Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and GeeksHaveGame.
All is Well, as Long as We Keep Spinning
Giallo, or Italian horror, is an acquired taste, and the likes of Maria Bava, Lucio Fulci, and Dario Argento were masters of it. From a personal standpoint, giallo films are borderline terrible with outrageous acting, gratuitous and unnecessary nudity, and storylines so predictable that they’re almost juvenile, but the practical effects and gore sequences are unlike anything else you’ve ever seen. The colorful and graphic kills in giallo films are what make them so memorable. Argento’s 1977 version of Suspiria is this vibrant and violent excursion into insanity with a soundtrack composed by Italian band Goblin that seems to blast over dialogue at every turn. Suspiria is viewed as a horror classic to some and yet highly overrated by others, but like most remakes, Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 version of the film is met with venomous hatred and unwarranted hesitancy long before the remake has seen release.
Broken into six acts and an epilogue, Guadagnino’s Suspiria revolves around the illustrious dance school known as the Markos Dance Company located in Berlin, Germany. Artistic director Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) has a vision of a dance from the early 1940s known as Volk being performed one last time to absolute perfection. The dance has driven previous women cast as the protagonist, Patricia Hingle (Chloe Grace Moretz) and Olga (Elena Fokina) into overwhelming hysteria. Meanwhile, Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) has traveled to Berlin from New York for the mere opportunity to work with the great Madame Blanc. At the same time, psychotherapist Dr. Josef Klemperer (an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton cast in dual roles) is investigating the disappearance of one of his patients; Patricia Hingle. His search for Patricia leads him to the Markos Dance Company as he continues to grieve over the loss of his wife nearly three decades prior.
This is the first film soundtrack by Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, which will likely make or break your opinion of the music based upon your like or dislike for Radiohead in general or even Yorke’s solo material. After contemplating for months over whether or not he should take this venture since Suspiria is held in such high regard, Yorke became inspired by the hypnotizing qualities of repetition found within Goblin’s original Suspiria score. Yorke felt a freedom with this soundtrack that he hasn’t felt with the usual process of songwriting; he was at liberty to experiment all he wanted and conjure spells that wouldn’t have seen the light of day otherwise. The music in the film is like what you’d hear during a debilitating nightmare; these boisterous and abrasive tones that often get on your last nerve and yet mesmerize you all the same.
The original Suspiria is just over 90 minutes, and Guadagnino’s version clocks in at exactly one hour longer than its predecessor. The supernatural horror film gives new meaning to taking its sweet time since the first hour is devoted to Susie rehearsing at the dance studio and Tilda Swinton roaming around town as a man with this ridiculous wide stride that makes it quite obvious that she insisted on wearing prosthetic male genitalia the entire film. While this could be viewed as boring to some, there’s a certain level of intrigue that makes you wonder how far the film is willing to go with this concept. Early on, you know what the dance represents and what it’s going to do upon completion. Even though that aspect of the film is foreseeable, you’re fascinated with how this evil will show its face.
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Apart from Tilda Swinton’s turn as an old man and the two police officers that visit the dance school, the entire cast is female. The women live free of charge while under the tutelage of Madame Blanc. The school is run by a large group of matrons while everyone is viewed as being a part of a family as the dancers bond together like a sisterhood. Patricia leaves journals for Klemperer that detail The Three Mothers; Mater Suspiriorum (Mother of Sighs), Mater Tenebrarum (Mother of Darkness), and Mater Lachrymarum (Mother of Tears) while also revealing that Markos Academy is run by a coven of witches. The all-female aspect is interesting because while the film touches on sexual desires, interest in the opposite sex is practically nonexistent. There’s a complete and utter devotion to the craft and the importance of developing a close relationship with the other dancers, but men seem to be viewed as unnecessary commodities that only serve a particular purpose seen later in the film.
The camera work is slightly bizarre and probably seen as sloppy for anyone who hasn’t seen the original film. The camera often begins on a certain frame then backs away suddenly and shoots upward to get this peculiar shot from the sky or corner of the ceiling. This feels like a direct homage to Argento’s Suspiria and doesn’t seem to occur after the first half of the film. The film has this mesmerizing and compelling nature due to its animalistic nature. Victims in this film endure these horrific seizures that often result in urinating on themselves and violently foaming at the mouth. The human pretzel sequence seems to last forever and is incredibly arduous with its torturous nature and unnatural treatment of the human body, but it’s also the first real horror of the film and arguably one of the film’s most memorable sequences.
There’s something alluring about comparing the beginning of the film to its unbelievable conclusion. The film opens with an unscheduled therapy session between Patricia and Dr. Klemperer. Immediately following Patricia’s unnerving behavior, images of a farm are shown as a heavy breathing and bedridden woman plagued with illness is given a bath as Thom Yorke’s sensationally haunting, “Suspirium,” plays over the opening credits. The opening teases that something isn’t right and something supernaturally sinister is on the horizon. The film’s finale is that evil entity finally revealing itself and the bloodbath that ensues because of what’s taken place the entire film; the dance ritual as well as the matron’s particular loyalty to a certain mother. There is more blood in this scene than anything else that has hit mainstream theaters this year.
Suspiria is a vividly strange and deeply unsettling experience. It’s this bizarre, beautiful, and often terrifying descent into hell that submerges its audience in complete insanity. The film is a ritualistic type of madness and a bonkers stream of demonic consciousness. This is a film loaded with bewilderment and peculiarities with an undying commitment to a vision that is so grotesque and so outlandish that it’s practically dooming itself to being a financial failure. People will walk out of this movie and label it as one of the worst of the year and honestly, that’s one of the reasons it’s so hypnotic. Suspiria is this confusing embodiment of evil that is nightmarish and nonsensical and yet this gargantuan fever dream loaded with anguish and discomfort that you can’t help but appreciate.
© 2018 Chris Sawin