I didn’t walk out of my Suspiria screening when the credits rolled; I fled. Not out of terror or disgust, or any of the reasons you might be expecting, but because I needed a place to be by myself and let it all out. Standing in a bathroom stall, I wept, not as quietly as I would have liked, in full body-shaking sobs. And I can’t really tell you why. But I’m going to try.
Directed by Call Me By Your Name filmmaker Luca Guadagnino, 2018’s Suspiria is a straight up masterpiece. Sure to be one of the most divisive films of the year for its uncompromising and intentionally ambiguous vision, Suspiria joins the ranks of the horror remake greats alongside The Thing and The Fly. Scripted by David Kajganich (who previously worked with Guadagnino on a bigger splash and made horror waves earlier this year with AMC’s stunning The Terror series), Suspiria taps into a deep well of history and human cruelty to conjure a tale of fascism and toppled regimes that somehow feels both firmly rooted in reality and as if the film itself is an act of ritual magic.
Inspired by Dario Argento’s iconic 1977 film of the same name (though the two share little in common beyond key characters and setting), Suspiria unfolds as “six acts and an epilogue,” beginning with the story of Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz), who arrives at the office of her psychoanalyst Dr. Josef Klemperer (Tilda Swinton, though buried under layers of incredible old age makeup and a thick German accent) singing and dancing, and raving about a school of witches that wants to get inside her. The Jungian analyst chalks up her fear to paranoid delusions, but when his young patient goes missing shortly after, he finds himself tangled up in the affairs of the coven as a witness — both to their rituals and to the horrors of history, in which he has been a passive participant.
From there, the film follows the luminous young Mennonite Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson in a bravura physical performance) from her rural home in Ohio to the divided streets of Berlin, where the wall still stands and the stains of Germany’s fascist horrors still bleed through the fabric of society. There, the young ballerina aspires to join the Helena Markos school of Dance, headed up by Tilda Swinton’s appropriately mysterious and elegant Madame Blanc (the second of her three roles in the film, though I won’t spoil the third), who Susie road-tripped multiple times to see in performance. Susie’s admiration is ready and apparent, and it’s shared both ways when Madame Blanc sees raw potential in the young dancer and casts her as the protagonist in the dance troupe’s signature piece, ‘Volk’.
The first time Susie performs the dance, she channels the dark magic hidden in the bowels of the school. As she spasms and contorts her body, another dancer spasms and contorts against her will in a nearby studio. She smashes against the mirrors walls of the studio with brute force, her ribs bulging at the confines of her skin and her limbs warping, writhing and snapping until she’s a barely breathing lump of meat and bone, lying in a pool of her own drool and urine. It’s a lot, but ultimately Suspria is both more and less violent than you’re probably expecting. There are moments of extremity laced throughout, but it is also a slow, often lovely and restrained film. Until it’s not, and when it’s not, boy it really goes there.
The film is also a technical marvel. Guadagnino reunites with his Call Me By Your Name cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom to assemble a series of images that range from lovely to disturbing to downright disgusting. Witchy dreams come to Susie in the night, and with them flashes of horrors and wonders that sear into your brain, leaving behind whiffs of singed flesh. When the women of the dance academy perform, it is staggering, hypnotic and sexual — a primal expression of movement and power. Editor Walter Fasano does remarkable work as well, particularly during those dance scenes, which require him to translate rhythmic movements in arrhythmic cuts — a challenge he rises to with precision. And of course, there’s Thom Yorke‘s enchanting score, which couldn’t be further from Goblin’s prog rock anthems from the original film.
It all crescendos in an intoxicating, breath-taking climax designed to disorient and disgust the audience. It’s a demonstration of carnal power, an act of filmmaking, dance and performance that feels like literal witchcraft, summoning some great catharsis of human suffering and toppled power structures. It’s revolution embodied. And then Guadagnino does something even more shocking — he ends his film with tenderness and quietude, giving the audience a solemn moment to think and more importantly to feel what the film has to say about evil and goodness in the world, and there are no easy answers. The final moments can be taken as a mercy or a subjugation, it’s up to you to decide, and no doubt audiences will receive this movie in all manner of different ways. But make no mistake, Suspiria is a film brimming with dense material that demands and encourages interpretation. It want’s you to be a willing participant in the ritual, and if you join the dance, you may just find yourself caught in an inescapable spell.
Suspiria made it’s North America debut at Fantastic Fest and arrives in Los Angeles and New York on October 26, before expanding wide on November 2.