16th Nov2018

‘Suspiria’ Review

by Matthew Turner

Stars: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth, Jessica Harper, Choe Grace Moretz, Doris Hick, Malgorzata Bela, Angela Winkler, Vanda Capriolo, Alex Wek, Elena Fokina | Written by David Kajganich | Directed by Luca Guadagnino

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Dario Argento’s 1977 horror classic Suspiria gets an arthouse remake, courtesy of Call Me By Your Name director Luca Guadagnino. Thankfully, fans of the original can breathe a sigh of relief, as the remake never attempts to replicate the sensory experience of Argento’s original – instead, it takes the basic ingredients of the story and stirs up an intoxicating witches’ brew of its own.

Taking place in 1977 (the year the original film came out), the film introduces itself as “Six acts and an epilogue, set in divided Berlin”. Dakota Johnson plays Susie Bannion, a talented American dancer from a deeply religious Ohio family, who arrives in the city with the hopes of joining the Markos Tanzgruppe, a prestigious dance company run by Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton).

After wowing the directors with her audition piece, Susie soon finds herself dancing the lead in the company’s upcoming production of their signature work, Volk. However, unbeknownst to Susie, the company is a front for a coven of witches, and they have sinister designs on their new student. Meanwhile, Susie’s fellow student Sara (Mia Goth) investigates the disappearance of her best friend Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz), with the aid of Patricia’s aged psychoanalyst Dr Klemperer (billed as Lutz Ebersdorf, but actually Tilda Swinton in heavy prosthetic make-up).

The reveal of the coven isn’t played as a shock, since it’s introduced in the opening prologue, in which Patricia babbles about witches to Dr Klemperer, who initially writes off her fears as a paranoid delusion. Consequently, the supporting characters (including various former arthouse stars such as Angela Winkler, Ingrid Caven and Renée Soutendijk) frequently allude to their plans in German dialogue, while sat around the kitchen table. This lends the film a palpable atmosphere of creeping dread – you know something wicked is coming, you just don’t know what it is.

The atmosphere is further charged by the decision to set the film in 1977 during what became known as the German Autumn, with the Red Army Faction dominating the news with a campaign of bombings, kidnappings and hi-jacks, all of which are happening in the background of Suspiria, contributing to a sense of general unrest and uneasiness. David Kajganich’s script also makes thematic links between faith, dance, terrorism, fanaticism and witchcraft – as Dr Klemperer points out, “You can give someone your delusion. That is religion. That was the Reich.”

The performances are excellent. Johnson gives a remarkably physical performance, making the punishing dance routines breath-taking to watch. Similarly, she has a doe-eyed blankness in her gaze that Guadagnino puts to great use here, just as he did in their previous collaboration, A Bigger Splash (which also starred Swinton).

For her part, Swinton is superb as the formidable Madame Blanc, adding subtle layers that only reveal themselves in the film’s extraordinary final act. However, she’s less successful in the role of Dr Klemperer, as her make-up and high voice are both distracting and it’s ultimately hard to see the performance as anything other than a gimmick that allows the film to have an all-female cast.

Elsewhere, Goth is engaging as the film’s most sympathetic character, and it’s through her eyes that we learn the coven’s darkest secrets. In addition, the likes of Winkler, Caven and Soutendijk make a fine gallery of grotesques, and there’s even a touching cameo for Jessica Harper, star of the original Suspiria.

Perhaps surprisingly, Guadagnino turns out to be something of a dab hand when it comes to orchestrating a body horror sequence. Highlights include a wince-inducing leg injury and a shocking sequence where Susie’s dance moves appear to have a telekinetic effect on another dancer, who finds herself hurled around an adjoining room like a rag doll, bones cracking with every impact. On top of that, the finale provides a spectacular, jaw-dropping pay-off to all the suspense and portent of the previous two hours.

The film is also enhanced by its distinctive colour palette of greys, greens and browns (allowing the blood red skimpy dance costumes to pop vividly, while serving as the polar opposite to the original’s psychedelic colour bath), as well as some impressive set design, all of which is heightened by an intense, atmospheric score by Thom Yorke.

**** 4/5

Suspiria is in cinemas now.

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