Warning: Spoilers below!
If you like ballet, Berlin, witches, long braids, middle parts, Tilda Swinton, Thom Yorke, Luca Guadagnino, blood, guts and pentagrams, there is only one movie for you this fall: “Suspiria.”
The highly anticipated art house horror film is a remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 cult classic, from the director of “Call Me By Your Name.” Dakota Johnson stars as Susie Banyon, an American student who moves to Berlin in the Bader-Meinhoff era to study ballet at a prestigious, all-women’s academy that is also ― spoiler alert ― a coven.
Tilda Swinton plays almost everyone else, including headmistress and ballet icon Madame Blanc, grieving psychotherapist Dr. Jozef Klemperer, and million-year-old witch (give or take) Helena Markos. The film follows Banyon as she becomes the occult ballet studio’s star student. Unfortunately, the price for artistic excellence is measured in blood.
Ahead of the film’s release, HuffPost critics Priscilla Frank and Zeba Blay break down the crucial questions. How scary is “Suspiria,” really? Who serves the best looks? And, dare we ask, is it feminist?
Priscilla Frank: Hi Zeba! So, prior to seeing “Suspiria,” how nervous were you? Are you easily scared by horror movies? Do you prefer to watch with hands over your eyes?
Zeba Blay: I went into “Suspiria” not knowing what to expect at all, partly because I haven’t actually seen the original yet (I know) and partly because I avoided watching any trailers or clips beforehand. So, was I nervous? No, more intrigued. I wouldn’t say I’m a HUGE horror fan, but I appreciate the genre and what it can do creatively with the same kinds of themes we see in drama, in romance, in comedy.
I don’t always cover my eyes during horror unless shit is really gruesome, but my go-to trick is covering my ears because often times the sounds in horror movies are far more terrifying to me than the images. Let’s just say there was a lot of ear-covering while watching the movie. What about you? Are you a horror fan? And had you seen the original “Suspiria” before watching this remake?
Priscilla: I only started watching horror movies a few years ago, but now they are my favorite. I am a sleepy person with a horrible memory, and horror movies jolt me awake and become seared in my mind in a way other films ― even those I love ― don’t. I also adore how physical the experience of seeing a horror movie is, how they make your heart race, throat go dry, body jump and cower. It’s such a unique experience to, as an adult, feel so vulnerable and susceptible to culture you’re consuming.
That being said, I still am a huge baby and get a horrible stomachache during the trailers, and watch the scary parts curled up into a little ball with my face halfway between my knees. (Your ear trick is brilliant, btw.) So, yes, I was nervous. That we went to the screening together during the day was a relief.
I saw the original “Suspira” at Cinépolis in New York a few weeks ago and loved it. Because it was made in 1977, it’s incredibly gory and campy at once, so I could un-ball myself in the seat and enjoy all the fluorescent bloodshed. More iconic than the plot of the movie, I think, was its Day-Glo color palette and synthy soundtrack (by Italian prog rock band Goblin.) Director Dario Argento really leaned in to horror as a space where the senses prevail over the intellect, which makes sense, since we’re operating in a world governed by dance, and witches.
Luca Guadagnino’s remake deals with a similar plot and totally different, though equally absorbing, aesthetic. What did you think of the movie’s style and how would you describe it?
Zeba: Guadagnino’s biggest strength as a filmmaker, I think, is capturing the tone and the vibe and the aura of a time-place, and that’s what makes this movie work so well. It’s set during the Bader-Meinhoff era in Berlin, which adds to the general chaotic atmosphere of the entire movie. And the clothes. The clothes!! I must say, I thought this was some of the best costume design I’ve seen on screen in a long time. From Tilda Swinton (as Madame Blanc) with the long, black, middle-parted hair and clean, dark silhouettes to Dakota Johnson’s red-pinkish wig, leotard-and-sweatpants combos ― the movie just did such a great job of capturing the essence of each character through their clothes.
I especially loved the blood-red, floor-length gown that Dakota wears at the end of the film, when all hell breaks loose. It’s so decadent, luscious, a little over-the-top, a little grimy and decayed. I think that’s how I’d describe the overall aesthetic of the film. What did you think of the setting? And more importantly, not to skip ahead or anything (but, let’s), what did you think about that final scene, from a visual perspective?
