At the beginning of Dario Argento’s 1978 horror opus Suspiria, a young American woman named Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) finds herself a foreigner in a foreign land. Overwhelmed by the long trip and the violent storm around her, she finds herself unprepared for what lies ahead… Just a few minutes into the film, and the viewer knows they’ve checked into an exercise in style. Argento’s masterpiece is like a moving canvas, a perfectly framed journey into a supernatural gothic Italian fever dream.
In Luca Guadagnino’s reimagining, the ominous weather, and original disorientation remain, but gone is the rich color pallet. Reds and blues are exchanged for a dreary, almost monochromatic setting. And so, in just the first few seconds of the new Suspiria the film departs from its inspiration.
Inspiration seems to be the right word, because there’s not much to compare Argento’s film to the reworking. There’s Susie, Sara, and Olga, and others, and there’s a dance school that is basically a front for a coven of witches (no spoiler, this is revealed very early on), but if you change the characters’ names and the title of the film, it’s likely there’s a few who might not make an immediate connection. And, that’s to the benefit of both films. This Suspiria casts its own magic spell, veering away from the simplicity of Argento’s story, adding layer upon layer. It’s a cliché, but Suspiria is like an onion, and once you start pulling away the skin, you’ll find there are more layers beneath.
That’s not to say that all the stratums are rich and tasty. In fact, quite a few feel rotted and wasted. Yes, the story is interesting, and the actors are wonderful, but the horror elements are surprisingly bereft of terror, and are either really silly, slightly OK, or are just there.
Set in the late seventies, and in the midst of political tumult, Suspiria juxtaposes that outside public world with the private spaces of the coven, safe in their domestic bliss, but also enduring their share of political upheaval. The makeshift family they offer feels welcoming to some of the girls, but there’s still corruption at its core. They don’t need a man, but at the same time a kindly psychiatrist named Josef (Tilda Swinton who also plays Madame Blanc) is the most sympathetic character (and arguably the protagonist, which may spoil some of the pro-female politics). Susie (Dakota Johnson) is kindhearted, but also drawn to the darkness. And it’s that dual nature of every character, setting and beat that makes the film so curious and fascinating. It is everything and it is nothing. A great metaphor for life.
But, it’s also not really about anything Argento originally conceived. This Suspiria owes a debt of gratitude to another horror film from 1977: Michael Winner’s The Sentinel. Both films are about damaged young women drawn to the illusion of warmth and friendship. And how the initial perception of that companionship perverts itself the deeper you let yourself fall into it. Some scenes are even somewhat similar. The coven happily hanging out in their kitchen reminds me of Jezebel’s birthday party in The Sentinel. They’re just missing the cat.
But perhaps the most profound nod to The Sentinel is the idea of gatekeeping. Who gets the keys to the kingdom and what responsibility do they have? Are they holding back the darkness or are they a part of it? Or both? These films interrogate agency and fate, and ask the audience if those concepts need to be mutually exclusive.
And, that’s just one take on a film that already has a thousand different theories. Although I find myself sitting on the margins as everyone trumpets 2018’s Suspiria as the best film of the year (I honestly don’t think it is), I still found it to be incredibly thoughtful. It only shoots itself in the foot when it tries to be transgressive for transgressiveness sake (peeing on yourself? Guys, I saw that in Pieces), or when certain violent scenes run just a tad too long, or especially when it slaps on that dreadful red filter lens during parts of the finale. As mentioned earlier, the film’s biggest fault is that it’s just not scary. Suspenseful in places, sure. But it’s a drama. And that’s fine. It’s a good drama. The last ten minutes of the film are some of the most moving frames of celluloid I’ve seen in some time. Suspiria is definitely a movie to see, to think about and to determine for yourself whether it’s great, good, or something else. Or maybe, if you’re like me, you’ll feel it’s all of the above.