Susie Bannion has left her home and family in rural Ohio to pursue her dream of joining a dance academy in Berlin. She has no formal training, yet her dancing captivates Madame Blanc, the headmistress, and she is allowed to join the academy. As the dancers train for a very special performance, strange and violent things begin to happen. Dancers have gone missing, and it seems more and more likely the women running the academy are the ones behind it all.
Screenwriter David Kajganich (The Terror) and director Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name) have taken the basic premise and characters created by Dario Argento (Suspiria 1977) and Daria Nicolodi (Suspiria 1977) and constructed something absolutely breathtaking. At it’s core, the film is about a dance school run by witches. This is really all the two films have in common. The story created by Kajganich and Guadagnino’s filming style diverge greatly from the original, so I will do my best not to constantly compare the two films.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Suspiria (2018) is how the filmmakers built upon the with mythology. The rules, the dynamics, the magic, and the history is meticulously created in a way that is familiar, yet there is a complexity that adds a sense of mystery to the film. Often times, the intrigue comes from the division among the witches. These witches have a long history that sprang from three witches known as the “mothers.” There is the group who believes Madame Blanc should be in charge, and there is a group who believes the unseen Helena Markos should continue her rule. The witches are using the dancers to work towards a specific goal, and they need Susie to reach that goal. Between some of the dancers putting the pieces together and the division between the witches, there is immediate suspense and tension that carries throughout the film.
The way dance is incorporated into the film is stunning. Suspiria (2018) focuses on contemporary/interpretive dance rather than ballet. It is a wise decision because it allows the filmmakers to bring new meaning into the dance being performed. It isn’t simply a performance the dancers are training for, it is a bigger end-game for the witches. All of the dancers move beautifully through the rehearsals and the final routine.
While the cast holds a couple actresses I have not been a fan of in the past, every single person shines in their own way. Probably the most surprising performance in the film is Dakota Johnson (50 Shades of Grey) as Susie Bannion. While her acting is fine, it’s her dancing that truly blew me away. The filmmakers took a risk hiring an actress over a dancer in such a dance-heavy role, but luckily it payed off. Johnson portrays Susie with a sort of naive grace that develops into something much more powerful, and it is amazing to watch. The standout performance comes from Tilda Swinton (Doctor Strange) playing not one, not two, but three characters! While Swinton is amazing in each role, making them each distinctly unique characters even as she acts through layers of makeup and prosthetics, she is truly amazing as Madame Blanc. Similar to the portrayal of Susie, Madame Blanc has a graceful way about her, yet Blanc’s grace has much more power and authority to it. Swinton proves once again that she can play virtually any role and she is able to entirely transform into any character. The on-screen chemistry between Swinton and Johnson is electric, and their dynamics with the rest of the supporting cast is hypnotizing.
It is difficult to live up to Argento’s visuals, so Guadagnino made the wise decision to go in a different direction. Suspiria (2018) has a very stark palette lacking vibrant colors, which fits in well with the 1977 Berlin setting. The bright colors are instead replaced with bold patterns. The patterns can be found everywhere from the floors to the walls to the clothing. It creates striking and iconic imagery where the meticulous patterns feel reminiscent of the ritualistic choreography of the dances.
The bleak look of the film also goes well with the practical effects. These effects are used in a number of ways. The most prominent use is to turn Swinton into different characters, one of them an elderly man. Old age makeup alone is incredibly difficult to do well. Not only is the old age makeup in this film near-perfect, but it also transforms Swinton into a man. The effects are also used to produce some realistic and disturbing wounds, injuries, and gore. I was quite surprised by the brutality in certain scenes, and the practical effects in those scenes are sublime.
The film is only elevated by the astounding score by Thom Yorke of Radiohead. The score is soft, mysterious, and often times includes sounds from the film itself. One piece, titled “Hooks,” is most notable for incorporating sounds from the film such as sighs, breathing, and the whoosh of hooks through the air (which will make sense if/when you see the film). Yorke also includes a couple songs in which he sings. These songs are especially haunting, and are used at integral scenes where the songs are the perfect accompaniment to the events taking place. I would imagine, after this success, that we will be hearing more of Yorke’s work as a composer of film scores.
Suspiria (2018) is a haunting and ethereal tale of witchcraft, mutilation, and death. Guadagnino and Kajganich were inspired by Suspiria (1977), but they were able to create something new and thrilling with this film. The expanded mythology lends itself to an intriguing plot that will keep audiences guessing. The entire cast of performers deliver stunning acting and dancing skills that mesmerize. Add to that the brilliant visual artistry, including the practical effects, and Yorke’s gorgeous score and the result is a disturbing and beautiful film. This is one you won’t want to miss.
OVERALL RATING: 9/10