*Warning: Some Spoilers for Suspiria*
When I walked out of the theater after watching Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Suspiria, I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know how to feel. I didn’t know if I liked the movie or if I hated it. Oh sure, there was plenty of horrific elements and beautiful dance scenes and provocative imagery, but did I enjoy it? Was it a good movie?
And then I realized that I felt the same way after watching Dario Argento’s original Suspiria. I had to laugh. Even though the remake of Suspiria is a wholly independent film that stands on its own, it reminded me of the original in more than one way. Beyond the purposefully muted visual palate, the expanded plot, and the exploration of themes, Guadagnino’s Suspiria creates a similarly enigmatic and overwhelming horror film that compliments Argento’s work.
The overall plot of the Suspiria remake is the same. In 1977, American Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) travels to the Markos Dance Academy in West Berlin, hoping to land a spot in the prestigious dance company led by Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). And just like in the original, Susie quickly discovers that something is amiss at the academy. Students disappear. Strange things happen that Susie cannot explain. And it seems that the women running the academy have sinister plans for their dancers and Susie in particular.
However, the remake adds an entirely new character in the form of Dr. Josef Klemperer (also Tilda Swinton, doing a fabulous job). Dr. Klemperer is a psychotherapist who was treating one of the dancers before she went missing. Her disappearance spurs him to investigate the obscure motivations of the academy and revisit painful memories from his experience as a Holocaust survivor. Additionally, the film’s primary action unfolds against a backdrop of the political upheaval Germany experienced in the fall of 1977, when groups like the Red Army Faction (RAF) carried out bank robberies, kidnappings, bombings, plane hijackings, and assassinations.
Where the Remake Shines
Developed Themes and a Scarily Relevant Historical Message
The connection to real-world events turns out to lend unexpected gravity to the film’s themes and is one of the critical differences between the two versions. The remake firmly anchors the story in a time and a place, specifically West Berlin during the German Autumn of 1977. Whereas the original chose to create a world that exists apart from the real world, the remake uses the political and cultural turmoil of the period. In doing so, Suspiria (2018) emphasizes the conflict and similarities between the witches’ dance academy and the outside world.
Now, I’m no expert on German history. I had to do a lot of research to understand why the film referenced these historical elements. It did not hold my hand at all, which is one of the reasons I left the theater so confused.
So, I learned about the Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which translates to “overcoming the past” and speaks to Germany’s efforts to both come to terms with its Nazi past and effectively move past it. I studied how many young Germans, particularly in the 1970s, felt that the generation in charge had not done enough to atone for the country’s sins. I researched about generational and political conflict leading up to the German Autumn, from the student protests of the late 1960s to fears of a return to authoritarianism.
I even researched the meaning of “Volk,” which is the title of the intricate modern dance performed in the film. It means “crowd of people,” but for Germans, it is laden with a deep sense of German national identity, with 19th-century roots as a powerful nationalistic concept. Volk was then co-opted by Hitler and the Nazis to refer to the German people’s status as an elevated race (i.e. “herrenvolk” or “master race”), and the concept was then used to justify the Nazis’ atrocities.
So, what does this have to do with a horror movie about a dance academy run by witches? A lot, it turns out.
At the core of the Suspiria remake is the idea of abuse of power and resulting power struggles. The film is full of conflict—between the matriarchal world of the coven and the patriarchal system about to fall apart outside its walls, between the witches and the dancers, between the witches themselves, between the past and the present, and between the present and the future.
Like the original, the matriarchal society of the witches is just as fraught with exploitive dynamics, abuses of power, and shifting allegiances as the patriarchal society outside. This is not a matriarchal utopia, and mothers are not always the benevolent creatures we want to assume they are. The Markos Dance Academy is just more human beings engaging in the very worst kind of human behavior, all vying for superiority at the expense of the innocent and weak, until someone powerful enough comes along to assert her dominion.
Once I understood the parallels between the context of the German Autumn and the developments within the academy, I understood the film. I found it a fascinating, compelling idea to explore how the violence and greed of the older generations can be imposed on the younger generation, threatening to repeat the cycle. I was transfixed by the idea that the sins of our elders can be surreptitiously transmitted into the very bodies of the younger generation to act out without them even knowing it.
More importantly, I felt moved by the film’s message that anyone in a position of power is capable of violent exploitation and that these actions must be witnessed, acknowledged, and atoned for before we can make progress. Sometimes, that can only happen through even more violence.
Make no mistake, Suspiria (2018) is a complex film the folds in on itself. As such, it does a very good job of using its storytelling and filmmaking elements to serve the film’s message. Perhaps nowhere else is this more apparent than in the numerous dance scenes. Unlike the original Suspiria, which deemphasized the importance of ballet as a plot point, the remake’s modern dancing is integral to the plot. The dancing is not part of the spells—it is the spells. It is mesmerizing and ethereal and brutal and primal.