Priscilla: At first I was a little bummed out by the setting, just because the dingy browns and grays were such a stark and depressing contrast to the neon explosion in Argento’s. But by the end, the neutral browns really accentuated the glory of the reds (in Dakota’s hair and in the bloooood) and contributed to the overall “in this coven we only wear Eileen Fisher” look.
The setting-era made me think of the Adorno quote, “There can be no poetry after Auschwitz.” The movie, I feel like, responded to that idea by offering us incredibly grotesque and brutal art that doesn’t shy away from or sugarcoat the horrors of the world it responds to. But there is still beauty and meaning to be found in facing the carnage head-on. The setting also presented an interesting contrast between masculine and feminine forms of violence. On one hand, there’s the very public, loud, political violence tearing apart the country and dominating the radios and newspaper headlines. And inside the ballet studio, we see the more quiet, yet arguably as horrific displays of feminine violence going on behind closed doors.
I was a little freaked out by how into the last scene I was. I know Guadagnino was very inspired by 1960s and ’70s feminist performance art for the film, and this scene reminded me of Carolee Schneemann’s “Meat Joy,” an ecstatic orgy where people roll around and play in a sea of raw meat, fish and flesh. I loved seeing older women naked, inhabiting their bodies in a way that was powerful but not sexual. I bow down to Helena Markos and her Bella Hadid ’90s sunglasses. I would human-sacrifice myself to party with these crazy bitches for one night.
I’ve been thinking about how so much of the violence in the movie is perpetrated by women unto women. What do you make of that?
Zeba: I’ve been thinking a lot about women performing violence on other women, too. It’s something that isn’t discussed enough, or when it is, it’s in this reductive way that attempts to use women’s violence against each other to dismiss male violence against women. Which I don’t think the film is doing here. I think so much about this film is about power, in every sense of the word. These women at the dance academy have created a kind of separate society for themselves, away from men, and seeing how the politics of that manifests itself through violence is really fascinating (and difficult) to watch.
I’m thinking specifically of the scene with Olga, where every time Susie moves during dance rehearsal another bone on Olga’s body is broken. It’s one of the most brutal scenes I’ve ever seen, and I think it really encompasses the physical *and* spiritual violence that women can perpetuate against one another, through one another, if that makes sense. Violence is usually thought of as such a masculine thing and seeing it focused through feminine energy was an interesting change.
But here’s a question: Did you clock Tilda Swinton as the old man or naw? What did you think of that character?
Priscilla: Dr. Jozef Klemperer, aka Lutz Ebersdorf, aka Tilda Swinton, absolutely wrecked me. That scene where he was just hobbling ever so slowly across the bridge in the snow was one of the viscerally heart-wrenching things I’ve ever seen. There was something funny to me about how sympathetic and compelling his character was, when basically everyone else was caught up in this web of crazy, violent, occult shit. Yet it was Dr. K who really had my emotional attention. I think that speaks to how horrors of the real world (from war to aging to losing a loved one) can be more traumatic and ghastly than, say, being brainwashed, tortured, and sacrificed to a coven of dance witches.
I was ecstatic upon learning that Tilda played Dr. Jozef as well as Miss Blanc. My lord, talk about witches, Tilda Swinton inhabited both of those characters with a supernatural conviction. And I love the fact that the primary cast is entirely made up of women. “Suspiria” is the fucked-up sequel to “Ocean’s 8″! There’s something so exciting about a movie that doesn’t have explicitly feminist themes, but shows women being powerful, gnarly and evil. This movie so clearly stands on its own as a work of art without being judged as “feminist,” “necessary,” “good for the culture,” etc. While something like “Ocean’s 8” plugged the hell out of its girl-power message, it’s great to see something that doesn’t sell feminism as much as embody it.
Which scene, for you, was the scariest in the movie?
Zeba: The scariest scene was most definitely Olga’s death. It was just way too visceral, physically nauseating, and unexpected. I like horror that is psychological and subtle, but this scene got a reaction out of me that I think was a testament to the movie’s ability to master both that visceral, physical, violent horror and the more psychological stuff. What about you? What made you jump out your skin?
