Luca Guadagnino travels through space and time from 1983 Northern Italy to 1977 West Berlin to demonstrate his rather expert transition from 2017’s romantic coming of age drama, Call Me By Your Name to 2018’s art house horror, Suspiria.
Guadagnino has stated that 2018’s Suspiria is merely an homage, or a cover, of the original – rather than a remake – and this is evident most prominently in the decision to set this new version in 1977, the release year of Dario Argento’s original. The narrative remains relatively loyal to Argento’s cult classic; wide-eyed Ohio girl Susie Bannion (perfectly portrayed by Dakota Johnson) arrives at a prestigious Berlin dance school, maternally ran by Madame Blanc (the first of Tilda Swinton’s three roles in the film), a school which is revealed to be a coven of witches.
Setting the film in 1977 in Berlin allows the film to park the horror of the supernatural against the backdrop of violent events of the German Autumn including the RAF murders and hijacking of the Lufthansa plane, perhaps screenplay writer David Kajganich’s sleek link between 20th Century Cold War horrors and genre-defining facets of witchcraft. The film opens with the sounds of Berlin against a black screen, hearing Berlin before we see it, almost giving the film’s location the credibility of another character. This idea of hearing before seeing becomes a motif throughout the film, creating very a sensory idea of suspense; the film is rife with whispers, growls, and monstrous groans, along with warped, uncomfortable resonance.
Guadagnino must be applauded for the subtly respectful nods to Argento’s 1977 original. When Susie arrives in Berlin, she unnervingly drops a yellow book, which could be interpreted as an early homage to Giallo – a genre of 20th Century Italian thrillers, the name of which is derived from older yellow paperback books which depicted mystery and the supernatural. Furthermore, for the first 2 hours of the film, the colour could not be further from the original; Suspiria (1977) is a bright almost blinding display of primary colours ready to beam out of the screen, however, Suspiria (2018) uses colour to match its setting, bleak, grey, dreary and leaden. That is, until the denouement in which Guadagnino’s admiration of Argento’s exhibition of almost-Disney technicolour is clear.
The film is terrifyingly beautiful; however it fails to elevate Guadagnino as a director of beautiful terror. The suspense of the film relies too heavily on sensory experience, and struggles to establish aesthetics to create true horror. The first display of fright is during our protagonist’s passionate first dance audition, in which her dance allegorically mimics a ritual and scenes of her almost frenzied dance are interjected with images of another dancer, Olga, and the gruesome contortion of her body during which we see and hear her bones break, her jaw totally fall to the floor, and her frame become less and less human, only to then be prompted up and taken away by meat hooks.
Despite the lacklustre of fear-inducing images, the film is still an excellent investigation into horror, especially considering it is Guadagnino’s first endeavour into this genre. The performances also help to exalt this piece from simply nightmarish stereotypes to a film exploring motherhood, sisterhood, and matriarchy. Tilda Swinton continues to deserve the inordinate amount of praise she receives as a performer, especially in her depiction of the film’s male lead, German psychotherapist, Josef Klemperer. Also included is a cameo from the original’s protagonist, Jessica Harper. However despite these excellent performances, and Guadagnino’s reverence to the original, 2018’s Suspiria just fails to put audiences under its spell.
Suspiria is showing at the Glasgow Film Theatre from 16th-22nd November. Tickets can be found here.
The Glasgow Film Theatre also offer a free 15-25 membership card that can be found here.
[Ellen Magee – @mondaymagee]