Remaking horror films often sets up unrealistic expectations for the viewer. The majority of these projects that often get a remake have little to no vision behind the reboot. Rarely do the directors coming into the projects have the skill or talent to bring unsettling images to life. Often, the scariest films in the genre involve possessions, demons, and creatures that are so absurd, the work in that singular context. Catching lightning in a bottle is tough in a singular occasion, let alone trying to pull off the feat after the surprise has been spoiled. Yet, every once in a while a director approaches a project and chooses to move away from everything that made the first film work. In the case of Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria, the film thrives because it burns down everything about the original.
Suspiria follows a young dancer named Susie (Dakota Johnson) who comes to Berlin to join a dance troupe. The troupe, led by Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), are considered the premiere dance studio in the world, despite being in the shadow of the Berlin Wall. When dancers begin to go missing, Susie and Sara (Mia Goth) begin investigating. Simultaneously, a psychologist Dr. Josef Klemperer (also Swinton) searches for his missing patient Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz).
The cast is brilliant from top to bottom. Johnson delivers a career-best performance without a doubt. What is surprising from her is the hypnotic relationship with Swinton, elevating both actresses in the process. It is clear that this is not just Swinton pushing a great performance out of Johnson, but instead, a two-handed cat and mouse game with very high stakes. Swinton is brilliant of course, bending the narrative to refocus on her in every scene. She might be the most charismatic actor under thirty pounds of makeup since Lon Cheney in the 1920s. It’s astounding how physically gifted she can become in each character.
Finally, Goth and Moretz are extremely strong. Goth will be a newcomer to most, and she really drives the film forward for big stretches of the film. Guadagnino clearly hit it off with her and gets a lot back for his decision to roll with her. Moretz is very good, combining a truly fearful performance with one that could easily convince you she is on the edge of paranoid delusion. It was a nice refresher to remind audiences she can be a great actress when pushed in the right direction.
One of the things that immediately stands out about this version of Suspiria is the way in which color has been sapped out of the world. Guadagnino brings the dank world of a Cold War Berlin just thirty years after World World II. The city is seemingly haunted by the ghost of the war, and it affects the events far more than you might expect. While there are reds, blues, and greens throughout the world, they are far more muted than the original film. The greys and dark shades help add to the hazy and haunting texture of the film.
One of the ways in which the Guadagnino really excels comes from the ways the camera moves through the world. DP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom adds a voyeuristic feel that invokes the visuals of Hitchcock and Powell. Early in the film, a character moves through an office, scared she is being watched. In the modern age, with dozens of ways for strangers to seemingly keep tabs on us, this fear and imagery feels all too real. The way in which they shoot the dancers and violence also feels transgressive. The dancers are sexualized, but there’s something sinister in the ways we watch the women.
Yet even more disturbing are the quick cuts, which leave you off balance as a viewer. In some instances, the cut is to nothing, or at least nothing noticeable. Others are to extremely disgusting frames. The images that Mukdeeprom and Guadagnino craft are full of symbolism. Yet they disorient you as the viewer to give create an echo of disgust despite the fact that the film has moved on to the next five or six images.
Also extremely important to the film are the use of sound and makeup. The sound, in particular, supplements the images on the screen. One sequence early in the film is masterful in its use of sound, so intense that it will likely scar you. Yet what makes the soundscape so intrusive are the types of sounds being pulled. To avoid spoilers, I will not get into specifics, but like Hereditary earlier this year, there are some noises you will never be able to think of without remembering Susperia.
Thom Yorke crafts a haunting and stunning score. Yorke combines strings, piano and swelling music to fit the mood of each scene. Yet the incorporation of ambient sounds helps give an atmospheric element that helps the score transcend the film. The music feels of the 1970s, incorporating synth and guitar tracks into the quiet music. You could legitimately play the score in a haunted house on Halloween and the music would feel at home. At the same time, it feels experimental enough to be a worthy successor to the Goblin soundtrack from the Argento film.
The makeup work simply transforms character after character. Obviously, the place to start is with Swinton’s transformations. The actress commits to each of her roles in the film with gusto, even playing multiple characters in the same scene at times. Her transformation is so complete, the first few months after the film’s premiere, Amazon and Guadagnino attempted to say that her Dr. Klemperer was another actor entirely. Some of the creatures and effects needed for the film really shock at times. The violence comes unexpectedly at times and even breaks away from the narrative. Yet the makeup work and prop creations are extravagant. The work is every bit as stunning as The Grand Budapest Hotel which won the Oscar for makeup a few years ago.
While Suspiria worked for me, I am not alone in saying this is a niche film. If you have a weak stomach, you might want to avoid this one. When this one wants to get gross, it is horrifying. Like The Witch or Hereditary, the images are here to make your skin crawl. It is doubtful that you will escape the theater without an image or two sticking in your mind. This falls in line with the first one, iconic in its own right for the use of gore and frightening imagery.
The other element at play here is the witchcraft itself. The fact that witches are involved is not a secret in this version. Instead, they openly embrace the element of the story almost immediately. Guadagnino and his crew can then dive into the world of the coven, and the film asks bigger questions in the process. Rather than ask if witches exist, Guadagnino dives into a deeply psychological exploration of witchcraft and womanhood. This turn also adds significant stress on the characters, which leads to some questionable moments that some may find disturbing.
This is a tricky one to review, as it actually varies significantly in many ways from the original film. Adding an extra hour of footage, plus diving into the cultural moment of Berlin in the 1970s really gives this film much more to say than the Argento version, itself a hefty piece of filmmaking. In that regard, the Guadagnino edition of the film will gain significant attention as a master remake. Yet at the same time, many who were unsettled by the original will find a far darker and more unsettling film this time out. It’s an excellent piece, and with many more viewings to come, this might be the very best horror film of 2018.