Priscilla: I agree with you. Olga’s dance was horrific. Overall I thought the movie was lacking in scary moments, though. I think some of the violent scenes (ahem, WTF happened to Patricia?!) were cut because the film appropriated imagery from Cuban performance artist Ana Mendieta. Her estate sued the film after the trailer was released for plagiarizing her work. One of the cut scenes appears to show a woman’s bloody arms bound to a table, a ripoff of Mendieta’s 1973 “Untitled (Rape Scene).” Another shows a bloody silhouette on a sheet, draped above an open grave, from her “Silueta” series.
I really don’t get why Guadagnino would delete these scenes instead of paying tribute to Mendieta. It’s a shame.
Another misstep on Guadagnino’s part, in my opinion, is the soundtrack. Thom Yorke’s ballads felt so out of place in every way. Even the fact that there were lyrics when so much of the most powerful music was full of pre-lingual sighs and pants. What did you think of the music?
Zeba: I’ll be honest ― I didn’t think of the music. Which is probably a bad thing? From what I’ve heard, the music of the original was such a huge and important feature to it and here, while I didn’t think it was necessarily out of place, it certainly did not move me the way other horror soundtracks have. Or, at the very least, it did not add to the sense of horror. But can you talk a little bit more about Ana Mendieta’s work, the parallels here, and maybe how the cut scenes would have made the movie better for you? I’m just really intrigued-horrified by her story and also the fact that Guadagnino decided to bite her work.
Priscilla: I could talk about Ana all day! She was born in Cuba and moved to the U.S. in 1961 at 12 years old to escape Castro’s regime and became interested in art, in part, because she spoke little English. In college, she was impacted by the rape and murder of a fellow female classmate; she then began work addressing violence against women. One of her most well-known performances involved dumping animal blood on the street and secretly taking photos as people approached, gave the mysterious blood puddle a second look, then simply kept walking.
She died at just 36 years old under mysterious circumstances. She was heard fighting with her husband, famed sculptor Carl Andre, in their New York apartment building, and then her body went out the window. Famous men in the art world came to the defense of Andre and his “brilliant career.” He remains a free man and successful artist to this day. The violent imagery in some of Mendieta’s work was used to suggest her death was a suicide.
Mendieta often incorporated her body into her work, invoking it simultaneously as a site of sensuality, spirituality, violence and power. I think this idea is strongly echoed in the film, where these women use their bodies to channel horror, sex, power, and magic at once. In her “Silueta” series, Mendieta used her body as a stamp, imprinted on the earth. She was both absent and present, an empty vessel, a stain. This reminds me of Blanc telling Su: “When you dance, you empty yourself so her work can live within you.” I like thinking of dance as a form of possession, a way of emptying yourself to become something even more powerful.
It is despicable that Mendieta’s work was not recognized in the film; it feels like erasing her all over again.
There was a lot going on in the film with women’s relationships to their mothers, whether literal birth mothers or ancient witch mothers. What did you make of all the mother business?
Zeba: I think mother business is one of the most recurring themes in horror (“The Ring” remake, “Carrie,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Hereditary,” “The Exorcist,” “Alien,” “The Babadook,” etc.) and sometimes it feels like we’re treading over the same ideas over and over again.
With this version of “Suspiria,” I thought it was interesting how Susie’s character was framed as the “daughter” ― to her own mother, to Madame Blank, to her friend Sara [Mia Goth], when in actuality she was the true mother to them all. I think with a lot of horror the idea of motherhood is supposed to be inherently terrifying, and that to be a mother is to experience a kind of death. I liked how the film, with Madame Blanc, and with Susie, embraces the idea that no, there’s actually a kind of inherent power to motherhood.
OK, I’m about to ask a question I really hate, but whatever: Did you think this was a “feminist” film? Or, at the very least, how did you think it depicted women as opposed to the original “Suspiria,” which I know has received criticism in the past for its objectification and violence and all that good (bad) stuff against women?
Priscilla: The eternal question!! It always makes me laugh doing the calculus in my head. All-women cast: Good! Ripping off Ana’s work: Bad! Women in powerful positions: Good! Women being crazy, vindictive bitches: Bad! Overall, the lack of men in the film was quite enjoyable. And Helena Markos is the older-woman, body-positivity icon I’ve been waiting for.
