Horror fans can be a tough audience to please. Speaking as a lifelong member of that tribe, I know we can be curmudgeons. We complain about remakes and sequels, while also complaining when films don’t offer the fan-service that franchises serve up on a platter. When it was announced that Dario Argento’s beloved giallo Suspiria would be remade, all of the expected nerd backlash was unleashed. How dare they remake a classic film? And by a non-genre director too? The nerve!
Thankfully, no one listened to the backlash or changed course throughout the making of 2018’s Suspiria, because if they had we might not have been gifted with this masterpiece. Describing Suspiria as a “masterpiece” is not a label I take lightly, and it’s with great responsibility that I name it such.
To be clear, 2018’s Suspiria and the 1977 original share some common DNA, and are clearly related, though they’re distant cousins at best. Both take place at a dance company, both deal with a coven of witches, and both are incredible visual and musical achievements, but most of the parallels stop there.
This version of Suspiria is aware of its audience expectations and starts with the coven early. There need not be a delayed reveal, as there was in the original, and this version instead keeps the witches at the forefront of the story and takes its time exploring the power dynamics and politics within this group of powerful women.
Suspiria stars out with a panicked Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz). She has wandered out of her dance school and onto the Berlin streets. The film maintains the 1977 setting, which was a politically tumultuous time in Berlin’s divided history. Patricia is not acting herself as she visits psychiatrist Josef Klemperer (a prosthetics-covered Tilda Swinton). She goes on and on about all sorts of things, pacing around his office.
Back at the school, Susie (Dakota Johnson) has arrived to audition after her mother’s death gave her the time and means to travel. Susie’s instinctual dance style is a perfect match for the progressive dance company, and she starts her residency immediately. She makes quick friends with Sara (Mia Goth) and wastes no time in being the dancer to watch. In fact, the head of the dance company, Madame Blanc (a more easily recognizable Tilda Swinton), instantly sees Susie’s natural talents and casts her as the lead in the school’s next production. While this is all going on, we see the coven of dance instructors dealing with their own upheaval and reorganization. It’s clear that something is brewing beneath all the levels of this corner in Berlin.
The film’s visual language and sharp editing all work toward creating a sensation of anxiety. It never allows you to relax or feel as though all these women aren’t hurtling themselves toward certain doom. However, what’s going to happen in the film from scene to scene remains a smooth but unpredictable path. Certain sequences, notably two dance performances, nearly moved me to tears. They’re poetic and deadly, and show the audience precisely what they should be afraid of.
Slowly paced, at times only adequately acted, and certainly in love with its own looks, it would be understandable to criticize Suspiria as pretentious and even a little boring. However, I think the greater cinematic sin would have been if the film felt bound to recreate or pay homage to the original. This Suspiria is wholly its own film and offers frantic energy and lush visuals to make for a nearly perfect cinematic experience.