Based on the original screenplay by Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi, Luca Gudagnino and David Kajganich’s Suspiria strips away the luminescent inferno of the 1977 original and replaces it with a putrescent bog, emanating dread and decay where there was once fright and frenzy. This cinematic necromancy creates an absorbing, if somewhat academic study of division between ideologies as a vast array of research is laid out and threaded together across this Danse Macabre’s two-and-a-half hour runtime.
Lauded for his evocative rendition of 1983’s idyllic Italian summer in Call Me by Your Name (2017), Guadagnino now summons his reimagined Suspiria from a wholly different period: the German Autumn of a divided Berlin, 1977. As bombs are detonated and protests suppressed, the Markos Dance Academy — standing next to the Berlin Wall and signed simply with the word “TANZ” — is Suspiria’s locale for witchy happenings. Here, new arrival Susie Bannion (an unnervingly opaque Dakota Johnson) comes under the tutelage of Madam Blanc (Tilda Swinton possessed by Pina Bausch) and the gaggle of instructors currently experiencing their own rift in faculty politics. This loss of unity amongst the wyrd sisters leads to a succession of occult occurrences — missing students, forgetful policemen — which comes to the attention of psychiatrist Dr. Josef Klemperer (Lutz Ebersdorf possessed by Swinton) and reawakens his own post-Reich demons.
The film opens with Susie’s predecessor, Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz), seeking the help of Dr. Klemperer. Someone is trying “to get inside of me” she laments as she enters the room; a flurry of edits ensues, cutting from each end of the room and detailing books, photographs, ephemera. It’s suspicion that Guadagnino is keen to highlight early within the film, as Patricia turns away all icons and images within the room to stop them from watching her. A thinly veiled metaphor for the paranoia that came to define the era — courtesy of East Germany’s Stasi (secret police) listening in on the public for signs of insurrection — Suspiria’s Berlin is alive with chatter, as propaganda drapes nearly every new and reconstructed building (the clash of brutalist and art deco production design is an astounding gothic achievement), the radio reports activities of the Baader-Meinhof Group and the television shows fire in the streets. The air is filled with words to change your thoughts and poison your heart, a spellcraft of ideology. No wonder, when this psychic violence becomes physical, sights grotesque and brutal unfold on bodies ripe for corruption. It is, however, this sense of competing messages that may lead viewers to fatigue during the film’s six chapters and epilogue.
While the script lends itself to a mordant tone, there are many points of reference that muddy its voice’s intent, plotlines compete rather than cement the psychic relationships between characters, and become a race for significance between whose state of internal opposition is the most profound. When it comes to the effort placed in Kajganich’s script to adhere these many facets together, “raising the dead” might be an appropriate turn of phrase. As a testament to Suspiria’s doom-laden atmosphere however, this doesn’t slow the engrossing sense of ever-escalating disaster; bones breaks and flesh tears as Susie’s surreal night-terrors mark progress towards an orgiastic climax which — for fans of Italian Horror — I’ll describe as Fulci Tilt Boogie.
A swirling, tumbling vision of Cold War paranoia and coven politics, Suspiria will both astound and baffle; the conflict that defines its muted streets, full of uneasy dreams and restless feet, will come to bear on its audience and their nightmares.
Paul Farrell (@InPermafrost) is a freelance writer and programmer. He has contributed to MUBI Notebook, The Digital Fix and BLAM! Magazine. Paul also programmes independent & community cinema events in Birmingham, UK. When he grows up, he wants to be Zazie from Zazie in the Metro.