Have you ever had the kind of dream where after you wake up, you can’t remember for a few minutes if those events really took place? As the fog of sleep retreats, you reassure yourself that the things which you have witnessed couldn’t be real. After all, you remind yourself as the sunlight chases away the shadows of night, there’s no such thing as witches.
Last night I was lucky enough to see an early premiere of the 2018 remake of Suspiria by Luca Guadagnino, and it felt like a three hour long waking nightmare. I went in with high hopes, having heard that the soundtrack was composed entirely by Thom Yorke of Radiohead and of course that Tilda Swinton stars in a double-role as the ominous dance teacher Madame Blanc and the elderly German psychiatrist-turned-detective Doctor Josef Klemperer. I am happy to report that this movie exceeded all of my expectations.
In remaking this movie, Guadagnino has turned a run-of-the-mill Italian horror film from the 70’s into an expression of anxiety about the nature of the world. And yet, fundamentally, this film is also an expression of hope that, although it may not seem like it at first, cooler heads will prevail. All will, inevitably, be well. It is just a question of how many heads need to explode before we get there.
If you are unfamiliar, Suspiria is the tale of a small town girl from Ohio who travels to Berlin in the 70’s to live and work at a renowned dance studio run by a variety of interesting women and headed up by the reclusive Mother Markos. The head choreographer Madame Blanc, played by Tilda Swinton, quickly notices Susie’s instinctual talent and begins preparing her for something bigger. Meanwhile, Dr. Klemperer, concerned following the disappearance of his patient Patricia who had also been a student at Mother Markos’ academy, begins to investigate the goings on at the insular school.
Because this is a spoiler free review, and because the movie doesn’t go to wide release until tomorrow, that’s as much of a plot summary as I am willing to give. However, I am going to discuss some of the themes of this movie (again, without going into too much detail), because at nearly three hours long, there’s a lot to unpack here.
One thing with which this movie is concerned is the power of love, and the different ways in which it can be exploited by those who wish to cause harm. Though this movie certainly puts love through its paces, I think again that its ultimate message is hopeful. Love can be abused, it says, but that in no way means that the solution is to stop loving. Rather, we must persevere and be brave with our love, so that we can use it to guide us through those harrowing trials which surely await us. The redemptive power of love is the one that wins out, not that perverse distorted abuse which may pass for love in the eyes of one who wishes to do harm.
Another clear theme which Guadagnino explores in this movie is the idea of art as magic. In the universe of this movie, and indeed in the universe in which most artists (myself included) would like to live, the energy and power generated by an expression of art (say, an animalistic dance) is equivalent to a certain magical power and can be used in occult rituals. Put another way, an artist’s work can have a measurable, noticeable impact on the physical world. Sure, the witches in Suspiria use their art mostly to dismember and kill people, but it stands to reason that the opposite could be true as well. I think this is as much of a utopia as anyone who creates will ever see. I know, 1970’s Berlin? A utopia? Well, bear with me here. If I may so bold as to presume I know the thoughts of every person in the world for a second. I would suggest that all anyone really wants is to know that their actions, be they positive or negative, have a measurable impact on the world. All anyone wants is to know that they can make a difference. And this is precisely what these witches offer the girls who study in the Mother Markos Dance Academy: a chance to shape the world. And again, though this film surely puts this hypothesis through its paces, the positive force eventually, inevitably, wins out.
The single aspect of this movie that, in my opinion, set the tone was the score by Thom Yorke. It’s available on iTunes and I highly suggest you give it a listen if you’re on the fence about seeing this movie, because it manages to evoke a sense of dread mixed with curiosity. You are afraid, but you want, need, to know more. This is exactly how I felt throughout the entirety of this movie. If you don’t want to shell out the 15.99 to apple, and honestly who can blame you, I recommend listening to Burn the Witch by Radiohead. Its rhythmic ambiance together with Yorke’s slightly incomprehensible vocals seem to evoke a similar feeling.
All in all, this film is a masterpiece. Containing especially great performances from Dakota Johnson and Chloë Grace Moritz, as well as the aforementioned double-role by the incomparable Tilda Swinton and a small appearance by Jessica Harper who starred as Susie in the original 1977 film, Luca Guadagnino has managed to create a horror film which somehow combines the tenderness and love he portrayed in films like Call Me By Your Name with a sense of intense dread.
I give this film 9.5/10 dancing witches.