Film Critic Matt Taylor reviews Suspiria, Luca Guadagnino’s homage to 1977 classic which continues horror’s golden age
I feel as though I am running out of words to describe good horror films. It seems we are in a golden age for the genre, being treated to so many unique, original, innovative and terrifying flicks with each year that passes. I’ve seen more than my fair share of horror movies – but never have I seen anything like Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria. This is a film that is an utterly unique experience. It is haunting, unsettling, brutal, masterfully directed and fronted by three powerhouse performances. If I may be so bold, it is one of the most profound and blood-curdling films of the 21st century thus far. It is most certainly not an easy watch.
Described as an ‘homage’ to Dario Argento’s 1977 original rather than a direct remake, Guadagnino’s Suspiria follows the same basic plot of an American dancer who moves to a prestigious academy in Berlin, but things quickly (or perhaps slowly – the film is over two and a half hours long) take a turn for the suspicious. Several aspects of the original are more present here (for example, it is clear from the off that we are dealing with a coven of witches), but Guadagnino chooses to go above and beyond what Argento did, overriding and overpowering the senses in even more alarming ways than we see in the original.
There were perhaps fewer than twenty people in my cinema screening to watch Suspiria. Five of these walked out over the course of the film. That is a testament to how difficult it is to make it to the end; it is brutal, in every sense of the word. The scares themselves are few and far between, but when they do come they are fantastic moments of gut-wrenching body horror.
Guadagnino has a perfect sense of what atmosphere is appropriate at any given moment: for much of the film it is one of extreme unease, but there are moments of levity and the climax is a scene of pure terror unlike anything I have ever seen. This is helped by beautiful cinematography thanks to Sayombhu Mukdeeprom and harsh editing courtesy of Walter Fasano. The editing comes to the fore in brilliantly lucid dreams that haunt the protagonist, which are some of the film’s most unsettling moments – they are expertly cut and visually beautiful. Mukdeeprom’s magnificent cinematography is never better than in Suspiria’s final act; a gorgeous, sweeping, horrifying long take is the film’s standout moment. It is impossible to unsee what is put before us. I will never forget that scene. It is more terrifying than words can do justice to, a visual and aural feast of utter horror that leaves us entirely numb.
Special effects are put to great use here, and – in an earlier, just as gruesome scene – a lens filter sets us even more on edge, giving us a striking primary colour in a film deliberately bathed in blandness, only to be furthered by the torrent of blood that explodes forth. This scene in itself is a masterclass in psychological terror, and exemplifies Guadagnino’s magnificent work beautifully.
It helps, of course, that Suspiria is fronted by two magnificent actresses: Dakota Johnson as Susie Bannion (the protagonist) and Tilda Swinton, who plays both dance instructor Madame Blanc and psychoanalyst Josef Klemperer (as well as a third, best-left-unsaid character). Swinton’s powerhouse triple role serves to make a grand statement about femininity, as well as exploring ideas of id, ego and superego through her characters. Johnson is superb in the lead role – perhaps a surprise given her two wins at the Razzies for her performances in the Fifty Shades franchise. Susie undergoes a fantastic and terrifying transformation over the course of the film, and we see this mainly through her dance. To begin with she is controlled and beautiful in her movements, but she gradually becomes more erotic and sexual as other, more sinister forces start to move in on her. Mia Goth also deserves a mention for her wonderfully human turn as Sara, a dancer who befriends Susie. Though Susie is our protagonist, Sara is our emotional counterpart. She feels what we feel, and is the one that leads us down the rabbit hole, into the mystery and uncertainty at the film’s heart.
The two main themes that permeate the film are motherhood and abuse of power. The idea of a mother’s importance is explored through Susie’s relationship with Madame Blanc, as well as flashbacks detailing her biological mother. Matriarchal leaders also serve as mother figures, and the conflict between these leaders and actual mothers offers up another point of horror in the climax. Abuse of power is also essential, and is meditated on through Klemperer – he serves as a ‘witness’, as he is both a Holocaust survivor and is present for the film’s more sinister events.
It is safe to say that Suspiria is a unique film. Expertly combining body horror and psychological terror, it is an experience unlike any other we may ever see. Its powerful lead performances serve to ground events, and Guadagnino’s superb direction, along with his team of editors, cinematographers, camera operators, sound designers (and composer Thom Yorke of Radiohead) make this a must-see for anyone who claims to be a horror fan – just be sure you have the stomach for it.
VERDICT: Suspiria is nothing short of a masterpiece of modern independent cinema. Among the most horrifying films of modern day, it is gut-wrenching in its brutality, yet oddly, undeniably, terrifyingly human. Its scares are unparalleled, its performances unmatched – it is, in every sense of the word, a triumph.