Call Me By Your Name director Luca Guadagnino doesn’t so much remake Dario Argento’s Suspiria as use the influential Italian horror movie as an incantation with which to weave his own brand of red-black magic.
Berlin, 1977. The Wall is still up and members of the Red Army Faction are in jail. Bombs are going off and planes are being hijacked. Meanwhile, a young girl Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz) seems to be in the grip of paranoid delusions about the dance school she attends, and her psychiatrist Professor Klemperer (German actor Lutz Ebersdorf – or is it?) is left baffled by her ravings and the jottings in the notebook she leaves behind as she disappears into the rain. With Patricia gone, though, there is a place for newly arrived Ohian and ex-Amish Susy (Dakota Johnson) who nails the audition – despite a lack of formal training – and finds herself taken under the wing of Madame Blanc (a brilliantly witchy Tilda Swinton).
Screenwriter David Kajganich drops the reveal right up front that the school is essentially a front for a coven of witches, preferring to stir a cauldron full of dread over a soupçon of suspense. The dances are themselves physical spells which have horrifically violent effects at a distance. This makes for one of the most gut-wrenching sequences, as a body contorted in dance produce a violent dislocation elsewhere. The continued search for Patricia by both Klemperer and later Suzy’s new friend Sara (Mia Goth) threatens to stir up more danger.
Although in another realm of genre, Suspiria is thematically surprisingly close to Call Me By Your Name. In both films, a young person coming of age falls under the spell of an older person of the same sex. In both films there is an apparent asymmetry to the power relationship only for that idea later to be complicated. Here, the young girls are surrounded by the older teachers and members of the company, coddled and looked after, but also watched over for ulterior motives. While Madame Blanc imbues Suzy with ever more talent but is in her turn surprised by her new protege’s forcefulness.
Guadagnino directs the hell out of his Suspiria, heightening the sound design and using cuts that feel more like stabs. He wallows in the impressionistic weather – it only stops raining to start snowing – and gives a wonderful sense of place. The Tanz dance building by the Berlin Wall becomes a Albert Speer designed house of horrors. He also excels with the dance sequences – choreographed by Damien Jalet – and with Thom Yorke’s soundtrack more restrained than the lush prog rock of Goblin in the original.
Everything builds to a brilliantly over the top finale that becomes almost mesmeric with its use of colour, music, movement and panting. At 152 minutes, Suspiria is very long for a horror movie and there is a whole subplot about Klemperer’s wife Anke who has been missing since the war, which could easily have been jettisoned. Though it does at least give the scream queen from the original Jessica Harper, a beautiful cameo, it also gives a fairly flat epilogue to go out on. That said, for those wishing to indulge Suspiria delivers on its gruesome promises, it is a witches’ brew that has all the hallmarks of a cult classic.
The BFI London Film Festival takes place from 10-21 October. whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff
John Bleasdale | @drjonty