Not only has Venice 2018 been a source of many fabulous films, it also seems to have managed to set the weather for each screening perfectly. Just one night after A Star Is Born was interrupted by a precisely placed lightning bolt, Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria premiered in the middle of a raging storm, the only climate that befits the whirling dervish of insanity that is this film. It’s a gonzo, philosophically-minded horror film that, like mother! last year, arrives in Venice daring audiences to revile it, seeking the disgusted boos that can only come with a film that gains an equally feverish love.
Less remaking than entirely reimagining Dario Argento’s 1977 classic, Guadagnino keeps a couple of key ingredients – the witches, hysteria – but otherwise makes this story in an entirely new image. Moving the action to 1977 Berlin and trading in ballet for modern dance, Guadagnino and writer David Kajganich also add an additional hour to the runtime of the lean original, further expanding the dark mythology of the Markos dance company. As ingénue American dancer Susie (Dakota Johnson) falls deeper under the spell of artistic director and powerful witch Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), her fellow dancer Sara (Mia Goth) begins to find ever more horrific secrets buried within the institution.
Guadagnino does not skimp on the grotesquery. Human bodies are grossly broken and distorted by supernatural powers, leaving them twisted like old puppets, and Susie’s dreams are filled with snatches of eldritch imagery. Objects crafted from human hair and bodily fluids litter the hallways in the coven’s lair and spectacularly good set design makes even the most ‘normal’ dance hall or reception room claustrophobic and oppressive. There’s more than a hint of The Shining’s Overlook Hotel to the Markos dance academy, and Suspiria, at least on its technical levels, earns its Kubrick comparisons.
A sickly, heavy atmosphere is where Suspiria draws most of its fear factor from, with sudden jump scares very rare. It’s done astoundingly effectively, tremble-inducing horror and unease just seeping from the screen. Even in the side story of elderly German psychiatrist Dr Klemperer (credited as Lutz Ebersdorf, but quite clearly Swinton again in excellent old man prosthetics) and his investigation of a young woman’s disappearance, as separate as it is from the coven’s base, we never quite feel safe. There are a host of terrors here that will crawl into your soul and lodge there for quite some time.
None are more memorable, though, than the explosively gory finale. Whilst it may lack some of the skin-crawling factor of the more personal, subdued violence, it more than makes up for it by catapulting us directly into Hell – or, perhaps, an even more ancient and primal inferno. It’s spectacular and otherworldly and even, somehow, funny, a blood red dive into an orgiastic release of black magic, evil, and sexual tension that’s followed up by an epilogue that is both cheekily macabre and strangely profound. It’s perfectly complemented by Thom Yorke’s score, which twists its way into the action of the film until it feels like its own character.
Reuniting with Call Me By Your Name cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, Guadagnino does often pay homage to ‘70s horror with his camera work, with dizzying zooms and whip pans immediately calling to mind the decade. Otherwise, though, he avoids too many comparisons to the visually iconic original. His colours are far more muted – Suspiria is as steeped in wintry greys as CMBYN was soaked in sun – the costumes and environments more grounded. Everything feels more tangible, a key contributor to the added stomach churning punch of the brutality on display.
Swinton is very charismatic, if a touch underused as Blanc, and Mia Goth and Chloe Grace Moretz put in good turns as students slowly being crushed by their justified paranoia, but this is absolutely Dakota Johnson’s film. She commands the camera, transforming from insecure to in complete control with various layers that will be more evident on a rewatch. With Susie swiftly promoted to protagonist performer, her dance sequences are gripping, more akin to a possession than anything classical, an incredibly committed and impressive physical performance.
Guadagnino and Kajganich’s script has some political bite to go with its horror, and all its allusions, themes, and meanings will have be unpacked over many watches and discussions. It could be genius, or it could be pretentious nonsense, but in the moment, Suspiria is a towering, visceral achievement, a film that exists in a dimension quite apart from our own and provides a petrifying cinematic experience that it will be nigh-impossible to have a mild response to.