Dario Argento’s original, 1977’s Suspiria, synthesized his many experiments with the giallo form—the mid-century thrillers and violent crime stores much of Argento’s peers were churning out—into something essential. Gone were the questions of whodunit, the investigative layer of procedure litigating how such evil could make its way into this world, replaced by both a focus on the victims of this murder mystery and a sensual connection to the horrors flaying their young bodies apart. That the film takes place in Munich’s Tanz Dance Academy, though little dancing occurs, projects the film’s insinuated physicality onto the walls and floor as chimeric splashes of fairy tale color, especially (of course) red—we always remember the red—its vibrancy emphasized by Goblin’s monolithic score. Women, in Argento’s film, are vessels: for life, for gore, for art. Luca Guadagnino’s remake, and David Kajganich’s screenplay, simply tell the audience this—over and over and over. To significantly grosser ends. What Argento implied, Guadagnino makes literal.
In 2018, but in 1977, we begin with a title card and the sounds of revolution: The following is told in six chapters and an epilogue, taking place in “divided Berlin.” Rising star Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz), manic as she attempts to tell her psychotherapist, Josef Klemperer (Tilda Swinton in convincing enough old-guy makeup, billed as Lutz Uberdorf, because: aren’t celebrities weird?!), of the strange goings-on at the Markos Dance Academy, disappears soon after, which encourages Klemperer to become increasingly suspicious of Patricia’s claims that her dance school is run by a coven of witches, and that her diary, full of occult ravings, should be further studied.
Meanwhile, former Mennonite and Ohioan Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) arrives at the Academy in Berlin, ready to audition though she’s had no formal training, no previous notice and no childhood predisposed to such an expressive art. There, in Berlin during the German Autumn, amidst the hijacking of the Lufthansa Flight 181 and the country’s youth taking account, navigating the psychic wounds, of the horrors their parents’ generation inflicted on the world, a naturally gifted young woman finds a mini-society of women to guide her and hone her, independent from the brutal outside world of men, but still dealing with their own, similar, shit.
What Argento slowly revealed, Kajganich admits up front and then explicates: The dance academy is a coven of witches, and here is how that coven operates, from its hierarchy of influence to its flashes of democracy. Apparently Susie’s arrival and Patricia’s disappearance coincide with the coven’s vote on legacies of power, the women divided into two camps: those who support absent matriarch Helena Markos, and those who want the academy’s driving creative force, Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), to take over. By narrow margin, Markos wins, such procedural minutiae shot by Guadagnino and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (with whom Guadagnino worked on Call Me By Your Name) as a distillation of Argento’s visual style and other cult, pulpy offerings of the late ’70s, lifting a lot of the mundane weight of all the bureaucracy going on and transforming it into something equally primal and disconcerting.
Much of Guadagnino’s film is about transformation—how Germany had to reimagine itself to break the spell of its evil past; how art contorts oneself, irrevocably changes those who create it; how even the media in which the director works must adapt and mature and evolve to transcend the idea that a movie like Suspiria maybe should have been remade in 2018 at all. What Argento made subtext, Guadagnino reveals as text: As much as Suspiria explored the essence of giallo, Guadagnino explores the essence of Suspiria. No wonder that so much of Guadagnino’s aesthetic seems to be about itself, replacing Argento’s phantasmagoria with the architecture of 1977 Berlin, a style unable to be divorced from both its modern function and its anti-modern history. Less fetishized, much less fantasized, the violence of 2018’s Suspiria is so much more harrowing than Argento’s, because Suspiria 1977 is its violence, and Suspiria 2018 wields its violence like an upsetting symbol, simultaneously too real and too absurd.
As Susie grows into Madame Blanc’s latest star pupil, she begins to understand the hierarchy of the academy, the effects of all that magic surrounding her indefinable from a more centered reality. Preparing for the first performance of Madame Blanc’s latest opus, Volk (in which Susie will lead, her confidence growing as she challenges Blanc’s understanding of the Earth’s eldritch forces pulling and pushing their feet and hands), Susie befriends Sara (Mia Goth), Blanc’s hopeful protege until Susie came along. We of course know that all this favoritism is meant to groom Mother Markos’s predecessor—meaning the young body she’ll inhabit in an upcoming “ceremony” of sorts. Susie starts to guess at all the weirdness swirling around her; Sara begins to suspect Susie’s in cahoots with the coven; two cops show up at Klemperer’s behest, and Susie witnesses their sexual humiliation at the hands of Tanz staff effortlessly casting spells. What Argento stripped away—the procedural, and by extension criminal, nature of the giallo—Guadagnino overtly humiliates, having the witches pull out an officer’s penis, which Guadagnino zooms in on, laughing at it while they prod and poke his dumpy man body.
Inevitably, the witches’ power struggle resolves in a delirious massacre, death reigning belligerently while Klemperer writhes naked on the floor, braying that he knows how many men are outside the doors of the academy who are bad people, who refuse to take account for the evil they inflicted not long ago. He is not one of those men. He remembers; he lives with the horror of the Third Reich. After all, he lost his wife (Jessica Harper, who played “Suzy” in the 1977 film) during the war, and chances are she never survived. Guilt and grief and rage culminate in a climax that must be seen to be digested, a deeply moving and equally repulsive catharsis of horror filmmaking. In turn, Dakota Johnson reveals a finely calibrated understanding of Gudagnino’s tone, able to wait in reserved silence for the unbelievability of her situation to overtake her, and then give into the rapture of an actor seamlessly into whatever madness she senses splaying out on screen. Likewise, Tilda Swinton projects motherly concern as powerfully as unmitigated evil, representing birth and death and the transformative destruction scintillating between.
Much of Guadagnino’s Suspiria feels beholden to nothing, indulgent and overwrought, existing only for itself. Art should never have to justify its own existence, but also: Why does this exist? What motivations conceived this film that seems to want very little—to maybe even dislike—the movie on which it’s based? And yet, it’s unforgettable, as ravishing as anything Guadagnino’s lazily captured in the italian countryside, as disturbing as any horror film you’ve seen this year. What Argento only pointed to, Gudagnino covers in viscera, the sound of an old man, of Tilda Swinton in full naked old man makeup, flopping around on the wet stone of an underground church unable to escape your brain—beautiful and eviscerating and, like the 1977 original, unlike anything you’ve ever felt helplessly drawn to before.
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Writer: David Kajganich
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Dakota Johnson, Mia Goth, Chloë Grace Moretz
Release Date: October 26, 2018 (select cities); October 31, 2018 (wide)
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.