The remake of the Italian horror film is showing at Ann Arbor’s State Theatre this November.
By Andrew Warrick
Featured photo via Amazon Studios
When the State Theatre’s opening night showing of “Suspiria” ended, one person clapped, perhaps sarcastically. Somebody else booed. The rest sat in stunned silence. One can say a lot about this movie, but not that it isn’t affecting. Directed by Luca Guadagnino, “Suspiria” is a remake of the 1977 Italian film of the same name. Many will consider it similar in title only. The original was an over-the-top fright fest, known for its vibrant colors and exciting horror sequences. 1977’s “Suspiria” was meant to entertain; 2018’s terrorizes, both emotionally and intellectually. It is 2 ½ hours, around an hour longer than its predecessor. Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” opts for uncertainty and surrealism over the original’s relatively straight-forward scares.
The film centers on a dance studio in West Berlin, run by witches who serve an order that is said to be older than Christianity itself. Suzy Bannion, a recently admitted American dancer, is the audience’s entrance to this brutal, nightmarish story. Through her journey, the movie gradually reveals the coven’s dark, profound secrets, most of which, however, are left to the viewer’s interpretation. The title card calls it “Six Acts and an Epilogue Set in Divided Berlin,” and as the fourth act came around, more than a few people had already left the theater. It’s a film that will madden most, as its plot isn’t exactly clear. It’s not even a priority. It’s more concerned with ideas than entertainment, a motto encapsulated by a scene where a character says that she “prefers dancing without the music.”
While circling a central narrative concerning the insidious coven, “Suspiria” spends most of its time in dialogue, as characters wax about concepts like politics (instability in West Berlin, the Holocaust, Nazism, feminism) and philosophical ideas (societal guilt, female power, delusion), and even more. “Suspiria” asks captivating questions without giving answers and is an extremely ambitious mesh of horror and philosophy. Even so, the ideas pile up to the point of overflowing, and it seems like “Suspiria” could have used an editor. It attempts to be a horror film, an avant-garde arthouse picture and a historical/political statement all at once, and it has moments where its complexity ends up just being confounding. It’s ambitious and thought provoking, but its cohesion, effectiveness and insight will vary from person to person. What frames this uncertainty, making sure that its messages do not burst its seams, is the film’s immense craft.
It’s shot and directed with great vision, using arresting techniques like slow motion, zoom and color tinting to drag the viewer through a world they may not necessarily want to see, but can’t take their eyes off of. Its score, by Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, is also a masterstroke. The characters are fascinating, especially the witches, who though terrifying, are so well developed that the viewer has no choice but to empathize with them. Dakota Johnson’s performance as Suzy is richly well-drawn, yet simultaneously understated, and doesn’t let the viewer in on the truth until it’s too late. Tilda Swinton is a powerhouse as the studio’s teacher and head witch, Madame Blanc. She also dons prosthetics to play a psychiatrist named Jozef Klemperer, who decides to investigate when one of his patients goes missing.
Though slow burning, the movie is interspersed with extreme moments of terror. When it chooses to be, “Suspiria” is unflinching. It’s refreshing to see well-developed, enthralling horror instead of the usual jump-scare fest that has become the stale norm. “Suspiria” has blood-soaked sequences that are some of the most memorable, and creative, horror scenes. While nearly unbearable, they’re beautiful in a macabre way reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch. It’s almost a shame that the horror is done so well, as it’s outnumbered by scenes that many will find pretentious and boring.
Those looking for anything reminiscent of the original’s colorful scares will be disappointed. Those expecting a horror movie will likely find it tedious. And those seeking an art house film may find it too distressing to enjoy. It’s hard to call it “entertaining” in a general sense, and viewers should know what they’re getting into is more of an experiment than a film. Yet “Suspiria” still has a charm. Beyond the skillfully woven terror and intrigue, there is a core of philosophical intent that makes it more than a horror movie. Its themes become overwrought and muddled, however, by the sheer amount of them. Repeated viewings could alleviate the sometimes overwhelming confusion. With a work this immense, it’s too early to tell.
“Suspiria” will confound, horrify, enthrall and provoke. Regardless of its pitfalls, it is one of the most fascinating and important works of the year. It takes dedicated interpretation, a thick skin, and above all, patience, to enjoy, but that does not make it less worth it. It also has an extremely limited release, and the State Theatre is one of the only cinemas in the area showing it. Catch it while you can.
233 S State St., Ann Arbor
Showing through at least Nov. 8 (will likely play longer, showtimes release weekly)
Andrew Warrick is a student at the University of Michigan. He is majoring in creative writing and history, and is a part of the Residential College. He also leads the RC’s Creative Writing Forum. When not watching movies, he loves hanging out with friends, especially in the spectacular Ann Arbor, becoming addicted to novels, and listening to Bowie records. Some of his favorite movies are “Cloud Atlas,” “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” “Twin Peaks: The Return,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Alien.”