It’s safe to say that Luca Guadagnino isn’t too concerned with following the path of least resistance in the movie business. The director of last year’s awards darling Call Me By Your Name, the film that established young Timothee Chalamet as the newest up and coming Hollywood star, seems like the sort of blank check that could get Guadagnino any job he wanted.
So why did he take that opportunity to remake Suspiria, Dario Argento’s classic 1977 slice of giallo horror? Well, because he could, apparently. Stepping into Jessica Harper’s shoes as Susie, the American ballet student poised to join a prestigious German dance academy (known only as Tanz) with sinister goings on behind every corner is Dakota Johnson, no stranger to Guadagnino after working with him on A Bigger Splash. Joining her as one of the directors of the academy, Madame Blanc, is another Guadagnino standby (and A Bigger Splash) costar, Tilda Swinton. It doesn’t take long for Susie to realize something is up; the troupe’s star dancer, Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz) has gone missing, and Susie’s new friend, Sara (Mia Goth), seems convinced there are sinister goings on deep in the bowels of the building. At the same time, a psychotherapist who treated Patricia and dismissed concerns about the academy as delusions (credited as Lutz Ebersdorf, but actually Swinton in enough makeup to look pretty convincingly like an 80 year old man), begins to suspect foul play when his patient goes missing.
There’s plenty that links this new version of Suspiria to Argento’s original, but to call it a remake would be unkind. Sure, the broad strokes are there; the American ballet student comes to Germany and discovers that a coven of witches are controlling the school with aims to sacrifice her to rejuvenate their leader. Beyond that, though, it’s pretty clear Guadagnino (alongside writer David Kajganich) is far more interested in forging his own path. The running time certainly metes that out, weighing in at close to a full hour longer than its progenitor. He also seems to have loftier artistic aspirations, referring to the film as “Six Acts and an Epilogue Set in Divided Berlin” in the opening titles. And yes, it is set at a ballet school, but the dance performances of the film are guttural, violent performance art, having little to do with the plies and pirouettes of your standard ballet routine. This ain’t your daddy’s Suspiria.
Indeed, the story of this new Suspiria isn’t the only way it breaks from its traditions. Like Argento, Guadagnino employs a contemporary rock artist to supply the score. But the music, from Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, cuts far closer to a traditional horror soundtrack than Italian prog rock band Goblin’s 1978 score, save a few traditional songs here and there. It’s excellent work, mind, full of cacophonous sounds, tinged with a fair bit of John Carpenter synths and squealing strings that fully take advantage of a good theater’s surround sound. Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom makes a concerted effort to differentiate Tanz from the outside world. Outside shots tend to be slow and stately, taking in the scenery of a segregated Berlin that hasn’t had the opportunity to recover from war and occupation. But once the action moves inside, Mukdeeprom’s camera comes alive, panning and zooming all over the confined spaces and using mirrors to play tricks on the eye. The wild colors that made Argento’s film so striking have been replaced by browns and slate greys and oppressive precipitation. It’s more realistic in that sense (this isn’t a haunted fun house the way Argento’s academy was, even with hallways and rooms chock full of floor to ceiling mirrors), but that doesn’t make the action any less horrific or fantastical.
Make no mistake, the horror bona fides of this new Suspiria are on full display. This is a brutal and nasty piece of work when it wants to be, and while the initial body count pales in comparison to the buckets of neon blood Argento spilled, Guadagnino more than makes up for it in ingenuity and inspiration. Apocalyptic, seizure-like dream sequences hint at the darkness and evil within. The horror is about bodies and bones, about weight and tension that snaps sinew and contorts torsos and makes joints do things they never should. It's debased and profane, not about catharsis but endurance and what happens when your endurance gives out. You have to look away because the camera never does. And in a grand, operatic bloody climax, Guadagnino fully embraces the legacy of his master, flips on the red lights and goes for it. It turns out that there's more than a little bit of your daddy's Suspiria in there after all.