Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Director Luca Guadagnino’s SUSPIRIA takes bold, innovative risks with its reimagining of Dario Argento’s beloved 1977 film. And for the most part, all of the bombast, brutality and blood-curdling imagery works. Though much of Argento’s striking signature aesthetic has been sliced and diced, what remains is big, beautiful cinema that honors the horror classic’s legacy while at the same time creating a remarkable, resonant remix. Guaranteed to divide audiences, this iteration is gleaming, gorgeous and gory.
Guadagino and screenwriter David Kajganich build upon the strong foundation Argento laid with his original. The similarities are there, but the new narrative adds another thick layer of icing onto the proverbial cake. Ambitious American dancer Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) arrives at a prestigious dance academy in Berlin just as another, Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz), has disappeared. Patricia has gone stark-raving mad despite seeing local therapist Professor Klempfer (Lutz Ebersdorf, a.k.a. Tilda Swinton in incredible drag). She’s caught in a delusional panic thanks to the school’s teachers, who also are a secret coven of witches. As the professor digs deep into the scribbled details of Patricia’s journals, Susie is beginning her ascent as a star pupil at the school. She hooks the attention of Madame Blanc (also Swinton), who finds a kindred spirit in the young, hungry student. However, when strange things begin manifesting within the company, and another dancer goes missing, that’s when the bone-chilling insanity begins.
This is bacchanal of blood is akin to a frightfully f*cked up entry in the STEP UP series, combining body horror with pulsating commentary on a dancer’s artistic drive for perfection. And just like that franchise, the narrative leads to a climactic dance recital. Editor Walter Fasano’s sharp, crisp cuts make all of these physically intense scenes sing. Many sequences show the dancers pushing themselves to their limits. Susie’s contorted, skeletal frame seems to take on altered appearances during her interpretive modern dance work, pushing her body to bend and twist in hypnotic, horrific movements. The idea that these dedicated dancers are searching for essential truths in the art form brings literal meaning to “back-breaking work” and putting their “blood, sweat and tears” into their performances. One of the riveting, show-stopping set pieces features Olga (Elena Fokina) being tossed around a mirrored room like a rag doll, breaking bones and secreting bile. Expert jumper Caroline (Gala Moody) has a seizure. Later, Sara literally snaps bones and cries out in agony after discovering what’s in the building’s basement. When Susie dances the part of “the protagonist” in Madame Blanc’s “Volk,” the troupe’s grunting, sweating, panting, and movement is spellbinding – and where the essence of the artistry is conjured.
Guadagino and Kajganich even slip in sentiments linking motherhood to creative expression, as well as making a definitive connection between performance and sexual awakening. All these ideas are funneled into an infinity-shaped design, where they feed off of each other. They correlate Susie’s sexual oppression passed down by her uncaring, Mennonite mother (Malgorzata Bela) to creative freedom. Guadagino hits the audience with rapid fire, high-fashion-editorial-like imagery in Susie’s phantasmagoric nightmares – my favorite of those images being a woman literally clutching her pearls in horror. Suzie finds a genuinely nurturing spirit in Madame Blanc, who is also the product of an insufferably demonic mother, Helena Markos (also Swinton).
Perhaps what’s most impressive is that Guadagino’s SUSPIRIA mimics its own protagonist’s changing identity, as it starts out as high-tone, art house fodder and gloriously ends on a more delightfully repulsive Clive Barker-inspired note.
SUSPIRIA is now playing.