Films that can be described as arthouse horror epics don’t come along often. Even Dario Argento’s 1977 original version of Suspiria doesn’t fit that description. Light on plot and lore but steeped in atmosphere, that film was more like a tone poem than the complex occult tale that director Luca Guadagnino has crafted from David Kajganich’s script. The script is an expansion as much as a remake, adding a full hour to the 1977 version’s runtime. Every minute of that is well worth it, as Suspiria 2018 is the rare remake that, if you dig into it, more than earns its right to exist.
In case audiences didn’t catch the original, the plot is similar on a basic level: Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) is an American dancer newly inducted into a Berlin dance company. As she rises through the ranks, disturbing mysteries begin to accumulate and we eventually learn that the company is really a coven of witches that groom young girls for occult rituals. The dancing is connected indelibly to the occultism, with the dance scenes eschewing prettiness and instead focusing on raw, physical movements and sounds. This evokes the shamanistic ritual dancing of ancient fertility cults and the film convincingly folds this into its witch-lore, making the dance company more than just a disguise.
The story of the remake is partly a palace intrigue tale and partly gothic horror. The witches are revealed early and there is a schism among them as two figures, Blanc and Markos (both played by Tilda Swinton) disagree about the coven’s mandate and methods. This conflict is subtle, but informs most of the plot momentum. How these girls are used by the witches becomes a symbol of the film’s thoughtful consideration of feminism. The audience’s entry point is the disappearance of one of the dancers, Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz). Susie’s arrival brings the matter to a head while the backdrop of 1970’s Berlin and its post-Reich tensions provide a thematic reflection of the corruption of culture that threatens the coven. The film comments on these connections with a light touch, just enough so that the attentive viewer knows they are there and leading somewhere.
Though the plot has an unusual seven act structure, it unfolds deliberately through Susie’s experiences and the investigations of Patricia’s psychologist, Dr. Klemperer (also Tilda Swinton). For much of the running time, the audience might wonder how all these things connect or where it’s all going. The emphasis on Berlin at this specific moment may seem especially alienating. The details of the story are kept vague, with very little exposition, forcing the viewer to intuit was is happening. This process encourages an interaction with “why” that seems to be the main concern of the film. Why is Susie so important yet so remote? Why Dr. Klemperer? Why so much Berlin news leaking in at the margins? It all becomes clear by the end, in spectacular fashion.
Both films are about the mystery as it unfolds, though the original focuses on what is happening and the remake dives into the why. This change in focus is the reason for the expanded story, allowing the remake to have an epic’s scope and depth. It’s thematically dense stuff, dealing with schisms across culture, ideology, and femininity. Though expanded, the remake still respects the spirit of the original. Rather than ignoring or reimagining the aesthetics and iconic sound design of the 1977 version, Guadagnino evokes them often and in unexpected ways. One example is that the remake withholds the psychedelic color palette of the original, though when it’s time to get red this movie really goes for it. Another, the infamous soundtrack by Goblin and the recurrent use of heavy breathing never become cheap connective tissue but rather a juxtaposition that encourages viewers of both versions to ponder their meaning.
As a horror film, Suspiria 2018 is at least as successful as the original. There is a reason many of the most celebrated horror classics came from the 70’s and 80’s. A lot of horror remakes try to adopt contemporary tricks, like jump scares, and wind up cheapening the impact. Suspiria dodges that and reaches into the past to freak you out. It uses some of the same techniques, such as paranoia-evoking shots and zooms, as well as quite a few of its own. The remake is far less restrained in its depictions of truly horrific and supernatural events and imagery. The dream sequences are the main delivery system for this throughout the film, but the already legendary climax is like a blood-soaked buffet for occult horror enthusiasts.
Suspiria 2018 is a densely packed film that doesn’t hold the viewer’s hand. It contains enough symbolism, thematic depth, and intriguing lore to inspire a wave of articles and youtube videos trying to decode it. Its unusually expansive approach to remaking a classic might seem self-indulgent at first but winds up being fully justified by the richness of its storytelling.