Dario Argento’s horror masterpiece Suspiria (1977) is beautiful to look at, but calling it an art film is a distinctly revisionist impulse. Although the heightened aesthetics and hysterical melodrama of Italian opera have undoubtedly influenced Argento’s style, he also overlays those high-art impulses onto B-movie genre forms. Shot mostly without sync sound and dubbed for both its Italian and American releases, Suspiria wasn’t intended to be a museum piece. In fact, take away the delirious beauty of the color-coded lighting and surging prog-rock score, and you’ve got a simple slasher movie, a film whose “witches at a ballet school” mythology is a mere delivery device for the real attraction: the violent, symbolic violation of young female bodies.
Not so with A Bigger Splash and Call Me By Your Name director Luca Guadagnino’s new remake of Suspiria, a film that replaces Argento’s fixation on sexualized violence with arthouse ostentation. In his version, Guadagnino doubles down on the commitment to aesthetics that has given Argento’s original such staying power, but draws from a wholly new set of influences: Soviet-era Eastern Bloc architecture, folk-art collage, ’70s feminist performance art, the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. What was bright and colorful is now drizzly and gray, and what was lurid is now self-consciously weighty.
The film is even structurally ambitious: The fact that the school is run by a sinister coven—the entire thrust of Argento’s plot—is clear from the first of Guadagnino’s “six acts and an epilogue set in divided Berlin,” where runaway student Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz) lays out the occult inner workings of the Tanz Dance Academy to her psychiatrist. This decision necessitates a whole new set of plot threads, which the film provides in excess. Foremost of these is the “chosen one” narrative that screenwriter David Kajganich applies to our heroine, Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), reimagined here as the restless daughter of a Mennonite family in rural Ohio. Susie’s background was incidental to her quest to uncover the sinister goings-on at the academy in the original Suspiria. But here her personal history—and in particular the image of her dying mother, her breath rattling in her chest like that of the mysterious “directoress” who hovers in the background of Argento’s film—is key to the character’s ambitions and motivations.
After arriving at Tanz’s Berlin headquarters (in the pouring rain, naturally) begging for an audition at the beginning of the film, Susie is accepted to the academy, cast as the lead in an upcoming production, and reveals herself to be a powerful conduit for occult energies—all within a couple of days. Although we only see Susie’s home life in flashback, it’s clear she’s looking for a substitute mother figure. And she finds one in Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), head dance instructor at Tanz, who’s impressed with Susie’s natural dance talent and wary of her intuitive grasp of witchcraft. Unbeknownst to Susie, however, Blanc’s mentorship has an ulterior motive: The coven has chosen Susie to participate in a bloody ritual to ensure its current headmistress’ immortality.
The theme of parasitic intimacy runs throughout Suspiria, and particularly Blanc’s conflicted character arc. Swinton frequently lightly touches her co-stars’ shoulders, brushes her hands lovingly across their cheeks, and holds their feet as if to transfer her wisdom into them. This tenderness is contrasted not only with the stern rigor of her teaching style but also with the lies and manipulation perpetuated by the coven. These whispers of intimate abuse invoke the dark shadow side of the maternal impulse, and the primal image of a mother devouring her young is key to the film’s horror. In Suspiria, creation—whether biological, artistic, or supernatural—is beautiful, yes; but it’s also painful, bloody, and emotionally fraught. This primal tension spills out into the film’s floor-stomping, spine-twisting style of modern dance, performed with much greater frequency and duration than in Argento’s film. As Dr. Josef Klemperer tells frightened Tanz student Sara (Mia Goth) in an off-campus meeting, “Love and manipulation, they share houses very often.”
The character of Klemperer, played by Swinton in prosthetic old-age makeup under the pseudonym “Dr. Lutz Ebersdorf,” is Kajganich’s other major addition to the story. Spun off from a minor psychiatrist character played by Udo Kier in the original film, Klemperer here is the dogged amateur detective whose investigation into Patricia’s disappearance keeps the plot moving. He’s also the main conduit through which the remade Suspiria explores an unexpected theme: the weight of history and collective guilt of the German people after World War II.
Guadagnino’s Suspiria engages with the outside world in a way Argento’s does not. Politics color every aspect of the story, both in the present—where the Baader-Meinhof Group’s campaign of bombings, kidnappings, and hijackings parallels an internal power struggle at the Tanz Academy—and the past. The Third Reich is invoked throughout, and although they’re unambiguously destructive, the witches at the Tanz Academy are placed in opposition to Hitler’s regime—which, as Blanc tells Susie shortly after her arrival in Berlin, wanted women to “close their minds and keep their uteruses open.” During the war, the all-female coven/dance academy was forced to go underground, and they’ve only recently returned to public life by the time the film opens in 1977.
Klemperer represents all that is male, above-ground, and yes, the Reich, with whom he’s complicit, a mistake for which he must magically atone. Deepening the moral ambiguity is Klemperer’s sympathetic backstory, and his crushing guilt over the disappearance of his wife, Anke (Jessica Harper, who played the protagonist in Argento’s original), during the war. Thematically, this subplot posits Klemperer as the emotional heart of the story, a frustrating choice for a film dominated by women. (There are only three male characters in the film, one of which is Swinton in disguise. The other two are bumbling cops who become playthings for the cackling coven.) Structurally, it makes more sense, a struggle between opposing forces in a film that’s defined by them.
Although it’s decidedly not a slasher film, Guadagnino’s Suspiria has its fair share of blood and guts (and brains and bone and urine). The shocks are doled out in intermittent bursts, from a nauseating scene in the first third of the film—which, we should remind you here, is 151 minutes long, so be patient—where rebellious student Olga (Elena Fokina) is twisted into grotesque shapes in tandem with the dance exercises next door until she’s a drooling, broken mess. Then we have to wait a while, through dialogue and dance and gorgeously framed close-ups, until Guadagnino unleashes an unholy torrent in the film’s over-the-top climax—which we can’t describe in too much detail here, but which must have made for a surreal day (or week) on set.
Consistent with the visual shift from bright and big to muted and intimate, Thom Yorke’s score for the film is quiet, dreamy, and piano-based, a major departure from Goblin’s bombastic original. One of the few aesthetic touches to make the transition from original to remake is an eerie aural motif of sighs and whispers, which ricochet across the mix like ghosts flitting through a haunted house. The craft and attention to detail throughout the film are sublime, and the visual symbolism is dripping with occult significance, down to the patterns on the studio floor and the knotted-rope costumes for Susie’s big performance midway through the film.
Guadagnino’s vision for Suspiria is singular, admirably audacious, and ironically the biggest challenge Suspiria will face as it prepares for a wide release in American theaters. An “F” CinemaScore from moviegoers looking for a slasher remake is all but inevitable. But as bold (and potentially alienating) as Guadagnino’s take on Suspiria might be, it’s also extremely precise, and he places each sweeping caftan and gurgling sound effect with the focus and intention of an haute cuisine chef fussing over garnishes. Prepare your palate accordingly.
Note: This is an expanded version of the review The A.V. Club ran from Fantastic Fest.