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Haunted Sideshow

Dustin Putman

Suspiria  (2018)
3½ Stars
Directed by Luca Guadagnino.
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth, Angela Winkler, Chloë Grace Moretz, Jessica Harper, Ingrid Caven, Elena Fokina, Alek Wek, Jessica Batut, Sylvie Testud, Renee Soutendijk, Christine Leboutte, Malgosia Bela, Fabrizia Sacchi.
2018 – 152 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for disturbing content including ritualistic violence, bloody images and nudity, and for some language including sexual references).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman for, November 7, 2018.
Dario Argento's 1977 fever dream "Suspiria" is a one-of-a-kind work of foreboding atmospheric enchantment, a phantasmagoria of indelibly fantastical sights, gutturally macabre sounds (courtesy of Goblin's chilling music score), a boldly saturated color scheme, and copious bloodshed. It's as visually, magisterially impressive as any horror film which has ever been—lofty words, indeed, and deserving. No one could dare ape this aesthetic style and match it, so director Luca Guadagnino (2017's "Call Me by Your Name") and screenwriter David Kajganich (2007's "The Invasion") have made the wise decision to take their remake in an entirely new direction. The result is arguably just as singular in its own regard. To compare the two is to do a disservice to both; this film may be based on the original screenplay by Argento and Daria Nicolodi, but they stand confidently apart, dual altering shades of wickedly quaking portent.

"Suspiria" takes place in 1977 and comprises "six acts and an epilogue set in divided Berlin," the near-ceaseless heavy downpours and restless snowfalls neither able to wash away nor blanket the sins of Germany's politically shameful history. The horrors of WWII, of a fascist government, of civil unrest, of terrorist operations and the hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181 carried out by the Red Army Faction presciently weave themselves into a cauldron where the craft of dance and the specter of witchcraft collide. Caught in this maelstrom is unsuspecting Ohio transplant Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), accepted into the illustrious Helena Markos Dance Company and unable to believe her fortune. Her surroundings may be gray, ashen and rain-swept, but she doesn't care; she has escaped the passing of her mother and her suffocating Mennonite upbringing for a chance at seeing her dreams come to fruition, and that's all that matters.

What the dance students do not yet realize is the danger lurking in their midst—a danger star performer Patricia Hingle (Chloë Grace Moretz) warns elderly psychiatrist Josef Klemperer (Tilda Swinton) is closing in. When Pat accuses the academy of being run by witches and its enigmatic, unseen leader Helena Markos the sinister culprit invading her head, he chalks it up as the raving delusions of a mentally unstable young woman. After she runs out of his office, however, leaving behind her belongings and journal before effectively disappearing, Josef begins to suspect something nefarious really may be afoot. Meanwhile, Susie is taken under the wing of Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), the school's imposing yet encouraging artistic director who sees in her the same talent, the same ambition, and the same fire she mistakenly thought Pat possessed. Beset with restless nightmares and dizzy spells during rehearsals, Susie does not at first realize she is being groomed for much more than simply the lead role in their upcoming dance production of Volk.

"Suspiria" is a sustained death rattle in dread-inducing cinematic form, a tale of thematically loaded suggestion and ominous fate, of deep-seated guilt and haunting premonition. Seeing it once isn't nearly enough. Seeing it twice only allows one to begin to unpack the formidable ambition of director Luca Guadagnino's expansive ideas. While he does not achieve the brooding kaleidoscopic scares Argento concocted, he also rarely seems to be striving for them; his film is more existentially disturbing, more concerned with taking the shell of the fast-paced, 98-minute original film and expanding it into a contemplative, grimly ravishing 152-minute psychodrama, a metaphor for Germany's harrowing past operatically writ large. The cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, who previously collaborated with Guadagnino on "Call Me by Your Name," is exquisite, each lonely image a blend of the despairing, the rapturous, and the altogether immersive. Thom Yorke, lead singer of Radiohead, has composed a score which sounds nothing like Goblin, bypassing terror for mournful compositions of loss and inevitable doom. Berlin, as depicted, may be shrouded in gloom, but it's also intoxicating, a place filled with forbidding secrets.

Dakota Johnson (2018's "Bad Times at the El Royale") underplays Susie to appropriate effect, a lithe protagonist whose repression and naiveté prove a sobering counterpoint to the hellish circumstances in which she finds herself. This Susie may begin in a similar place as the Susie of yore (previously played by Jessica Harper, appearing here in a pivotal supporting role as Josef's beloved wife Anke), but the further the narrative presses on, delving down provocatively new avenues, the more Johnson's Susie diverges from Harper's. Tilda Swinton (2014's "Snowpiercer"), likewise, holds the command of the previous Madame Blanc (portrayed in 1977 by Joan Bennett), but this is otherwise a fresh reimagining of the character. Swinton is seemingly incapable of hitting false notes in any of her performances, and here she gives three tremendous ones; in addition to Blanc, she disappears into the monstrous skin of Helena Markos and, even more remarkably, the crucial role of male psychiatrist Josef Klemperer, his investigation into the mysterious dance academy coinciding with a tortured past which becomes the third act's dramatic crux.

In a predominant cast of women—all the better for a film celebrating matriarchal domination—no actor appears out of place; each one is impeccably suited for this picture's mysterious, strange, thoroughly fascinating aura. Of them, Mia Goth (2017's "A Cure for Wellness") is the most sympathetic anchor as Sara, a fellow dancer who befriends Susie. When Josef contacts Sara and warns she may be in danger, she is initially skeptical but then takes an assertive step toward investigating the matter. Goth is a uniquely compelling presence onscreen, and she is excellent here. Elena Fokina is also memorable in a smaller but bracing role as Olga, a student whose outspoken accusations when Pat goes missing puts her in unthinkable peril; a set-piece in which her body becomes an expendable marionette, gruesomely distorting itself while supernaturally mimicking Susie's dance movements, is enough to make the most hardened audience member wince.

The iteration of "Suspiria" arriving in 2018 might not be the one most fans were initially hoping for or anticipating, but it is one which makes its existence necessary—perhaps more so than any other modern remake falling within the horror genre. By breaking new fertile ground and not merely reenacting the untouchable beats of the 1977 masterpiece, Guadagnino has crafted a bewitching triumph all his own, a showcase for his fiercely individualistic sensibilities. Like a pot boiling over, the savage climax of "Suspiria" finds the destinies of strangers Susie and Josef profoundly converging with a coven at odds and presumed Mother Suspiriorum, the elusive Helena Markos. Ferociously mortal wails of both literal and emblematic intent culminating in final moments tinged with bittersweet empathy, "Suspiria" remarkably defies expectations—in the best way—from beginning to end. This is a motion picture burrowing into the cold heart of darkness and finding within it a spark of humanity which can never be extinguished.
© 2018 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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