1:00 pm EDT, October 26, 2018

‘Suspiria’ review: An ambitious, horrifying labyrinth of nightmares

Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria proves skeptics wrong by delivering a movie so deeply horrifying you will wish it was a nightmare you could wake up from.

In a year marked by successful horror movies including Hereditary and Halloween, Suspiria offers audiences something far different – a masterfully ambitious horror tour-de-force that works to pay homage to its influences while daring to commit to its own passionate and commanding vision.

Suspiria is the type of movie that is bound — or perhaps “doomed” is a more suitable word — to inspire hyperbolic reactions from critics and audiences alike. These reactions, from both proponents and detractors, achieve little more than to obscure the unique accomplishment on display in Guadagnino’s film.

That hyperbole is owed, in part, to the fact that Guadagnino’s Suspiria is a remake of the beloved 1977 Dario Argento movie of the same name. As such, there are those who consider this remake to be sacrilege and will loudly proclaim it a failure no matter its quality.

However, discussions fixated on comparing the two versions of the story are inevitably reductive; both films are so richly textured on their own that any comparison will overlook how meaningful both versions are as their own separate, independent feats.

Of course, that Suspiria is a remake of a cherished movie is not the only reason for such intense reactions. The movie is intentionally crafted to provoke an extreme response from its viewers. After all, Guadagnino said himself the film is, “an homage to the incredible, powerful emotion I felt when I saw it.”

There’s no denying how utterly twisted, grotesque, and horrific the new Suspiria really is. For horror fans wondering if Guadagnino can pull off a genre film like this, the answer is a clear and resounding yes. In fact, there’s an almost comic dissonance between Suspiria and Guadagnino’s previous film, Call Me by Your Name, released in theaters less than a year ago.

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The two movies could not be more diametrically opposed; for all of warmth, love, and youthful veneration that emanates from the screen during Call Me by Your Name, Suspiria inhabits a punishing labyrinth composed of obsessive artistry, primal eroticism, and cross-generational trauma that hits you with bloodcurdling and bone-crushing ferocity.

While Suspiria’s uncompromising cruelty will no doubt satisfy and enrage in equal measure, that’s not all it is.

Like all great horror movies, Suspiria takes the familiar and shows it to us in a new and thrilling way. This is a movie about witches that doesn’t treat them as one-dimensional villains or a cheap third act plot twist; Suspiria depicts a coven with a fully formed hierarchy and ideology that exist as a part of the real world, allowing them to be both terrifying and mundane, frighteningly paranormal yet completely ordinary.

Suspiria is a slow burn, not unlike Kubrick’s The Shining, focused on developing a distinct setting, atmosphere, and even a philosophy while using moments of extreme violence to punctuate what is otherwise an unexpectedly resonant meditation on femininity, motherhood, the brutality of man, the lasting effects of generational guilt, and our willingness or even eagerness to forget the atrocities of the past.

What’s more, it’s fascinating to see a movie, especially one of this variety, engage with socio-political elements in such a clear and distinct way. It’s not just by coincidence that Guadagnino sets the film in Berlin in 1977. It’s not by some random choice that home of the dance company is positioned mere feet from the Berlin Wall. These choices inform the text of the movie, enhancing the narrative in a surprisingly heady fashion.

Centered on the events at the Helena Markos Dance Company led by Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), Suspiria crafts an atmosphere that is keenly aware of the lasting impact of Nazi control in Germany and the ongoing political conflicts in Berlin in the late 1970s. These political conflicts and reverberations permeate the walls of the company, mirroring the coven’s own struggle for survival.

At one point, Madame Blanc says to Susie, “There are two things dance cannot be anymore— ‘cheerful’ and ‘beautiful.’ We must break the nose of every beautiful thing.”

In Suspiria, dance is an extension of life. The work of company does not exist in a vacuum; it is inherently tied to and illuminated by shared trauma – both personal and political – that permeate the walls of the conservatory. The movie is particularly conscious of the way women have been mistreated, exploited, and underestimated by the governing powers of their time.

As such, the movie uses the coven and their style of dance – one that rejects familiar standards of style and beauty – to posit a fascinating commentary on how witches in fiction function as a force for reclaiming the stolen identity and autonomy of women throughout history.

All things, from sex to religion to family, bleed together under the roof of the Markos Dance Company, creating an enthralling narrative – both visual and written – about a woman’s strength and perseverance.

This is not to say the movie is faultless – far from it, in fact. There are a few stylistic flourishes and narrative bends that feel out of place and set the movie on uneven footing. For example, the film’s interest in Susie Bannion’s backstory feels unnecessary and underwritten, making those scenes more distracting than enlightening.

The introduction to Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz) is effectively unsettling, but editing and sound design in this scene – one of the first in the movie – makes it a bit difficult to understand. It’s hardly a strong jumping off point for the movie.

While the direction remains strong throughout, the script is peppered with awkward writing that would sound bad no matter the performer; walking a fine line between contributing to the uncanny atmosphere and just being plain bad, it’s fair to say that the Suspiria script won’t be winning any screenplay awards.

However, the performances from the cast are all so deeply committed, daring, and transformative that any weaknesses in the script are smoothed over. Tilda Swinton, ever the chameleon, disappears into more than just one role. Dakota Johnson and Mia Goth both flex their skills as two of the most exciting young performers of the moment. There isn’t a single second of Suspiria’s whopping 152 minute run time where these actors don’t feel completely of the world that Guadganino crafts.

When I first saw Guadagnino’s film, I walked away conflicted; It was neither the film I thought it would be nor the one I wanted it to be, yet it crawled under my skin and stuck with me. Slowly but surely, I felt the pieces come together in my mind and felt myself open up to everything that the movie does so well.

I like the idea of a movie rejecting what the audience wants it to be and Suspiria does that time and time again. This is a movie that could not care less what I wanted, but it gave me more than I needed. A lot of that stems from the movie’s unexpected ambition.

The recent discourse around horror films suggests that the genre is at its best when it produces movies that are “smart” and “ingenious” on a shoe-string budget. These movies are applauded for their efficiency, using small choices to a big effect. Somewhere along the way, studios started making action movies bigger and horror movies smaller. While there’s certainly a place for that, it’s refreshing to see a horror movie that dares to be bigger than life.

What makes Suspiria so refreshing is that it’s free to revel in its extravagance. It’s full of tense atmospheric world building, wickedly violent set pieces, terrifying reveals, and unsettlingly imagery. It offers audiences a seemingly endless wealth of nightmarish fantasies and sensory overloads that coalesce to create something entirely unique while maintaining the tradition of Argento’s 1977 movie.

No one would dare call Suspiria restrained; this is not a horror film where the scariest moments are things left unseen. It doesn’t hold anything back, leaving nothing and no one untouched by its terror. In Luca Guadagnino’s confident and capable hands, Suspiria delivers an amalgam of nightmares that will satisfy those willing to meaningfully engage with it.

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