There were some very 2018 feminist moments in there, like when the witches chastise Dr. Jozef for thinking Patricia’s truth was a delusion. Or when the witches play with the cop’s flaccid penis and gun as if they’re children’s toys. But the violence perpetrated by women, against women, kind of muddled that. To me, it felt like even in an entirely feminine space, the older generation enacted violence upon the younger women, like if gendered cruelty didn’t exist another kind, based off another power imbalance, would manifest in its place. Because people are brutal by nature, animals are too. Even art itself, the movie argues, is violent in how much it demands of the artist. For Banyon, it is worth the price. She willingly sacrifices herself for her art.
I am personally a huge fan of seeing women on screen be as shameless, grotesque and evil as men, so I was very satisfied. On the same note, would you call this a queer film?
Zeba: I hesitate to call anything a queer film, with my straight-ass self, but there were definitely themes, specifically relating to love between women, that I think are ripe for exploration. I know Dario Argento once described the original as a “vaguely lesbian story” (whatever that means), but I don’t think there was anything necessarily brave about the way this movie dealt with the relationship, specifically, between Susie and Madame Blanc, which was definitely maternal but also definitely romantic. We don’t see anything specifically sexual, but I think in a lot of ways dance becomes a metaphor for so many things in this movie ― power, violence, sex, love. The scene in which Madame Blanc pushes Susie to gain more height in her jumps was, to me, a really beautiful and erotic scene.
But I might be wrong, I dunno. What do you think?
Priscilla: I’m with you, I don’t think this is a capital Queer Film, but I thought it heightened a lot of the complicated nuances that exist in relationships between women. How someone can feel like a friend one minute, a crush the next, a mother, a teacher, a worst enemy, a muse, a competitor. I feel like a lot of female friendships and mentorships have an erotic element to them that’s often overlooked just because female desire is often overlooked.
What about mental illness? How do you think the film dealt with the stereotype of the hysterical woman?
Zeba: There’s this line that really stuck out to me, when Dr. Jozef gets captured by the ladies of the coven, and asks them for mercy, and they say something along the lines of “Mercy? Why should we have mercy on you? Women tell you the truth and you tell them they’re delusional!” That was so real, I think, especially given the current climate. The whole time the movie is making you feel crazy, and everybody in the movie feels crazy, and you’re questioning it all and questioning WHY you’re questioning it all, so, at the very end, when all the batshit craziness of the whole thing finally reaches its peak, it’s kind of a cathartic moment as a woman.
What were your thoughts on Chloe Grace’s portrayal of a so-called mentally ill woman? And just themes of that overall?
Priscilla: I don’t think the film really explored mental illness as much as the stereotype of the “crazy woman,” which I think it did quite successfully. Patricia wasn’t being delusional, she was losing her mind because she was being primed by witches to be sacrificed to a witch queen, a fair reason to freak out! I guess the takeaway would be, if women are acting “crazy,” there’s a legitimate reason why. I enjoyed how the film harnessed feminine hysteria as something powerful, unpredictable, and truly frightening. Some of the most chilling scenes consisted of women laughing giddily (sometimes while they stuck hooks into corpses, but whatever!). To be unhinged is to let go of the social norms, expectations and formalities imposed upon women from childhood. Craziness is often equated with undesirability or unruliness. In “Suspiria,” it’s a sort of freedom.
Who in the movie would you most want to be?
Zeba: OK, I would be Madame Blanc. Let’s be real. She served the best looks. Also, her death was a look.
Priscilla: I think Helena Markos. I just want to be naked napping in my crypt all day, posing as a mother witch when I’m really just an old hag.
And last question: Would you recommend this movie?
Zeba: Most definitely. Spooky, but make it fashion. What more could you ask for? What about you?
Priscilla: Yes!!! I recommend this movie to all WoMeN fighting the PaTriArChY and SacriFicInG their YoUnG SiStErS to MoThEr SuSpIrIa!!! But really, I recommend this film to everyone and their mother. I don’t think it’s that scary, unless you absolutely hate gore. Or feel personally traumatized by a ballet teacher, then it might be too much.
This has been “Should You Watch It?” a weekly examination of movies and TV worth ― or not worth! ― your time.