‘Suspiria’ will be a cult masterpiece in 2028

Douglas Greenwood

Douglas Greenwood on how time will be kind to Luca Guadagnino’s divisive remake

14 November 2018 16:20

A dizzying sense of fear ripples across the oak floors of Madame Blanc’s legendary dance studio, jolting her performers into quiet submission. Outside, the rain pours relentlessly over a hostile German city. One young student – shaken by what she’s seen – flees the scene, soaked to her skin, as another is ushered in to quickly take her place. Witchcraft always has these women in its coercive grip.

These are a few commonalities between the 1977 Dario Argento-directed version of Suspiria and its 2018 successor, but, for the most part, cinephiles are shaken by Luca Guadagnino’s desire to detach himself almost entirely from the cultish beauty that made the film that once inspired him so profound. The original is the kind of film that set a benchmark for beautiful horror in the history books. It harbours technical flare and a blinding, lurid visual language that’s so strong it patches up almost every hole in the film’s scattered narrative – leaving us stunned by its embellishments instead.

Clocking in at 90 minutes, it’s a far cry from Guadagnino’s rendition: a lengthy horror film in which the vast majority of the dialogue is in German. Its colour scheme, in stark contrast to the striking original, is despondent, cold and beige. But somehow, this freak of a modern horror is a far more ambitious and complete film than the gorgeous, erratic nonsense of the original. It’s teeming with allegory, brutal as hell, and dangerously hypnotic. And it’s showcases riveting performances from Dakota Johnson and Tilda Swinton, who play a naive young protégé and a manipulative teacher respectively – so expertly cast that they’ll leave you shaken by the time the credits roll.

It feels like a recipe for arthouse horror success, and yet it still seems like audiences and critics are split over whether Guadagnino’s Suspiria is actually a great film or not. Ever since it bowed at the Venice Film Festival earlier this year, the consensus has almost been divided in half: some find it mesmerising, others think it’s a mess. And that’s exactly what makes it the perfect contender for a future cult classic.

‘Suspiria’ (Luca Guadagnino, 2018)

Let’s start by saying that it’s difficult to predict what might become a ‘cult film’ without the benefit of hindsight. Only decades down the line can we truly preach on whether a film truly deserves that title. After all, it’s one that’s been bestowed upon movies like Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, 2011), Clueless (Amy Heckerling, 1995), Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994) and Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999) based on the way they burrow themselves into the hearts of film fans; embraced for their singularity – flaws and all. Straight-laced masterpieces, on the other hand, are rarely given the same type of treatment.

But you can catch airs of it seeping through the crevices of modern cinema, the movies that that feel imbued with the DNA of something special. Guadagnino’s Suspiria is practically oozing with the stuff. While his last movie, the languorous queer love story Call Me By Your Name (2017) felt tailor-made to touch everyone who laid eyes on it, Suspiria feels more ballsy by comparison. It’s like the product of a director hellbent on executing a lifelong vision with a kick of ‘no fucks’ gusto.

It seems that many peoples’ disdain towards the new Suspiria is rooted in how passionate Guadagnino was about turning Argento’s entertaining, if rather facetious, story into something more loaded, political and complex. While the original succeeds as a film that amplified the aesthetics of giallo horror, Guadagnino’s re-up is a supernatural thriller about the abuse of power and hierarchical structures between women, set in a post-WWII Germany that’s still marked by the aftershocks of fascism. Entwining all of these into a violent, fucked up horror film does, of course, feel quite masturbatory and auteurish at time, but I reckon it’s that ambition and left-of-centre thinking that will lure us back to it in decades to come.

‘Suspiria’ (Luca Guadagnino, 2018)

Of course, it’s silly to assume that anybody has the time to sit through a 150-minute movie twice in order to fully make sense of it, but I will say that I found a second viewing of Suspiria so much more enlightening. Initially thrown by the intense jaw-dropping, bone-breaking violence the first time around, when watching this film again, you can sit that to one side and start to unpack the fascinating, grandiose story that Guadagnino has crafted instead. Suspiria might be big and long, gross and ambitious, but it’s certainly neither boring or stupid.

This unique dichotomy between explicit violence and intelligent subtext might just be what makes this film the cult masterpiece of the year, but it also seems to be why so few people will sing this its praises right now. When a film finds itself straddling two different realms like this, audiences are conflicted. Stereotypically, body horrors or overly gory flicks are often seen as flippant and unambitious movies, made for the numb consumption of everyday cinemagoers. Intelligent social commentary – snobs will say – isn’t their forte. Meanwhile, slow-burning dramas that have a lick of horror (The Babadook [Jennifer Kent, 2014], for example) earn rave reviews from critics who imbibe the most stoic kinds of cinema, but the same movies are met with disappointment when they reach multiplexes, thanks to their unwillingness to submit to the sought-after, easy-scare tropes of the genre. If a film is too violent to be intelligent, and too intelligent to be truly scary – as some might argue Suspiria is – who is it for? This is how a horror film enters the cult realm.

Like some of the greatest cult films – David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2002), for example – the conversation that stirs around Suspiria is almost as fascinating as the movie itself. When works of art leave people feeling conflicted, aroused, confused or more alive than ever, it’s a sign that they might linger in our memories for a little longer. In a time when great art is so often celebrated and shelved after one glamorous awards season, lost in a sea of lauded films we’ll soon forget about, perhaps a polarised reaction is the best thing that could have happened to Suspiria. Because now, instead of focusing on the distractions that might have surrounded it – like awards buzz and box office figures (it’s struggling, admittedly, reeling in just £1.7 million since its US release) – Suspiria now stands alone as one director’s mad-hatter vision, faithfully executed; it’s a movie that sets out to please no one but the man who made it.