Witches, witches, witches—they’ve been the stars of some recent horror film and television successes. Sabrina the Witch has just come out to mixed reception on Netflix, combining the genres of teen-drama and horror, and Robert Egger’s 2015 The Witch was so good I almost joined a satanic cult and danced naked in the woods by the end of it.
This year, director Luca Guadagnino released Suspiria, a remake of the 1977 film of the same name by Dario Argento. The fact that this film is a fantasy and about witches isn’t made clear until you watch it in the cinema, with the trailer only showing a dark, despairing Cold War atmosphere in Berlin, and a dance academy that threatens to trap and haunt you. This was one of the many refreshing things about the film, and it shall join The Witch in all its pent-up drama and horrifying psychological goodness.
The film opens with the rasping voice of death, surrounded by the youthful exuberance of pregnant women, ready to give life. A close-up shot of a crocheted picture hanging on the wall reads “Mother”. The theme of the mother is held in high regard throughout the film, with the entire movie being based upon the importance of the mysteriously powerful trio of ancient Mother witches: Mother Suspiriorum, Mother Tenebrarum, and Mother Lachrymarum. These are the high witches whom all the other witches look to as their almost prophet-like leaders, and who become increasingly important to the plot as it unwinds throughout the film.
Dakota Johnson shakes off any bad juju from 50 Shades of Grey and arrives in Suspiria in 1977 as Susie Bannion, a young American woman hoping to study dance under the esteemed tutorage of the women at the Markos Dance Academy, in Berlin. The imposing, grey concrete buildings, rich, wooden furniture and black and white marbled floors made me feel as if this was a film set in the 1950s; but it is the high-neck blouses and deep brown coats that confirm this is but a much darker, more unsavoury reflection of the 70s than we are used to seeing. The constant rain and oppressive atmosphere ruled over by the divisive Berlin Wall contributes to a sense of impending doom for both the city and the girls.
Susie is seemingly naïve to the real truth of the academy: the institution is actually run by a coven of witches, led by the exalted Madame Blanc. Tilda Swinton flourishes in this role as Blanc—remember her as the witch in The Chronicles of Narnia? If you remember being terrified by her then as a Disney witch, then imagine her as a telepathic, body-controlling, statuesque, emotionless witch in this. Terrifying.
Madame Blanc and the others quickly notice Susie’s dance skills, with Blanc singling her out as her favourite. However, there is internal turmoil and division amongst the coven, and we quickly realise the girls who study there are not safe. While Susie dives into her newfound attention as the coven’s favourite, her friend, Sara Simms (Mia Goth), however, joined by the aging, concerned psychiatrist Dr. Josef Klemperer, are increasingly unsettled by the growing danger they begin to perceive as existing in the academy.What cannot be overstated about this film is the perfect cinematography. Sayombhu Mukdeeprom,the man responsible, is an award-winning cinematographer who is most well-known for his work on Call Me By Your Name (2017), another collaboration with director Luca Guadagnino. Every shot in Suspiria is so carefully placed, so lovingly, and purposefully, and most importantly, bravely, illustrated. This felt like a new-age film, reminiscent of those made in the 70s, that broke barriers and expressed raw, unspoken things, with twisting angles, quick zooms, unnerving transitions and a desire to shake things up.
The fantasy of this world is so real and commonplace, that it becomes all the more chilling. A reoccurring message resonating in this film is that the events at the academy may be grotesque, but on the outside, the “real” world, is just as disturbing. This is demonstrated by the true historical context that is relayed through radio and TV intermissions the characters listen to in the film. The 1977 hijacking of the Lufthansa Flight 181 passenger plane by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), as well as the terrorist bombings occurring in Berlin at the time by the far-left militant group, Red Army Faction (RAF), are examples of this. These terrible atrocities mirror the bone-cracking, organ-crushing violence occurring in the dance academy, and challenges the audience to question how insane the violence of our real world truly is.
The Cold War setting in Berlin and the grey, dismal violence of this period, is an exploration on the film’s part of Germany’s national self-reflection of the atrocities committed in World War II; then, in the late 70s in the film, but also now, for current Germans. Through themes of forgiveness and letting go, the film begs the audience to allow Germans and others to forgive themselves for past crimes that they did not commit. Despite some critics saying this film doesn’t say anything truly profound, I think this film is so entrenched in layers of meaning and messages, that this cannot be the case.
While the film is certainly not belonging to the gore-horror genre, there are certainly various nauseating scenes in the movie that made me sit so low in my seat, I could barely breathe. Suspiria takes Roald Dahl’s beloved children book, The Witches, and twists it into a terrifying cult with limbless living corpses and devil’s spawn that will cement this film in your mind for days after you’ve seen it. The “yellow dance room” and the final “red ritual room” will become iconic horror scenes, on par with—dare I say it—The Shining’s blood-gushing-from-the-door scene, or the final running-through-the-maze moment. Stanley Kubrick was certainly an inspiration to the style of this film, and you can expect the same squirming-in-your-seat reaction from Suspiria.
In sum, the film was so good, I stopped writing my review notes halfway through the film. I was entirely immersed within the story and engaged with the characters. The emotional shifts and character growth are what makes this film more than just a jump-scare, B-grade horror movie. There’s a final twist and a mind-blowing ending that will make you wander out of the cinema astonished, perplexed and dazed. As I sat there with the events of the film churning over and over in my mind, I kept realising there was more to this story than I had originally believed. The unanswered questions and enveloping layers of hidden meaning will surely make you want to watch this film again and again; but perhaps after a good amount of time in between, for you to, you know, recover.
I’m calling it: Suspiria is surely the best horror film of 2018 (so far).
Suspiria is out in selected Perth cinemas now.