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Suspiria (2018) Review

Photo courtesy of MUBI

Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria is an unusual concoction: a dash of body-horror, a quart German history, and a heavy dose of bacchanalia. Taking Dario Argento’s supernatural shocker Suspiria (1977) as the blueprint, Guadagnino serves up a cerebral yet beguiling film that goes first and foremost for the avant-garde.

The fundamental plot remains the same: an American dancer travels to a European Dance Academy only to discover it is run by witches. Typical. But aside from having the same basic premise, Luca Guadagnino – acclaimed director of Call Me By Your Name – takes a distinctly different approach to this grim 1970s fairytale. Whereas Argento filled his thread-bare narrative with bold primary colours, expressionist lighting, elaborately stylised death-scenes and a visceral score by Prog Rock band Goblin, Guadagnino and writer David Kajganich have bumped up the narrative and toned the colours down to a muted 1977 Berlin.
Building on the original story, we see Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) arrive at the Helena Markos Dance Company from Ohio, under-qualified but permitted to audition by lead choreographer Madame Blanc (played here by Tilda Swinton). Noted for her unique quality, Susie very quickly takes the lead in the company’s signature piece, Volk. Meanwhile students suspicious of the academy’s matrons are disappearing and political turmoil is erupting in the world outside; the news reflecting a climate of terror engendered by the Red Army Faction (RAF).

The film begins without preamble; we are thrust into the narrative with an inter-title reading “Six Acts and an Epilogue”, as a dance student manically spills all to octogenarian psychotherapist Josef Klemperer – also, if you look hard, played by a heavily made-up Tilda Swinton. This is the first hint that the film will be more Lars Von Trier than John Carpenter. The film establishes an experimental, sometimes disorientating approach, with rapid montages and abrupt cuts.

This is not to say that gut-wrenching horror is absent, only subdued in favour of a historically-grounded exploration of national guilt and female autonomy. The writer has confessed to not being a fan of the original Suspiria, and irons out its irrationalities with studied period detail. The Berlin Wall is omnipresent, oppressively encircling the city, and the film is peppered with events of the German Autumn of 1977, incorporating breaking news and dialogue about the students’ political beliefs – but this all feels a bit surplus to the central story.

There is one WTF set-piece that surely deserves a star in some Horror Hall of Fame… *Spoiler Alert!* When dancer Olga belligerently quits the academy, she finds herself trapped in a mirrored room. As Susie begins to perform for the group upstairs, the film cuts between her and Olga, bound by some kind of reciprocal magic. With each powerful lunge, aggressive twist and turn, Olga’s body is horribly contorted, her limbs dislocating and organs rupturing. This protracted scene only stops when Susie collapses and Olga lies inert, like a pile of elastic bands.

Suspiria is a mixed bag of avant-garde weirdness and genre beats that is always interesting even when it isn’t utterly convincing. Ambitious, experimental and occasionally horrific, it reflects on contemporary topics such as gender equality and extreme political regimes while paying homage to a horror classic. It may overreach itself with its assortment of themes and narrative diversions, but it is skilfully made and provocative enough to warrant a second viewing.