Greetings from Fantastic Fest! I’m serving on the Next Wave jury—a first-time filmmaker award—at this year’s festival, which precludes talking about a lot of the films I have seen in the first few days since this year’s edition of the festival kicked off with the American premiere of Halloween on Thursday night. (You can read A.A. Dowd’s review of that film from its world premiere at TIFF here.) But tonight’s secret screening, the North American premiere of Suspiria, is out of competition, and so you’ll read The A.V. Club’s festival review below. Jury deliberations are over as of tomorrow morning, so stay tuned for more from the festival, including reviews of Destroyer, Lords Of Chaos, Bad Times At The El Royale, and more, over the next week. -Katie
The shadow side of a woman’s power to create life, to grow blood and bone and internal organs from a single cell, is her terrible power to destroy her offspring—whether that be physically, emotionally, or spiritually. Luca Guadagnino’s audacious remake of Suspiria (Grade: B+) is very aware of this primitive tension, using it to drive a film that takes the themes and basic setup of Dario Argento’s 1977 Italo-horror classic and remakes it into something very different, and equally powerful. Where Argento’s film feels lurid and vaguely disreputable, Guadagnino’s is high art, a two and-a-half-hour wallow in the primal recesses of the human psyche that’s alternately calculatedly subdued and completely batshit crazy.
Like the original Suspiria, Guadagnino’s version opens with a terrified young woman escaping from a ballet school in the pouring rain. This time, however, Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz) doesn’t run to a friend’s apartment, but to the office of her psychiatrist, Dr. Josef Klemperer (“Lutz Ebersdorf,” whose line deliveries occasionally betray that he’s actually Tilda Swinton underneath old-age prosthetics). Dr. Klemperer ushers his seemingly delusional patient into his office, where she rants about witches with a dull gleam in her eye before disappearing back into the damp, grey streets of 1977 Berlin. Cut to a modest, homey farmhouse, where a pale, middle-aged woman lays in bed, her breath rasping like that of the mysterious “directoress” who hovers in the background of Argento’s film. This is the dying mother of our heroine, American ballet student Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), here given additional layers of backstory—she’s a Mennonite from rural Ohio, a completely pure vessel into which the witches at the Tanz Ballet School can pour all manner of occult ambitions.
The fact that the school is run by a sinister coven—the entire thrust of Argento’s plot—is clear from the first scene in Guadagnino’s remake, requiring screenwriter David Kajganich to add new plot threads to drive the film. He does this by applying a “chosen one” narrative to the character of Susie, who shows up at Tanz with suitcase in hand begging for an audition, is cast as the lead in an upcoming production, and reveals herself to be a witchcraft savant all within a couple of days. Soon, she’s developed a codependent bond with Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), a teacher at Tanz who’s caught in a power struggle of her own with the school’s headmistress. Bannion and Blanc’s relationship is part mother/daughter and part All About Eve, their occult powers rising in tandem with investigations by Dr. Klemperer and Susie’s roommate Sara (Mia Goth) into what’s really going on at the school.
As Guadagnino said before its release, his version of Suspiria is decidedly not a slasher film, and isn’t beholden to the visceral kills around which films in that particular horror subgenre are typically structured. Which isn’t to say that it doesn’t have its fair share of blood and guts (and brains, and bone, and urine), but simply that Guadagnino parcels them out sparingly before unleashing an unholy torrent in the film’s practically indescribable climactic scene. The remainder is filled with lots of talk—including a background subplot about the Baader-Mienhof bombings that parallels the internal politics at the school—and lots of dance, of the floor-stomping, spine-twisting interpretive modern-dance variety. This too is dripping with occult significance, down to the patterns on the studio floor and the knotted-rope costumes for Susie’s big performance midway through.
The necessity of constructing basically an entirely new narrative means that Suspiria sometimes feels scattershot and overstuffed in its plotting, a notable flaw in this otherwise beautiful fever dream of a film. The craft and attention to detail throughout are sublime, all drab concrete, shapeless floor-length dresses, and crafty ‘70s homemaker kitsch. Guadagnino’s claustrophobic framing and elaborate staging pairs well with Thom Yorke’s moody, surprisingly vocal-heavy soundtrack—another nice contract to the original film—and the acting is as polished as you’d expect from the cast list. (Swinton in particular is a standout, in a role that’s more motherly than fans of the original film might expect.)
The influence of the late Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a director who relished extremes, is clear upon Suspiria, particularly when the pendulum swings toward hysterics. But for a film written and directed by men about the evil lurking within women, Suspiria never feels misogynist. If anything, it’s worshipful, a pilgrim kneeling before an awesome god(dess). Provided you have a base tolerance for arthouse ostentation, it may inspire you to fall to your knees as well.