As choreographer Damien Jalet explained, “I wanted [the witches] to feel like they rebel against the curse of a certain female representation, and then it fit for me with the whole storyline. It’s a dance of resistance, trying to break something, and the original trio was really trying to break a spell.”
In this regard, Suspiria (2018) blows Suspiria (1977) out of the water.
They’re amazing. As a former dancer myself, I don’t know where to start when describing how fantastic the choreography and the technical execution was. Every bit of dancing was ingeniously composed and executed, which not only looked terrific onscreen but also reinforced the themes of power and exploitation. Additionally, the choreography invoked Mother Suspirium with powerful dancing that uses percussive breath and twisting torsos.
Of particular note is the infamous mirrored studio scene, where dancer Olga tries to escape the coven only to be tortured by a terrifying ritual carried out by an unknowing Susie. The scene is an excellent example of impressive body horror. Dancer Elena Fokina performed most of the disgusting contortions without the aid of CGI. The scene took “‘surgical precision’ to make sure her movements could be synced up with Johnson’s in the editing room, all while considering the most effective angles for filming and the needs of the visual effects team, who would be outfitting Fokina with a graduating series of prosthetics to make her more mangled as the dance progressed. Oh, and also, it had to look entirely reactive and spontaneous instead of ‘academic’ or ‘too square.’”
And it looked f*cking flawless.
Suspiria (2018) wisely avoided stepping to the original regarding visual punch. Let’s face it; it would have been a losing battle to try and outdo Argento’s original lurid technicolor nightmare. Instead, Guadagnino and cinematographer and collaborator Sayombhu Mukdeeprom respected the original’s vision. Shooting on 35mm film stock (like the original), Mukdeeprom captured a world without the bold colors of the original (in fact, there is a noticeable lack of primary colors for much of the film). Guadagnino made this choice to communicate his conception of the German Autumn’s impact—all “browns and blacks and blues and greens, all muted and juxtaposed. They do not pop at you…they infiltrate you, and they go deep into you.”
The remake also pays homage to original with a distinctly 70s feel, not just from the set design and art direction, but from the composition and editing. Techniques like slow motion scenes and liberal use of snap zooms invoke a different era and lend to the historical context as well as the film’s eeriness.
Where the Remake Faltered
Handling the Historical Context
For a film about “being immersed in a world of turmoil and uncompromising darkness,” I found it more disorienting than scary at times. Suspiria (2018) is a challenging film to watch and understand, mainly because it relied so heavily on the above described historical events to color and contextualize the coven’s power structure. As I mentioned, if you’re like me and had no clue about German history in the 1970s, much of the narrative went over your head. I could still follow the film’s major plot points and grasp at the message, but the film’s stance on its themes became muddled. I noticed this lack of comprehension, and it distracted me. And these opaque themes came on top of understated and unexplained developments, which only added to my frustrations.
Suspiria (2018) is a film that benefits from several re-watches.
Additionally, I found the Thom Yorke’s soundtrack a bit underwhelming (and I say that as a huge Thom Yorke fan). Some scenes were amazing, such as the dance scenes, but in other scenes, the music seemed disparate at best and mismatched at worst. Other times, I didn’t notice it at all. It was just sort of…there, a far cry from the scene-stealing Goblin soundtrack of the original.
The Visual Language of the Climax
Lastly, there was a specific directorial choice made about the climax that I didn’t understand. While the rest of the film has this very careful and crisp cinematic aesthetic, full of the muted colors and captivating details of the world of the coven, the climax devolves into a bloody scene plagued by a weird, blurry filter. I hypothesize this was a creative choice to reflect the story’s turning point and the big reveal, but it looked…off, amateur and cheap. It clashed with the rest of the film’s visual language, and not in a good way. But perhaps my opinion exposes my ignorance of technique.
All in All
After having a few days to think about Suspiria, during which I revisited the film’s more provocative moments and conducted my historical research, I decided that I really liked it. It’s a very well-done film and a unique art-house horror picture.
However, I don’t think the remake lives up to Guadagnino’s hope that it “performs as the most disturbing experience you can have.” It is a disturbing film, yes, but its historical context creates an accessibility problem. The film loses its thematic punch, especially for viewers unfamiliar with German history. Of course, the onscreen horrors land effectively and brutally, and the atmosphere of dread and evil is palpable. But the film could have better communicated the nuanced horrors of the past and our propensity to become caught in the same destructive power struggles.
Despite all this, Suspiria (2018) is worth your time as potentially one of the best horror films of the year with a disturbingly timely message.