In opening this review, one thing needs to be made clear. This will NOT be a direct comparison to the original Dario Argento Suspiria because barring the base plot idea of a dancer attending a school that turns out to be more than advertised, and some characters sharing the same names, there is simply no comparison between the two films. This new version not only tells a different story, but has chosen a radically different visual style than the neon-drenched-nightmare that is the original. Thus director Luca Guadagnino 2018’s Suspiria will be judged on its own merits, as a homage to the original rather than a remake.
Set in 1977’s pre-unification Berlin, Suspiria tells the story of aspiring dancer Suzie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) from Ohio who joins the Helena Markos Dance Academy. Quickly establishing herself as a talented dancer, and being taken under the wing of the imposing artistic director Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), Suzie rises through the ranks to become their lead dancer. At the same time, outside the Academy, the psychotherapist Josef Klemperer (also Tilda Swinton), is beginning his own investigation into claims of witchcraft and magic at the Academy. Initially skeptical of the claims made by Patricia Hingle, a former student of the Academy, he begins to investigate in earnest when she disappears without trace. Motherhood, power and the abuse thereof, are our core themes here, focused on the tight-knit all-female community within the Academy.
Where the original film was drenched in colour, this new version is far more in keeping with the Brutalist aesthetic of East Berlin of the time. Starkly lit and shot, much of it in hues of blue and white, it helps to make those flashes of colour stand out all the more vividly. The way it’s shot is far more reminiscent of Kubrick’s “The Shining” than the original that shares its name. This also extends to the scenes of violence within the film.
Where the original wasted little time in getting to the gore, as befits the Giallo style of the time, this new version takes a little longer to get there. In fact, a good forty plus minutes go by before we get our first truly horrific scene. Like nearly all such scenes in this film, it arrives without warning and is truly, unpleasantly visceral, eschewing any sort of stylized violence in favour of pure, unremitting brutality. Here the the camera lingers on the action far past the point when the audience is likely to be begging for some respite.
It is a shame, then, that the final scenes are jarringly shot and where we once had horror that was truly disturbing in how underplayed and realistically it was portrayed, we instead have a long scene that feels more like it belongs in an early 2000s music video. Drenched in gore and filmed in that curiously stuttery style where it feels like every other frame is missing to create a sped-up effect, numerous plot revelations are suddenly revealed to, frankly, mixed effect. Little hint is given of where the film will ultimately end, and while the original film’s climax was a result of escalating events this one is so at odds with everything presented before that it will likely end up being quite divisive to say the least.
Soundtrack duties here fell to Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke and he has provided a soundtrack that is both beautiful and disturbing, mingling more traditional songs such as “Suspirium” with mangled, atonal tracks that would not sound out of place in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, featuring harsh electronic screams, detuned pianos and occasionally some disturbingly wet, squishy noises. At other points the soundtrack brings to mind John Carpenter’s distinctive style as well as throwbacks to the atmospheric soundscapes for the “Myst” series of PC games.
At a running time of two and a half hours, a full hour longer than the Argento original, Suspiria is not an easy watch to begin with. Couple this with the graphic intensity of the violence which is all the more shocking when contrasted to the mundane surroundings of the rest of the film, and this new version of the story is something of a difficult watch, requiring a distinct investment of time to fully enjoy. All the same, the running time does not feel overly onerous and the story rarely drags, some visual or audio hook always present to hold the viewer’s attention, be it a figure lurking in the back of a shot, an ominous wide camera angle or some strange, unsettling beat of the soundtrack.
Fans of the original will find this Suspiria to be a very different beast indeed, but one still worthy of their time.
Suspiria is on general release in the UK from Friday.