Welcome to Suspiria; Berlin, 1977. This is the nightmare that director Luca Guadagnino has been waiting a lifetime to create. This week Semaine and MUBI, the streaming service for film aficionados, form their own coven to bring you an exclusive glimpse at Guadagnino’s frenzied vision of the quintessential Italian horror classic, as Suspiria premieres in the Headline Gala of London’s BFI Film Festival. In a landmark move for the company, MUBI has acquired the release rights to Suspiria across the U.K. in its widest release to date. So enter at your own peril, as we lay our hands at the altar of Suspiria, harking back to the time capsule and tastes of 70s Berlin.
In Dario Argento’s 1972 original, open hearts spurt, chandeliered ceilings are felled by shrieking bodies, conversations build into a crescendo of hisses. Guadagnino’s vision of Suspiria features gowns of human hair, orgiastic frenzied dances, and the shimmering swipes of a giant curved hook. But where Argento’s vision folds in on itself, tumbling ever further into a technicolour hellscape; Guadagnino’s unfurls into its own grim nightmare—the streets of 1977 Cold War Berlin.
It is here where Susie (Dakota Johnson) tears away from small-town Ohio to land an audition at Markos Dance Company, governed with a stern grip by Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). Space has opened up, as ex-student Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz), attuned to the sinister goings-on in the company, leaves—seeking solace in the office of Josef Klemperer played by Lutz Ebersdorf who, it has just been revealed, doesn’t exist and is actually Tilda Swinton masked in prosthetics. As it dawns on Susie that Markos has succumbed (or been seduced by) a coven of witches, her powers, and true self, are awakened.
We like our fairy-tales grim; this is the only wish Suspiria grants—late 20th century Berlin was no place for rapture. Guadagnino’s cover of Argento’s grindhouse masterpiece makes this plain, and, for all its exquisitely framed gore and drum snare-tight tension, Suspiria seems most interested in telling us about that most base and terrifying theme—our capacity for evil. The effect of Suspiria is most eloquently put by David Kajganich, the screenwriter of this update: “It’s like being dragged into a lava lamp by a lunatic and stabbed to death.” Indeed, the taut rasp of Swinton’s voice and the silk thread of Johnson’s, are all counterbalanced by Thom Yorke’s discordant score; thrumming on our nerves like a doctor of fear.
Guadagnino’s body of work now merits maestro status on par with Argento; though he is no stranger to reimaginings, as his sun-dappled, fever dream “A Bigger Splash”, itself remade from 1967’s “La Piscine”, showed. He’s claimed Suspiria was a stylistic homage to Rainer Werner Fassbinder; perhaps the first to marry the German father of realism with the pained throes of a demonic dance troupe. But such is Guadagnino’s punkish, surrealist thrill—just as his “A Bigger Splash” wove threads of needle-sharp social commentary into a Mediterranean lark, so too does Suspiria mine the pain of Berlin’s past as the stage for his phantasmagorical nightmare.
To Guadagnino, the thing to be revered most is Suspiria itself; an image of Luca in 2006, wearing a black t-shirt adorned with the original Suspiria graphics, recently went viral to show this. Of course, projects of passion do not happen overnight; Guadagnino and Italian producer Marco Morabito worked for more than 10 years to help realize his long-held vision; Luca has even said: “I had notebooks in which I would write, ‘Suspiria by Luca Guadagnino.’” Since age 13, Suspiria has entranced Guadagnino, when he glimpsed a broadcast on Italian public television while preparing for family dinner: “I said, ‘I don’t want to eat,’ and went and locked myself into a room all alone to watch it.”
The empty knocks of herringbone floors, and curls of cigarette smoke, are the furthest cry from the sun-kissed splendour, and sensual short-shorts of “Call Me By Your Name”, Guadagnino’s previous Oscar-nominated masterpiece. His longtime editor, Walter Fasano, compares the two best: “Call Me by Your Name is the sun, and Suspiria is darkness.”
And yet, Guadagnino slides his lens of psychoanalysis over Suspiria, looking at sexual awakenings of a different kind. Guadagnino’s canny reworking of the legend of witches avoids the sometimes schlocky aspects of its source material, aiming, as he said to “devictimize the women.” It is, after all, set in 1977—the heyday of second-wave feminism and the year of the watershed National Women’s Conference in the U.S.
Dakota Johnson summed up her character, Susie, best: “She’s like a little lamb that’s in awe of the world, and she’s shocked by everything, but she’s not timid. She wants it. She wants to drink it all in.” Susie explores her body; swapping the rituals of her Mennonite childhood for the thrill of dance, despite her lack of training. To bring this (under)world to life, Johnson has spoken of the “foundation of support and love and true, deep connections with one another” among the cast, with co-star Mia Goth describing working with an ensemble of actresses “really empowering.” Whereas the only glass ceiling broken in Argento’s vision was by the hung corpse of a dead victim, these are women who contort, reinvent, and are endlessly resilient—to the point of being eternal.
This is the horrifying effect of Suspiria—it plants this coven, its harlequin vision of dizzying ambition, firmly in reality. Guadagnino strips Suspiria of any artifice, strapping us into the world of his, Swinton’s, Johnson’s, and Argento’s creation. Step inside it with Semaine and Mubi, and join in the dance.
Guadagnino’s Suspiria will be in cinemas on the 16th November, with preview screenings across the UK. You can book tickets at www.suspiriamovie.co.uk/ now.
By Jonathan Mahon-Heap for Semaine.