Luca Guadagnino | 2hr 32min
It takes a lot of nerve and great deal of ambition to even consider remaking the masterpiece of Italian Giallo cinema that is Suspiria, and it was particularly unexpected in 2018 to hear that Luca Guadagnino would be the one to do so following his coming-of-age film, Call Me By Your Name. The Dario Argento influence here is ultimately as minimal as it could be though in a film that takes the title and narrative of his most famous work. Guadagnino is far more interested in delivering his own take on its twisted fairy tale of witches and curses, accomplishing a very different beauty in the deep red hues that don’t so much leap off the screen through vivid neon lighting as they do draw us into a deep, dreary reverie. This is not Technicolor expressionism like the original, but rather bleak, washed-out surrealism, playing heavily on occultist iconography and performative rituals that angle its story in a more psychological direction.
This is of course connected to the second major change between the two versions of Suspiria, which lifts the tale of witchcraft out of its vibrant, German fantasy and transplants it into the German Autumn of 1977, which saw an abundance of terrorist activity spill out from the Cold War. Guadagnino’s thematic aspirations are clear, drawing parallels between these historical attacks and the spate of magical murders steadily killing off the girls of Berlin’s fictional Markos Dance Company. There is also the added character of Dr. Josef Klemperer, whose investigations into the school’s strange occurrences lead him into a subplot concerning his own tragic past in World War II. Unfortunately, it is whenever Guadagnino goes off on these tangents that his filmmaking takes a backseat to political ponderings that never fully connect. That Tilda Swinton also disappears so completely into the gender-bending role of Klemperer while simultaneously playing Madame Blanc and the vile Mother Markos is certainly an impressive turn from her, and yet this too adds up to little more than a frivolous quirk in the film’s formal construction.
Where Guadagnino does effectively leave his artistic mark on Suspiria’s legacy is in the rhythmic, surreal editing of its most unsettling scenes, especially in one nightmarish montage of shattering mirrors, dancing lights, and blood-smeared walls. Even more audacious than this is one scene’s intercutting between American student Susie’s elegant dance practice and her peer’s agonising demise at the hands of the school’s witches. Alone in the building’s rehearsal room of distorted mirrors, her limbs painfully contort into excruciating angles, and as Guadagnino revels in the body horror, he visually compares the sight to Susie’s rhythmic dance, flinging her arms and legs in similarly abrupt motions.
Indeed, much of the choreography to be found in Suspiria is almost ritualistic in its unity and repetition, and as the presence of the school’s ruling witch coven grows in power, so too do these dances become more maniacally Satanic, to the point that the students are forming occultist symbols with their bodies. Here in the final act, Guadagnino’s red colour palette finally explodes in full force, washing elegantly performed rituals in a dazzling crimson hue, and creating truly gorgeous images of moving bodies that he disappointingly ruins almost immediately with some bizarre creative choices. The jittery low frame rate, slow-motion, and digital blood splatters at least show Guadagnino’s interest in experimenting stylistically, but as a climactic pay-off, these are simply just messy flaws. It would be easy enough to say that he might have been better off adapting other material that plays more to his talents, and yet even so, it is still worth appreciating his take on Suspiria for what it is – an ambitious but ultimately chaotic plunge into chilling supernatural occultism and blunt political horror.
Suspiria is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.