A worm on a window ledge. A hair clogged toilet. Viscera clutched to a naked breast. All of these images and more combine to form the unsettling dreamscapes of Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) in Luca Guadagino’s masterful Suspiria remake. Nightmares come in many forms in the film from the ecstasy and terror of motherhood to the buried shame of Germany’s sordid past right up to the film’s blood and entrails soaked finale. Suspiria is unlucky in that it finds itself at the tail end of a banner year for horror films but lucky in that it may be the best of them all.
American Mennonite Susie Bannion travels to West Berlin in 1977 to audition for the Markos Dance Academy. Another student, Patricia (Chloe Moretz), has recently confided in an elderly German psychiatrist Josef Klemperer (Lutz Ebersdorf aka Tilda Swinton) that the Academy is run by a coven of witches. Patricia disappears soon after leading Dr Klemperer to investigate the Academy and those running it namely Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). As Susie grows closer and closer to Blanc and the Academy’s secrets so too does Dr Klemperer all while political events outside relating to the Red Army Faction (RAF) and Baader/Meinhof Gang organisations spiral closer to chaos.
The plot of what director Guadagino calls a ‘homage’ to rather than a remake of the original 1977 Suspiria is long and complex. But it’s story is not the only difference. HeadStuff’s Film co-editor Stephen Porzio called the original “One of the most gorgeous looking horrors of all time”. He’s right but the 2018 film has it’s own stark beauty with none of the lurid technicolour design. Severe and brutalist the film evokes the European arthouse masters such as Fassbinder and Tarkovsky while retaining the giallo trappings of Dario Argento’s rightfully acclaimed masterpiece.
At two-and-a-half hours in length Suspiria makes its audience wait for the gory violence. The time before the film’s metaphorical and literal descent into bloody hell is filled with hints at what is to come but it’s dialogue and dance scenes interest as much as the murders. Often these scenes of violence are juxtaposed with the interpretive dance Susie, Sara (Mia Goth) and Madame Blanc perform.
Susie’s first performance in front of an audience is intercut with a woman trapped in a mirror-lined room. As Susie moves and twists so too does the woman below only in traumatic fashion. Bones snap and crack as organs shift and bulge. Susie’s nightmares also reflect the violence to come as well as the violence we never see but only hear about.
1977 was a trying time for Germany as several leading industry and political figures were murdered by the RAF, a far-left militant organisation with links to Palestinian freedom fighters. TV and radio broadcasts inform us of these events as well as an ongoing Lufthansa hijacking crisis. They are tied to the ongoing reflection of German culpability in the Holocaust, personified by the aged and sad Josef Klemperer, as well as being linked to the corrupted nature of the coven.
The ending, without revealing too much, can be read as a purification. But it is a purification by blood. Stomachs are opened, heads explode and throats are slit in one of the most gory, visceral and intense finales ever put to screen. As Thom Yorke’s often muted score reaches an unexpected operatic peak so too does cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s unorthodox but reverent camerawork. Many of the technical elements of the film, particularly the lighting and framing, reflect the metamorphic performances on display.
Unlike the original Suspiria’s consistently doe-eyed and naïve Susie (Jessica Harper, who has a cameo as Klemperer’s missing wife) Johnson’s Susie begins as that shy, skittish person before morphing slowly into a carnal, sensual, commanding presence. Mia Goth’s Sara twists inwards like a blooming flower slowly wilting in the sun. Much has been rightly made of Swinton’s dual turns in Suspiria but the film is anchored around Johnson and Goth who slowly, satisfyingly become warped inversions of the other character until one is whole and the other hollow.
Suspiria is just as unsettling as Hereditary, just as gory as Apostle, just as entertaining as Halloween and more thematically satisfying than all three. It is the greatest horror film of 2018 without a doubt. Good horror films scare us. Great horror films speak to us. Long after I left the cinema Suspiria was there whispering to me. I will likely hear its voice for a long time.