How do you remake Dario Argento’s giallo horror classic Suspiria, with its ultrasaturated color palette and its bloodsoaked murders and its creepy score from the electronic rock band Goblin? By sloughing off that skin, by embracing something new, by shifting its central mystery into something more self-assured, more angry, more decayed. Suspiria is alternately slow-moving, intensely macabre, and somewhat pretentious, but it leaves an impression nevertheless. It burrows deep inside, it unsettled me thoroughly, it made me laugh and it made me gasp and it made my skin crawl.
Director Luca Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich (who did great work on the underwatched The Terror earlier this year) transform the original story about a coven of witches doing nefarious stuff in their dance company to an enclave of women united by resentment and disgust, desperate for a fresh start, delighting in violence against men. The year is 1977 and the setting is a divided Berlin, where people pass through checkpoints between East and West, where the whole place looks like it’s shaking off dust and debris left over from the war, and breathless news coverage of the Red Army Faction insurgent group and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine dominates the radio and TV. The setting feels simultaneously washed-out and settled-in, like a place collapsing in on itself.
In that barren-feeling location, the Markos Dance Company is like a mini-fiefdom, a building made of marble with floor tiles that look like jagged teeth and mysterious secret rooms. The company is run by the mercurial Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), an imposing figure in sweeping gowns and waist-length hair, and the whole place is littered with women who all seem to know each other, who all live together in this space, who look over the girls who have trusted them with their dance training. But underneath this veneer of camaraderie and united femininity, there’s discontent brewing — one of the girls, Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz), has recently disappeared. Her friend Olga (Elena Fokina) doesn’t buy Blanc’s explanation that Patricia ran away to join the Red Army Faction. American dancer Susie (Dakota Johnson, finally weaponizing her blankness to great effect), has mysteriously arrived at the company, with no formal training but a style of dancing that looks like possession. And within the women of the company, too, there is a divide, between those who want Blanc to take over the direction of the group and those who want to stay with their original leader, Helena Markos, for whom the company is named.
Oh, and did I mention all the women involved in the company are witches? THEY’RE ALL WITCHES. The original Suspiria spent much of its run time dancing around this question — leading to that iconic line, “Susie, what do you know about witches?” — but there’s no such pretense here. Almost immediately, the film lets you know who these women are, and then methodically fills in how they became this way, with mythology about three powerful witches Mater Suspiriorum (Mother of Sighs), Mater Tenebrarum (Mother of Darkness), and Mater Lachrymarum (Mother of Tears) who have existed for thousands of years, and a framing device involving World War II, the rise of Nazi power, and the ways women had to band together to survive the war.
There is so much anger here, and it explodes outward from these women, their disgust curdling into cruelty, their creativity transforming into violence. The connection between love and hate is very present and the line between them is very thin, and so much of that comes out during the dance scenes, the way Johnson throws her body around, writhing and contorting and, well, humping, the way her movements become something darker, something feral. A juxtaposition between her first performance and the thorough destruction of another girl’s body is bone-crunching and grotesque, and the movie often compares the fragility of our bodies with the depths of our emotions — how easily we break, how easily we succumb to fear.
Yet there are moments throughout when I laughed, loudly and uncontrollably; I saw this film at a press-only screening, and it was a reminder of the gender disparity of this profession — there were a dozen or so men in the audience and only two other women. And given how wickedly this movie treats its male characters, with such derision, it was clear these dudes were not into it. I heard more than one tell the studio representatives after Suspiria that they couldn’t “get into it,” they couldn’t “take it seriously.” I’m not going to go all Dan Fogelman and say “NO MEN WILL LIKE SUSPIRIA, THEY’RE RUINING IT FOR EVERYONE” because I’ve talked to women who don’t like this version, either. But it was an interesting way of seeing this film, with my amusement at the ribald ways it claws at the patriarchy and the heavily male audience’s thorough disinterest in that prospect.
Still, Suspiria is overcomplicated; there’s this whole subplot with Tilda Swinton playing a Jewish German man who is tracking what the witches are doing that drags on a little too long; and the movie trips sometimes on its own backstory. But it’s engrossing and intentional and haunting, too, leaving me alternately terrified and invigorated. “When women tell the truth, you don’t pity them. You tell them they have delusions,” one of the witches spits at a man, and that rancor, really, is what will stick with me about this version of Suspiria, a remake that expands the original and analyzes the inhumanity and evil that can develop from so much trauma and pain. Would it have helped if this wasn’t a story about female acrimony crafted by two men? Absolutely. But Suspiria effectively distills something carnal and ugly within our lust for power and dominance, and I won’t stop thinking about it for a long time.
Image sources (in order of posting): Amazon Studios/Epk.tv, Amazon Studios/Epk.tv, Amazon Studios/Epk.tv, Amazon Studios/Epk.tv