The bewitching “Suspiria” caps off a bold, creative year of horror

Dancing with the devil.
Dancing with the devil.
Image: Amazon Studios
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Suspiria—the quasi-remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 cult horror film of the same name—is a wicked, audacious, frequently absurd nightmare. In other words, it’s the epitome of the past year in horror filmmaking.

2018 has been a transformative year for the horror genre, grabbing the torch lit last year by films such as Get OutIt, and, yes, even mother!. Horror is being viewed less as a gimmick and more as a genuinely experimental art form through which filmmakers can boldly make their points. And with each passing year it’s proving itself to be one of the most malleable types of entertainment, able to be contorted into an array of creatively horrifying shapes.

No film this year has done that more than Suspiria, which opens today (Oct. 26) in New York and Los Angeles before going wide on Nov. 2. From Call Me By Your Name director Luca Guadagnino comes the story of Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), a young dancer from a Mennonite family in Ohio who joins the Markos Dance Company in Berlin during the German Autumn of 1977. Her raw talent quickly gets the attention of Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), the company’s enigmatic director and choreographer. Elsewhere, an elderly psychiatrist (also played by Swinton under heaps of prosthetics) investigates the disappearance of one of his patients, a girl named Patricia who left the dance company under bizarre circumstances.

That’s the plot, but the plot of Suspiria matters far less than the experience of Suspiria, which oscillates between slow-building dread and breathtaking moments of corporeal terror that border on sensory overload. How could a German dance company be such a creepy ordeal? Because, of course, Markos is actually a coven of witches, with Blanc the leader of them. Their ferocious, carnal dances are not performed merely for entertainment—they can conjure up something approximating hell on Earth.

To say Guadagnino’s Suspiria is audacious would be a tremendous understatement. It’s downright weird. A disturbing scene toward the beginning of the film, in which one of the dancers has her limbs violently twisted in all sorts of wrong directions, may prove too visceral for some (two people got up and walked out of the press screening I attended). If you can make it through that, you’ll be rewarded with a meaningful film experience that lingers long after the credits roll.

Suspiria includes maybe one traditional “jump scare”—and that’s being generous. Instead, the horror lies in the causal menace that haunts every frame of the film. Guadagnino bounces around from calm to frenetic and back again, instilling each scene with a sense of unpredictability, that it can all cohere or implode at any moment.

Those looking for the gorgeous lifestyle porn of Guadagnino’s Italian countryside in Call Me By Your Name won’t find anything like it in Suspiria. The film is visually interesting but intentionally unappealing. Berlin is dark and rainy, a pervasive sadness hanging in the air—infused with the guilt leftover from World War II. The charcoal Brutalist buildings stand like gravestones in the night.

Guadagnino and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, reuniting after Call Me By Your Name, make expressive use of the camera—panning, zooming, and cutting across the Markos company to unnerve the viewer and create a broad sense of discomfort. All of these choices comprise a wacky set of rules that Suspiria plays strictly by. It doesn’t much care about what stories like this one have typically been like, or what viewers are accustomed to.

And that’s been the theme of horror in 2018. Earlier this year, A Quiet Place subverted the normal jump scare trope with its unique use of sound (as well as silence). Hereditary was a moving saga of family tragedy, disguised as a ghost story, that more effectively explored the idea of inherited trauma than perhaps any other this year. (One could also argue that Annihilation, one of the best films of the year, falls into the horror genre. It’s certainly horrifying, at least.) On TV, Castle Rock, The TerrorThe Haunting of Hill House, and countless others have proven that horror series can be just as substantial and artful and profound as any other type of show. Perhaps even more so.

Each of these shows and films, including and especially Suspiria, is wildly different from the last. Now, after another year of sustained success both critical and commercial, horror is no longer Hollywood’s outcast. It’s a trendsetter, and filmmakers in other genres would be wise to learn something from Suspiria and its ilk. Or better yet, give horror a go themselves, as Guadagnino did with such brazen aplomb.