Suspiria 2018: An Embarrassment of Witches

Dario Argento’s original Suspiria from 1977 is widely and inarguably considered a classic of the horror genre, a lurid operetta of oversaturated color, creative death scenes, and nightmarish logic. It’s an unsettling waking dream that’s part personal impressionist painting, part universal fear.

Dario Argento’s original Suspiria from 1977 is widely and inarguably considered a classic of the horror genre, a lurid operetta of oversaturated color, creative death scenes, and nightmarish logic. It’s an unsettling waking dream that’s part personal impressionist painting, part universal fear. Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 remake of Suspiria, in comparison, is a postmodern deconstruction of the same, a grounded and horrifically cerebral reimagining that confuses analysis for creativity. Given its focus on community, witchcraft, and a very broad definition of the art of dancing, it’s like an unholy combination of Dogville and Showgirls, with little of the things that make either of those films interesting, dipped in a facile, exploitative version of occultism.

Like the original, the film’s minimalist plot features American dance student Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) enrolling in the Markos Academy in Germany. Led by Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), the Academy is known for its confrontational, all-female modern dance pieces. Blanc takes an interest in Susie immediately, and it isn’t long before Susie realizes that there’s something very strange going on behind the scenes at the Academy. (Hint: It rhymes with “stitchcraft.”) Meanwhile, the Academy’s activities are being investigated by Dr. Jozef Klemperer (Swinton again, billed as “Lutz Ebersdorf”), the psychiatrist of a student that vanished shortly before Susie arrived.


Let’s get one thing clear right away; there’s no need for a Suspiria remake to exist in the first place. The original’s relatively timeless energy still translates well for modern horror sensibilities, and time has not diminished its insidious power. Argento’s film seems set in a place beyond traditional concepts of space and time, bound only by the primal emotions at its core.

To Guadagnino’s credit, this isn’t exactly a remake of that film, not really. It borrows broad-stroke concepts and character names from it, but it uses those in service to a much different narrative, mythological structure, and purpose. In most cases, however, it’s not nearly as effective, and its stubborn refusal to look beyond its own thesis makes it nearly impossible for the film to dig its hooks as deeply into the subconscious. It’s yet another entry in the “arthouse horror film for people who don’t like horror films” genre, focused so much on the head that it almost forgets that the heart exists. It’s more nauseating than frightening and far more conceptional than it is terrifying.

Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich have taken an incredibly practical and earth-bound approach to the material, often to its detriment. The film is set during the German Autumn of 1977 and cuts back to news reports about the Baader-Meinhoff Group at intervals so regular you could set a watch to it. While the intent may have been to put the film in historical context and to reference the generational upheaval associated with it, it serves only to derail the film’s narrative and draw attention away from the characters. It’s an extra level of information that’s completely unnecessary.

Guadagnino also avoids the profuse color palette Argento bathed his original in, swapping out the vivid primary colors for earth tones and bleak, wintery hues. This isn’t always a bad thing, though. While it does serve to further solidify the film in the real world, it also means that when colors do appear, they hold extra significance. And like the original, this almost always means the color red, whether its the burnished copper-and-carnelian of Susie’s hair or the rope costumes worn in the film’s big dance number. Most of the color is saved for a series of nightmares Susie has after arriving to the academy, making those sequences stand out all the more, even if those sequences look like the videotape from The Ring drowning in a parody of 70s radical feminist symbolism.

Those sequences also serve to highlight one of the biggest barriers to making the film effective or truly frightening. Guadagnino takes himself far, far too seriously and, aside from a few bits of sublime and possibly unintentional black comedy in the film’s final moments, presents his film with all the stone-faced self-importance of a well-researched but unemotional college thesis. Argento’s original straddled the line between serious horror film and campy exploitation, its elaborate terror sequences almost like a satire of itself. Guadagnino has no such self-awareness, leading to a suffocating and tediously long exploration of the idea of horror instead of the experience of it.

There’s also no mystery here. Its made pretty clear early on that the women who run the dance academy are evil witches who’ve turned the academy into a twisted, fascist variation on female empowerment. Instead of an exploration of the feminine unknown, it becomes a deep dive into the ways women respond to power structures. And while that’s sometimes fascinating on its own and worthy of elaboration, Guadagnino often fails to connect it to the alleged horror narrative he’s spinning.

One of the things that helps raise the energy of the film, however, is its dance sequences. While both this version and the original are both set at a dance academy, Argento’s film used it as mere backdrop setting, which very little actual dancing on screen. Guadagnino, however, brings the dance front and center, framing it as not just an art form but as a form of ritual magic. (Which is by no means a new concept, no matter how much Guadagnino and Kajganich seem to think it is.) These sequences are hypnotic and visually arresting in ways the bloody set pieces never are, grabbing the viewer by the throat and making them part of the film instead of divorced from it. They hold more terror and uncertainty than anything else here, even if they descend into grotesque self-parody during the laughably awful climax.

The other thing this new version has going for it is a uniformly more expressive and devoted cast. Dakota Johnson gives a deceptively muted performance, so subtle in its shading and evolution that it almost seems weak. It isn’t until the final scenes when Johnson’s understated approach comes into sharp focus and Susie’s transformation from innocent ingenue to confident lead becomes apparent. As a dancer, however, she moves with an evocative fierceness that’s visually mesmerizing. Tilda Swinton as Madame Blanc is quite expectedly a central and galvanizing force, the actress’ quiet approach to the role serving to make Blanc approachable, warm, and unspeakbly dangerous in equal measures. She completely disappears into herself to play Dr. Klemperer, a role Swinton claims was played by Lutz Ebersdorf who himself was played as a character by Swinton. Its as intriguingly metatexutal as one might expect, both because Swinton is so unrecognizable under the phenomenal make-up and prosthetic work and devotes herself so much to playing Ebersdotf as a character onto himself.

Suspiria 2018’s effectiveness as a film can be summed up by, of all things, Thom Yorke’s score. Taken on its own, Yorke’s score is a well-constructed, quietly gripping work even if it lacks the mesmerizing, consuming chaos of Goblin’s iconic score for the original. Taken in context of the film, however, it ranges from effective to unremarkable to wildly inappropriate, especially when Yorke’s thin falsetto shows up to further disrupt any established mood. Similarly, Guadagnino’s variation on Argento’s themes would be better received if he had made a film merely inspired by Suspiria instead of a film that’s an explicit remake of it. If Argento’s original was a piece of haunting black magic, Guadagnino’s take on it is a book theorizing why that black magic should or should not be haunting. It’s not inherently a bad thing, but I wouldn’t want to have my nightmares there.

FBOTU Score: 4 out of 10 / C-

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