This month’s remake of Suspiria opens with fresh-faced Susie (Dakota Johnson) achieving her dream of joining the illustrious Helena Markos Dance Company. Her performance catches the eye of the director, Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), who draws her deeper and deeper into the academy’s mystical machinations, even as she struggles with her own group loyalties.
Running throughout is the story of psychiatrist Dr. Jozef Klemperer (Tilda Swinton, who also plays Helena Markos, and who is seamless in every role). When one of his patients, the star dancer, suddenly disappears, he investigates her ravings about witches and curses, and catches the attention of the women at the academy.
If you haven’t yet seen Dario Argento’s Suspiria from 1977 and are interested in either film, I would hold off on the original until after you’ve seen the remake. The plot is sufficiently different that you won’t be spoiled, and the new version stands up better without the weight of the comparison.
Which is not to say that this Suspiria doesn’t move in interesting, new directions. Remaking a film that’s known for its style but not its plot is a bold move, and Argento casts a long, vibrant-pink shadow that’s hard for the new version to escape. That said, director Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name) makes a number of aesthetic choices that seem calculated to avoid direct comparison. Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke’s soundtrack is unobtrusive — a far cry from Goblin’s jangly synth rollercoaster — and the deliberately muted palette almost rebukes the original’s inferno of color. This is to the film’s advantage; it’s clear from the start that this is a different story, and it doesn’t lack for its own unique design.
[Ed. note: The rest of this article contains minor spoilers for Suspiria.]
Although the film is set in post-WWII Berlin, Suspiria’s cinematography maintains the look of a subdued 1970s drama, a stylish reflection of the overarching theme: illusion. The film is upfront about the existence of witches and the strength of their power, but the question behind their purpose is less forthright than it seems. Whether a second watching will reveal a greater intricacy at play, or expose the rough-shod nature of the mystery, is hard to say. But I do want to watch it a second time, to see what clues hide in the cinematography’s mirrors and windows. That isn’t always the case with horror movies, especially ones that clock in at two and a half hours long.
I’ve come to approach horror movies about witches with a grain of salt, owing to the number that uncritically engage with the core idea that a woman with power must be a villain. When one of the dancers remarks that Madame Blanc believes women should be economically empowered, I worried this was setting up a story about the evils of female self-sufficiency. Rest assured, in the end Suspiria manages to avoid this cliche, although without really substituting an alternative in its place.
The sharp modern choreography is entrancing and adds a physicality to the magic that gave it impact, even more so than in the original. The force and energy in the academy’s signature performance Volk, accented by the red rope-bondage costumes, convinced me that dance might actually be a little bit magic, and a lot powerful.
The movie does fumble through a few overly long sequences. Early on we see a spell being channeled through Susie, to shatter a student attempting to leave the academy. It’s a fair tribute to the unflinching body-horror spectacle of giallo films. We see the student’s body twist and break, and the sequence comes to a crescendo of brutality — and then continues for several more minutes, a meal spoiled by too many servings.
Similarly, two nightmare sequences are given unique if not quite successful treatments. They feature a quick series of spooky images, with glimpses of Susie hiding in closets from her oppressive Mennonite family, commingling with unrelated images, like worms crawling on black masks — the fodder of Halloween mood GIF sets on someone’s goth Tumblr. The arrangements feels like a desperate push to increase the creepiness: the cinematic equivalent of putting your hand in a bowl of peeled grapes and insisting they’re eyeballs. It was effectively startling, but I was left wondering what importance they had to the plot.
Suspiria won’t appeal to everyone. Die-hard fans of the original may find it too changed, more cerebral than visceral. But for audiences drawn to Let the Right One In and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Suspiria will certainly earn its place the pantheon of moody arthouse horrors.
Suspiria debuts in New York and Los Angeles theaters on Oct. 26, and expands nationwide on Nov. 2.