Ohio and yet, with her flaming long red hair, Dakota Johnson looks as if she has stepped out of a pre-Raphaelite painting. “We need to get you in the air,” Blanc tells her as she refuses at first to perform the leaps asked of her.

While Madame Blanc and her coterie of eccentric and sinister female helpers put their younger dancers through their paces, a deeply traumatised student, Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz), is consulting a silver-haired Jungian psychiatrist, Dr Jozef Klemperer (also played by Swinton.) She has shocking stories of dark goings-on at the school. Klemperer at first puts them down to her condition.

The media has recently been full of the story of how Guadagnino and Swinton came up with a fictional actor, Lutz Ebersdorf, a retired psychoanalyst living in Berlin, supposedly appearing on screen for the first time as Klemperer. If you watch the film knowing in advance the role is played by Swinton, you recognise her immediately as the psychiatrist. The prosthetics can’t hide her familiar aquiline features.

It’s still a remarkable performance, though. Everything from the shaky hands to the nervous tics and shuffling gait suggests this is a very old man. You suspect she must have based the performance at least partly on her friend, the author and philosopher John Berger, who died last year. Swinton has hinted that she is playing a third role as well. She is the dominating presence in a film in which all the main roles are played by women and the few men who do appear tend to be feeble objects of ridicule.

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“Movement is a language,” Madame Blanc declares to her young American student. It’s an axiom that Guadagnino appears to have taken to heart as well. The camera here never stops swooping down on or prowling round its characters as they rehearse and perform wild, primal, Rites Of Spring-like dance routines.

At times, the film becomes very silly. Lines like “they’ll hollow me out and eat my c**t on a plate”, spoken by Patricia to Klemperer as she sums up her vulture-like teachers’ intentions towards her, don’t inspire confidence. The Holocaust references in the screenplay are glib and tasteless. One of the more grotesque characters in the orgiastic final reel set-piece bears an uncanny resemblance to Raymond Briggs’ Fungus The Bogeyman – and is all the less frightening as a result.

The film is frequently very gory. We see characters with their innards hanging out of them. The old harpies enjoy gouging at flesh with meat hooks. During the more frenzied dance routines, bones have a nasty knack of protruding through skin. The lines between “reality” and nightmare are so thin as to be non-existent.

Whatever false steps Guadagnino and his cast take, this is bravura filmmaking. It is as much an allegory about the creative process as it is a horror-thriller. The director fills Suspiria with references to other movies and artists. The painter Balthus, famous for his images of pubescent girls, is one acknowledged inspiration for the look here.

The casting of veteran German stars like Angela Winkler (from The Tin Drum) and Ingrid Caven (one of Fassbinder’s muses) reinforce the sense that Guadagnino is playing homage to much more than just Argento’s original. “This isn’t vanity. This is art,” one character proclaims late on in a line that could apply to the film itself. From scene to scene, Guadagnino’s inventiveness is so breathtaking that it seems churlish to point out the flaws and longueurs in the film as a whole.

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