In the 2018 horror film Suspiria, director Luca Guadagnino creates a thoughtful tale, both compelling and strange. Suspiria explores the darkness surrounding a dance company in Berlin. Set in 1977, the backdrop of German Autumn violence brings a real world aesthetic to this supernatural story.
Guadagnino acquired the rights to remake the classic Italian horror film Suspiria. The original 1977 film, directed by Dario Argento, emphasized vivid primary colors and was set to a prog-rock musical score. Using Technicolor, Argento created a nightmarish, unnatural feel to the film. It was very well received and remains a horror classic. The 2018 remake follows the premise of the original, but David Kajganich’s script and Guadagnino’s direction create something new.
The 2018 film takes place in a washed out world of bleak neutrals and dark shadows. Every aspect of the film feels straight out of the 1970s. Like watching your old home movies, but with witches. It’s not a fantasy world of cartoonish figures on brooms – it’s a story of power and death experienced within and beyond the coven.
Suspiria tells the story of a renowned German dance academy run by a coven of witches. The dance instruction is overseen by Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), while the coven is led by the decaying Helena Markos (also played by Tilda Swinton). The power struggle within the coven and their ensuing decisions reflect the banality of evil as the witches distractedly vote around a kitchen table. Suzie (Dakota Johnson), a young woman from a Mennonite family in Ohio, joins the academy, bringing new hope to the coven.
At the start of the film, a terrified academy student, Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz), brings a diary describing the witchcraft practiced at the academy to her psychiatrist Jozef Klemperer (again played, remarkably, by Tilda Swinton). Jozef fails the girls he wants to help, listening but never really understanding, just as he failed to heed his wife’s warning when the Nazis came to power. Jozef’s impotence means that he can only serve as a witness to the death and destruction that surrounds him, until even that is taken from him.
Thom Yorke (of Radiohead) wrote the atmospheric musical score of Suspiria. The film opens to the beautiful song “Suspirium,” as an immobilized woman is bathed in her sickbed. The haunting score emphasizes the melancholy of the film.
Death and despair peek out from every corner of Suspiria, while hidden power emerges unexpectedly. The historical aspects of this psychological horror film echo the darkness of the story. Historic events jar us from the otherworldly experience of the witch’s dance academy: the Berlin wall sitting astride the school; crossings between East and West Berlin; kidnappings by the Red Army Faction; the hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181; and, finally, descriptions of the Holocaust. It creates real world feel that serves to underscore the dark supernatural elements of the story. Evil doesn’t just exist in fairy tales.