The Cold War horror of ‘Suspiria’

The Cold War horror of ‘Suspiria’

November 8, 2018

“Suspiria” feels like a relic from a bygone age of horror: faux film grain, close zooms on faces, a campy aesthetic that is somehow still terrifying. It’s an art film, too: dreams with editing as stark as Bergman’s “Persona,”—a raised iron aimed at a young girl’s hand, a desiccated corpse, a young woman writhing in midair—a masterful, lavish dance sequence that builds with a feverish intensity, and a Cold War setting in West Berlin that attempts to compare the violent supernatural terror within to the more mundane trauma going on just outside.

Things start slow. The first two-thirds of the film creep by, building the atmosphere and mythos. The story, set in 1977 Berlin, follows two perspectives—Suzy Bannion, a young Mennonite girl (Dakota Johnson), as she joins a prestigious dance company, and Dr. Jozef Klemperer, an aging psychologist (Tilda Swinton), who begins investigating after one of his patients goes missing. It’s not a very plot-heavy movie—describing it this way almost does it a disservice.

It’s the aesthetic that sells “Suspiria.” Italian director Luca Guadagnino (“Call Me By Your Name”) commits to recalling the feeling of a seventies horror movie: discomforting cuts and leering camera movements that formally build the sensation that things are not quite right. Mirror shots recalling 1973’s “Don’t Look Now;” a muted gray palette outside complemented by browns and tinges of pink that, by the end of things, morph into a bright red and black tint on the frame.

Swinton, always one to accept a challenge, plays three roles in the film. Besides the geriatric Dr. Klemperer, Swinton plays Madame Blanc, one of the superior matrons of the Helena Markos Dance Company. Swinton imbues Blanc with presence; whenever she’s on screen, even watching carefully from a distance, we can feel that she’s there. I won’t spoil the gruesome nature of the actress’s third role.

Near the beginning, we hear an election taking place, in which Swinton’s Blanc is not elected to the role of Mother. It’s this tension between the seemingly sinister older women of the company that drives the story. We know they’re witches from the beginning, we know they have foul goals in mind, but how might the director be subverting our expectations?

It’s not long before Guadagnino gives us our first violent image. Suzy auditions for a part in “Volk,” playing the part of the protagonist, just as the previous performer of the starring role is trying to make her escape. Instead, poor Olga is pushed by a supernatural force into a dance studio with no exits, and, as Suzy dances “Volk,” violently moving back and forth, contorting according to the dance, so too is Olga subjected to Suzy’s movements, to such grisly ends as I’d never seen before.

Dr. Klemperer, meanwhile, is on the case, imploring the police to investigate the mysterious disappearance of his patient Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz). Swinton is entirely believable in this role. The physicality of her performance, how she sways, hunched and bow-legged like an old man, demonstrates commitment and care to her craft. As a horror protagonist, a geriatric person is a good choice; Klemperer’s feebleness makes him an easy target for the coven. Through powers of manipulation not explained, they know about his attempts at investigation, and choose him to be their witness to the dark ritual they’re planning. When Klemperer stumbles into the school for the performance of “Volk,” we’re not entirely sure whether he is in control.

Performance, choreography, atmosphere and soundtrack collide to great effect in the “Volk” dance sequence. The dancers, led by Dakota Johnson’s Suzy, clad in a red, knotted rope-like material, perform against Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke’s score. The music, minor-key arpeggiation reminiscent of John Carpenter’s “Halloween” theme, and the dance, jagged, violent; a rebirth metaphor, play together as we see Sara (Mia Goth), another of the dancers, being punished for looking too closely into the secrets of the dance academy. As Suzy moves, we cut back and forth from the performance to Sara, abrasive horns from Yorke’s score rise, and Sara falls halfway through the floor, her shin bone ripping through her skin in the process. Sara, in a trance-state (just as we are), returns to the dance hall, just in time for the end of the performance, before collapsing suddenly and screaming in agony, as if the spell that had guided her had just worn off. The spell for us also breaks, and the young dancers are herded out to the hall by the matrons, leaving enough room for a brilliant penultimate moment that speaks to the prowess of Swinton’s acting. The look between Madame Blanc and Dr. Klemperer, just as the poor suffering girl is taken off the floor, one of determined malice matched with pitiful disempowerment, sells the end of the scene—just the same person looking at themselves.

And then the film falls apart. Perhaps under its own weight. Becoming ever more insular, the film seems to forget the Cold War events transpiring outside, instead focusing on events coming to a head inside the Dance Company, ending in a disappointing anticlimax that does a disservice to the film’s effective, slow worldbuilding. Perhaps Guadagnino felt too obligated to the Giallo expectations of genre, unable to fully extricate himself from the campy conventions—they would be satisfied if they resembled anything that had come before, but “Suspiria” creates a rich, eery world, promising artistic and thematic insight, and instead takes the low, baffling road in its conclusion.

Swinton deserves an Oscar for her dual performances. Guadagnino should make more horror—he has the makings of a master director. But I can’t recommend “Suspiria” to anyone except the most dedicated fans of arthouse horror. It falls apart, in the end, neither beautiful nor terrifying; just very, very red.

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