Remaking horror classics is a tried-and-true tradition, but it’s still a little mystifying why anyone felt 1977’s Suspiria was a good candidate. Dario Argento’s giallo classic, about a dancer training in a school that is secretly home to a coven of witches, isn’t influential for its setting and premise, so much as for its bold visual style, its mood, and the hypnotic score by prog-rock band Goblin. Many of the elements that made the original Suspiria unforgettable were the precise things any remake would necessarily lose.
Director Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name) seems to acknowledge that fact in his remake, which arrives in theaters on October 26th. Set in 1977, the year of the original film’s release, it’s less a traditional reboot than a remix. It replaces all the key elements that made the original film work — its patience, its dread, its haunting music and visuals — with ones of Guadagnino’s own design. In that sense, it feels as if the new film captures the essence of the original Suspiria, even as it explores a new set of thematic preoccupations. The result is unlikely to be as influential as Argento’s movie, and it will test some viewers’ patience, but it’s still a bold, hypnotic work, an example of the richness that today’s generation of filmmakers are bringing to the horror genre.
The film opens with Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz), a dancer from the Helena Markos Dance Company in Berlin, visiting her therapist, Dr. Josef Klemperer (Tilda Swinton, under some extremely effective makeup prosthetics). Patricia has become convinced that the dance school is home to a coven of witches. Later, when she vanishes, Klemperer begins investigating what happened to her, and what’s going on at the school.
Meanwhile, aspiring American dancer Susie (Dakota Johnson) has traveled to Germany to audition for the troupe. When she performs, the mysterious Madame Blanc (also Swinton) recognizes her raw talent — and otherworldly power. Susie lands a coveted spot in the troupe in spite of her lack of previous training or credentials, and she quickly bounds up the pecking order, earning the role of lead dancer. Still, something seems awry with the dance school, and the peculiar behavior of both the women that run the place and fellow dancers like Sara (Mia Goth) increase the sense that something isn’t quite right. Eventually, Susie discovers that she’s at the school to do far more than dance.
Dwelling on plot machinations isn’t the best way to delve into Suspiria, however, because Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich are less interested in the characters and storylines than in the atmosphere and mood. Johnson plays Susie as suitably wide-eyed and naïve when she first joins the troupe, and while she becomes more assured in her skills, the film doesn’t reveal much depth to her as she moves from dance sequence to dance sequence. Swinton’s Madame Blanc is similarly a cipher, which is clearly deliberate when the film begins — the mystery and menace about her helps the unease to bloom — but she also feels underutilized, even as the film reveals hints about what she and the other women in the school are really up to. Swinton’s performance as Dr. Klemperer is the more compelling turn, as the doctor spends his days investigating what’s actually happening in the school, and revealing a moving backstory about the wife he lost in the Holocaust.
But Guadagnino and Kajganich make the most of the film’s setting, leaning into the idea that the physicality of dance itself has power — as a metaphor for Susie’s own growing confidence, but literally supernatural power as well. It’s clear from very early on that the film’s witchcraft is tied closely to the dances the women in the troupe perform, and one particularly gut-wrenching sequence drives that home as Susie’s avant-garde performance literally rips apart the body of a dancer trapped in another room. It’s a nerve-wracking sequence, combining skillful cross-cutting, effects, and the work of choreographer Damien Jalet to create a few minutes that are hard to shake as the film continues.
Those kind of standout, nightmarish moments are threaded throughout the film, with Guadagnino often deploying his horror show imagery in discordant jump cuts, or quick flashes that disorient the audience much as Susie is feeling increasingly off-balance. It’s a far cry from Argento’s blood-soaked, operatic approach — Guadagnino’s film is dour and filled with browns and dark greens, a sharp contrast to Argento’s often garish color palette — and the difference in approach manifests in the score as well. While Goblin’s work in the original film was relentless and full of creepy, chanted whispers, the 2018 film’s score, by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, is delicate and beautiful, stringing together gentle piano lines and fragile vocals.
What the film isn’t, at least in the traditional slasher movie sense, is scary. There’s certainly gore, and the film is remarkably unsettling, but Guadagnino seems most interested in what ideas he can explore within the framework of the genre. This is a story about a dance studio run by witches, but it’s also a film about Cold War-era Germany, which is tearing itself apart over the course of the film. Terrorist attacks by the Baader-Meinhof Group feature prominently in the story, and the conflict between a generation coping with the aftermath of the Holocaust, and a younger generation that wants to forge its own path as a fresh start after those atrocities, runs heavily throughout the entire movie. The visuals and score give the film an added depth and gravitas — even as cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom indulges in frequent 1970s-style snap zooms — that help the different threads feel warranted, in spite of the premise’s potential silliness.
The excess of style can make the 2018 Suspiria feel overstuffed at times, so full of ambition that it’s easy to lose the thread of the story among all the ideas Guadagnino has in play. It’s easy to appreciate the sheer scale of what he’s trying to do, but it leads to an awfully long film — more than two and a half hours, nearly an hour longer than Argento’s original. It’s not wise to judge a film on run time alone, and we’d all be better off if more filmmakers had the ambition Guadagnino does with genre fare. But the new Suspiria does often feel long, like a movie that loses its way at key points. Given that the opening title card announces the film will take part in six acts and an epilogue, it’s easy to wind up wearily counting the acts while hoping for the final, bloody conclusion to finally arrive.
When it does, it is absolutely satisfying, wrapping the many pieces together in a way that’s horrifying, subversive, and legitimately emotional. It turns out there’s a humanity to the darkest characters in Suspiria, an ability to recognize pain and suffering as abominations that should not be tolerated. It’s one final, unexpected twist, one last layer in a film that seems obsessed with adding as many as possible. But it’s perhaps the most important of the entire bunch. If the cost of landing on it is a movie that feels a little too long and as if it’s exploring a few too many things, that’s an easy price to pay.