Sunday, November 04, 2018

Review: Suspiria (2018) (WITH SPOILERS)

First off, full disclosure: I'm nuts about the original Suspiria. I don't personally know anyone who's a bigger fan of it than I am.

That's why it feels almost sacrilegious to admit this: there are things that Luca Guadagnino's Suspiria achieves that Dario Argento's should have but didn't.

2018 Suspiria actually manages to inform the plot with the historical subtext of the time; in 1977, Berlin was in socio-political upheaval. It's a sinister undercurrent spoken off in the background on television or radio, but it's also a convenient scapegoat for the Markos coven to authorities when trying to explain the disappearance of their dancer Patricia.

For a film about witches and covens, 1977 Suspiria was very light on actual coven activities. In practically no scene in that film are the witches seen huddling and conniving or, most importantly, performing diabolical rituals that have given cinematic witches their place in the horror genre. That was largely what made the 1922 film Häxan so terrifying, as did that last scene in the forest at the tail-end of The Witch. In 2018 Suspiria, every moment where the coven is gathered is quite chilling and thrilling at the same time, even (or especially, on hindsight?) when they talk internal politics. And then there is, of course, the climax in the secret hall, which you have to see to believe.

Above all, what gives this film such power is its use of dance, of the rhythmic and entrancing movements of the human body, as an instrument of bodily destruction. 1977 Suspiria used the dance academy as a convenient and promising backdrop for the demonic activities of Markos's coven but was not able to capitalize on it. In 2018 Suspiria, dance is a telekinetic force that punishes the body of a transgressor, or a summoning spell for conjuring the stuff of living nightmares.

This Suspiria, written by David Kajganich, will prove to be divisive. People will hate it for its grotesquerie and gore or its length or, yes, the whiff of pretentiousness or its craftsmanship and rightly so. The set design and cinematography are appropriately austere, not loud and garish like those of the original. DP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom's lensing makes the film look like an authentic product of the 1970s. While not as memorable as the now-iconic score made by the band Goblin for Argento's film, Thom Yorke's is impressive, properly chilling and never overbearing. If there is one department that must snag an Oscar nomination, however, it's the makeup design.

Which leads us to Tilda Swinton. We recognize her most easily as Madame Blanc, the stern yet surprisingly warm mistress of dance, who commands every scene that she is in. But she also plays two other characters under loads of astonishingly meticulous makeup. Under the pounds of extra diseased flesh of Helena Markos is Swinton. And the open secret that many other writers have exposed even before the film's release: Lutz Ebersdorf, the unknown actor who plays Dr. Josef Klemperer, is actually also Swinton. As she has proven time and again, Swinton is a master chameleon, and the makeup artists were certainly her accomplices. Dakota Johnson, who reunites with Guadagnino and Swinton after A Bigger Splash, is a good fit for the revamped Susie Bannion, who unlike in the original has more power than the beginning would lead us to believe. Jessica Harper, the original Susie Banion, makes a most welcome and bittersweet cameo appearance.

Something has to be said of the climax, where Susie Bannion is supposed to be offered as a vessel to the decaying Helena Markos, the supposed Mother of Sighs (Mater Suspiriorum). After the big reveal that marks the biggest deviation from the original, Susie Bannion, who is the real Mater Suspiriorum after all, unleashes a demonic entity from the bowels of the great hall upon the witches who voted to keep Markos in power and allow her to continue to claim to be one the three Mothers. She spares only a few. The whole sequence is a fever dream. It's grotesque, macabre, hypnotic, and exhilarating. Guadagnino abandons all restraint and lays waste to the mind as Mater Suspiriorum metes out calm, almost detached punishment to most and mercy to others, and the academy's dancers relinquish all control of their bodies to their diabolical matron. It's a deliciously surreal nightmare.

Guadagnino's two most recent films, the sublime Call Me By Your Name and A Bigger Splash, did not prepare for me for this demon that he unleashed into the cinematic world. But everything that he has done can be called beautiful, and that the same could be said about this pastiche of body horror and dark magic is a true testament to his astonishing skills as a filmmaker.


Previous Rank: 1

Director: William Friedkin
Cast: Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Linda Blair, Jason Miller
Scare Meter: 10/10
Scare Tactics: atmosphere, music, sounds, visuals, Regan/Pazuzu
*Listed in 101 Horror Movies You Must See Before You Die (Schneider, ed. 2009)
*Listed in Horror! 333 Films to Scare You to Death (Marriott and Newman 2010)

IMDb Plot Summary: "When a teenage girl is possessed by a mysterious entity, her mother seeks the help of two priests to save her daughter."

Speaking of sheer raw power, nothing holds a candle to my favorite horror film of all time (a sentiment shared by many all over the world). When it came out, audiences were revolted, angered, upset...but they came in droves and made this a box office hit. After all, the film was as much an attack on the spirit and faith as it was on the mind and emotions. What other film could claim as much? No possession film before or since has come anywhere close to the audacity, boldness, and in-your-face brutality of the McNeils' harrowing spiritual battle. The cinematography, score, production design, sound, makeup...all come together under the masterful direction of William Friedkin, adapted by William Peter Blatty from his own equally terrifying novel, to make a chilling masterpiece that will shake you to the core.

As far as the ability of horror films to create a shudder in the soul is concerned, this is truly the standard against which all other horror films will forever be set.

#s 11-31
#s 32-100