★★★ / ★★★★
Luca Guadagnino’s interpretation of Dario Argento’s “Suspiria” is fresh and exciting because, unlike its inspiration that has proven to be influential and has gained a cult following over the years, a work that I found to be generic and boring despite its would-be shocking images, the new perspective is actually interested in plot and less so when it comes to delivering shlock. What results is a horror film with class: even though there are gruesome images, the terror lingers and festers in the mind. It is an effective genre exercise not because we encounter with blood, guts, and bones snapping like twigs, but that, once delivered, we anticipate the next left field happening and attempt to put together the handful of curious pieces surrounding a Berlin-based dance academy run by witches.
I was piqued by its use of color and sound. Notice how in the beginning of the picture, the color red stands out like a punch in the gut. I was reminded immediately of “Schindler’s List” and how director Steven Spielberg forces the viewer to focus on the girl wearing a red coat amidst the depressed, barren, dead black and white. But the tinge of red in this film is paler, as if nearly devoid of life and about to reek of death. It made me think of the funeral parlors: the couches or carpets there, the various hues of roses placed next to coffins, lipstick painted on corpses to make them look presentable. This color is almost like a character because it can be seen throughout—and yet, like the picture’s human characters, it is never predictable or tedious. It does not simply appear when a key moment is about to occur. At times it is there to be noticed as if to remind us that a pair of eyes may be watching nearby or that a witch is able to see the scene psychically. Close-ups reveal creepy knowing in their eyes.
And then there is the sound. Dialogue is often whispered, at times mumbled, barely audible occasionally. When words can be heard with clarity, the content can be cryptic at times. On the outside, the work embodies the horror genre. On the inside, there are mysterious, curious elements meant to create an unsettling feeling. Suspense grows in the not knowing. And yet—the spattering of rain, dancers’ bodies hitting the floor, bones cracking, antique doors opening and closing—these are almost always amplified, at times to the point where the sound is deafening, overwhelming. It shows that Guadagnino has an understanding of classic horror pictures: there are instances when sound is—and should be—enough to send a tingle up one’s spine. Truly horrifying experiences require synergy of the senses, allowing the mind to draw a picture. Notice that in modern, certainly mainstream, horror pictures, it is often about what you see in front of you.
“Suspiria” is not without shortcomings. For instance, I found the final fifteen minutes to be, for the most part, pretentious drivel. There is one too many exploding heads for my liking; a denouement I expect from 1980s B- or C-grade sci-fi and horror flicks that must be wrapped up due to budgetary constraints or lazy writing. Although a few strands that lead up to such a conclusion do make sense, it is one of those bizarre final acts that feel forced or tacked on. (The final minutes of Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” quickly comes to mind.) I would have preferred a subtle or ironic ending, an approach that the project has proven to excel at—quite impressive for a horror film with a running time of almost one hundred fifty minutes. In addition, to a lesser degree, dance sequences usually running in parallel with other critical scenes gets tiresome eventually. At times I wanted a chance to appreciate the choreography, not the skillful editing. A bit of variation might have been more effective.
Immensely watchable performances throughout: Dakota Johnson as the gifted new member of the dance academy, Tilda Swinton as one of the most respected matrons who takes a special interest in the new girl, Mia Goth as our protagonist’s friend who discovers the role of witchcraft in the place she considers home. These performances, and the characters, are so interesting, at one point I thought it would be neat to experience the story through each of their perspectives.