Words by Soraya Gaied Chortane
Remaking a film is never an easy feat— especially when it is a cult classic like Dario Argento’s Suspiria. Forty-five years later after the film’s initial release, Luca Guadagnino tasked himself with this rather tricky proposition. Yet his depiction of the batshit ballet school is a reincarnation as gorgeous as it is gruesome.
It’s 2:00am on a blustery Sunday night. I’m all alone in my North London flat which is cast in complete darkness (my flatmate and I are trying to save on energy bills). The opening credits of Suspiria (2018) are yet to appear and I’ve already decided I won’t like it. The thought of attempting to compete with Dario Argento’s 1977 trashy technicoloured masterpiece offends me. It feels sacrilegious to say I liked the new version, when the original film poster looms above my head.
Uncoincidentally, Guadagnino set the remake the same year in which the original was released. Backdropped by a cold and divided Berlin, the film follows the naive Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), who dreams of studying at the prestigious Markos Dance Academy. The all-female troupe is heralded by choreographer Madame Blanc (Tilda Swindon) and the company’s directors, who unbeknownst to the students, are also a coven of witches. After a more than intense audition, Susie becomes lead dancer for Blanc’s seminal performance, ‘The Volk’. Soon, the young ballet ingenue is catapulted into the unsettling world of sabbaths, seances and savagery.
When Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz) pays a desperate visit to Dr. Klemperer, her psychotherapist (Swindon) claiming that her tutors are witches trying to control her body, it becomes clear that I’m in for a completely different viewing experience. Guadagnino’s Suspiria is Argento’s estranged cousin once removed. Though it bears some connection to the original, the resemblance starts and stops at name, setting and characters. The Italian director along with screenwriter, David Kajganich, pays homage to 1970s horror and embraces the surrealist ambiguity of the Giallo genre. The pair weave a whole new narrative from the original’s thematic material— one that is all too unsettling.
Separated into six gruelling acts, the film is borderline insane. I like to think I have a strong stomach after all, I’ve seen my fair share of blood and gore. I’ve cracked my head open twice in the past year and I have been known to take a wander down a body horror Reddit thread rabbit hole in my spare time. Yet, watching this film gave me reason enough to renounce body horror completely. One scene sees student Olga (Elena Fokina) contorted into what I can only describe as a game of Twister gone wrong— horribly and horrifically wrong. After accusing the directors of involvement in Patricia’s disappearance, Olga pays the ultimate punishment making high school detentions seem like child’s play. Hurtling against the mirrored wall, her body is distended and distorted in a garish fashion.
What follows is even more unnerving. There’s a notebook full of indecipherable clues, hands are clenched and a dancer claws up a door frame. These terrifying shots culminate into the film’s final act, where just like the original, everything is not quite as it seems. It is when Susie dances ‘the Volk’ that this power structure really comes into play. The doe-eyed, fresh-faced dancer completely transforms into her shadow self. Her libido is let loose as she writhes on the floor around an orgy of dancers. It’s carnal and liberating to witness.
Crammed with context, there is plenty of style but too much substance. From bleak border crossings to the aftermath of the second world war, the film tries to tackle a lot in the 152 minutes running time. Guadagnino makes a lot of indulgences which at times left me feeling like I've scoffed two footlong Subway sandwiches— unnecessarily overwhelmed and overstuffed. But where the film makes too many historic references, it more than makes up for it in artistic liberties.
Simply put, the film is gorgeous to look at. The cool grey tones of Berlin’s cityscape bleed into the crimson of the Markos dancers. Prepare to be whisked away into the bizarre mindfuck of Guadagnino. But it is the acting that truly makes the remake stand out. Headed up by Johnston, Swindon and Mortez, the all-female cast gives way to the formidable nature of women’s strength. Even the one male character, Dr Klemperman, is played by Swindon under layers and layers of prosthetic makeup. Shouldering three roles entirely to herself, Swindon’s performance is a feat of endurance.
Whilst watching the film, I asked myself, "would I enjoy this if the original never existed?" Much to my surprise, the answer to my question was a firm and resounding “yes”. The remake is like being trapped in a beautiful nightmare that I never want to wake up from. I felt completely unhinged after watching and even more unhinged with my final estimation— Luca Guardagnino’s recreation levels up with the original, in fact it more than competes with it.