Updated: Feb 7, 2020
An American woman joins a famous Berlin dance academy that is actually the front for a coven of witches in Suspiria, a stylish and bloody psychological horror movie. Those seeking jump-scares or other elements of the horror genre you tend to find at multiplexes need look elsewhere. Suspiria is a very slow-burn in an art house style. It is far more about mood than action. Director Luca Guadagnino does not rush his story even the tiniest bit. He takes his time with his themes and characters, so when he eventually lets everything loose in the final act, it is a sight to behold. This is a fascinating movie that clearly has a lot on its mind. Not all of its ideas connect and parts drag on too long, but when it works it is close to hypnotic.
The story takes place in divided 1977 Berlin. Susie Bannion (played deceptively well by Dakota Johnson) arrives from Ohio specifically to audition for celebrated teacher/choreographer Madame Blanc (a magnificent Tilda Swinton). Most of the students are unaware that the instructors at the school are witches who seem to be preparing for something ominous. Then, one of the students reveals their secrets to a dubious psychologist. The two major plot threads follow what is going on at the academy and the doctor’s investigation into his client’s claims. Meanwhile, rebellion is going on throughout Berlin.
Suspiria (148 minutes, without the end credits) is a simple plot told in a complex way. The screenplay by David Kajganich (based on Dario Argento’s 1977 movie) is stuffed with themes. There are essentially two worlds here: the carefully controlled world of the school, which is entirely populated by women, and the chaotic outside world, run by men. Men are only involved peripherally. There are no boyfriends, husbands or brothers; they are just toys to the witches. All of this is very interesting, but the repeated news reports never seemed wholly necessary. I suppose the idea is men have ruined Berlin, so now it is the women’s turn to take over, but at a huge price. However, that stuff felt superfluous to the main story.
The central plot is alright, if stretched thin by the long running time and Guadagnino’s slow pace. What makes Suspiria so entrancing is its visuals, both its use of color and its choreography. In the first couple of sections, the colors are dulled. There are a lot of greys. The exception is the red hair of Dakota Johnson. In the last couple of sections, the colors become bolder, especially the reds. That is, perhaps, intended to foreshadow the tremendously bloody climax.
The dance choreography is an even stronger sight. It is all sharp, almost violent, movements that seem made up on the spot. There is the feeling it is what gives these women their dark power. There is one sequence in particular, when Susie is practicing in front of the other girls for the first time, which will stick with me for quite a while. Guadagnino cuts between her trying to prove herself and the effect the dance has on another girl in another room. I will not spoil it, but it is one of the more creative and disturbing scenes I can remember seeing in a horror movie.
Suspira is as dark and foreboding as Luca Guadagnino’s last effort, Call Me by Your Name, was bright and welcoming. The way he uses the visuals to control the mood and suggest all sorts of unspeakable things is brilliant. Where he could lose some viewers is in his pacing. This is a very slow moving production. For me, it mostly worked. It is easy to say half an hour could be trimmed from the middle, though that would be a totally different film. Its consistently creepy tone is unsettling and part of that is because it builds so methodically.
Suspiria reminded me a lot of last year’s mother! in that way. Much like that movie, I imagine it will be pretty divisive, for fans of the original and viewers expecting a different kind of experience from something in the horror genre. I found it to be challenging, surprising and thought-provoking. There are several images in it that will be hard to shake. While it does have its flaws, it is more interesting to try to do something ambitious and only partially succeed than to tread the same ground as everybody else and fully succeed. When Suspiria succeeds it is one of the most intriguing cinematic experiences of 2018.
4½ out of 5
Dakota Johnson as Susie Bannion
Tilda Swinton as Madame Blanc
Mia Goth as Sara
Sylvie Testud as Miss Griffith
Ingrid Caven as Miss Vendegast
Directed by Luca Guadagnino
Screenplay by David Kajganich