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'Suspiria' Isn't Just a Horror Film—It's a Story of Witchcraft

The remake of this 1977 hit is less about gore and more about the psychological horrors of the occult.

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Nov 2 2018, 7:53pm

Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios

Like every other self-respecting horror film aficionado I know, I could hardly have been more excited about the forthcoming remake of the 1977 giallo gem, Suspiria, a film that follows the haunting journey of a dancer who goes to a prestigious school and becomes accused of witchcraft. In this remake, Oscar winner Tilda Swinton (Only Lovers Left Alive) and director Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name) collaborate for a titillating thriller about the occult.

The knife-edged story in an elite German dance academy has been a cult classic for decades, in part because it was widely unavailable. Even now, there are only one or two obscure places to stream it online. The film is based on Thomas De Quincey's 1845 essay Suspiria de Profundis (Sighs from the Depths), a collection of psychological fantasies. What set the film apart from other horror films of the decade was its intimate depiction of violence and take-no-prisoners style of dispatching main characters, as well as a nuanced approach to tackling political tensions within Europe in the 1970s. Set in an unnamed German city, the film was mostly shot in Rome, with several key exterior scenes shot in Munich, and the main set recreated from a building in Freiburg; a nod, perhaps, to Berlin’s volatile situation at the time.

Ultimately, witchcraft is why we’re here, and from a cinematic perspective, it does not disappoint. The witchcraft sub-plot has some inscrutable moments, but the finale is like a wild ride you can’t disembark from, and its power is thrilling.

The original Suspiria’s murder scenes are elaborate set-pieces done with exquisite slow-build timing, melodramatic in their intensity, and, for many viewers, these gruesome kills were far more memorable than the witchcraft-tinged story. This time around, director Guadagnino’s approach to the violence is no less artful but is aided with 21st-century special effects that make Argento’s film look somewhat crude by comparison.

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The remake, also set in 1977, begins with two short prologues: in the first, Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz) is attending a session with psychotherapist Dr. Josef Klemperer (Tilda Swinton, in one of three vastly different roles), who takes notes while she babbles anxiously about witches at her school. After a brief flashback set in a rural home, where a matriarch is dying, titles telling us this will be “six episodes and an epilogue,” set in “a divided Berlin” are superimposed over a shot of Berlin’s central train station. In the second prologue, a young American dancer, Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), exits the station and walks towards the Markos School for modern dance. This opening sequence is familiar, though hugely different from Argento’s, which is set at night in a torrential downpour.

Susie walks past street protesters and “Red Army Faction” can be read on signs, a reference to Baader-Meinhof, a far-left militant organization that had a controversial presence in 1977 Berlin. Where Argento’s political backdrop was unspoken, Guadagnino’s has a deliberately crafted presence.

Susie settles in quickly to the dance school and wows her instructors with her confidence and moves, and the very serious Madame Blanc (also played by Swinton) takes a special interest in fostering Susie’s talent with her intense, hands-on style of teaching. Susie’s dorm room is right next to Sara (Mia Goth), and discuss Patricia’s mysterious disappearance, which Sara finds suspicious. But Susie is mainly focused on dancing, though, seizing a chance to take on Patricia’s role in a high-profile performance piece. Another dancer named Olga (Elena Fokina) is angered by this, blurting accusations of witchcraft. The school bristles with tension, and there are several odd dreamy sequences that suggest occult activities.

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Meanwhile, the witches are hiding in plain sight, and their near-constant visual presence is chilling. The “matrons” are dance instructors who are rarely seen teaching but are frequently shown after hours, cooking, eating, drinking, smoking and laughing. These scenes are strangely intimate, providing a subtle horror vibe that bridges the more explicit scenes of violence. Miss Tanner (Angela Winkler), Miss Vendegast (Ingrid Caven), Miss Griffith (Sylvie Testud), and Miss Millius (Alex Wek) are exquisite in their short time on screen. The coven’s occasional motherly behavior (treating some of the dancers to an occasional night out) underscores the insidiousness of the school’s mysterious mission.

Kagjanich’s screenplay elaborately expands the occult elements of the original screenplay. The backdrop of 1970s-era turmoil grounds the film in a sort of gritty realism, a sharp contrast to the fantastical scenes of horror in the final scenes. There’s a lot going on here (including a WWII subplot), maybe for a bit too long (152 minutes), though when the film lets loose towards the end it’s a gloriously thrilling spectacle.

I can’t recall another film that has leaped with such mad daring into the trope of witchcraft as demonic ritual. It’s a charnel house of frenzied brutality, like a porn version of The Bacchae. If you like that sort of thing, you’ll love it. I did.