Suspiria is not your typical horror movie. For the first half hour, in fact, there is nothing at all scary that happens. I have to admit I was even bored as the movie established the setting and characters, especially during the drawn-out scene in the therapist’s office where you are trying to make sense of the strange ravings of his rain-soaked patient (Chloë Grace Moretz). I may have nodded off were it not for my husband informing me that the therapist, an old man, was actually played by Tilda Swinton. Truly I would have never guessed, but if anyone could pull that off it is her.
It isn’t until after these initial scenes that we are introduced to our main character, Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), an eager dance student from America who has traveled to Berlin to audition for the acclaimed Helena Markos Dance Company. Madame Blanc (also Tilda Swinton), the artistic director, is quickly drawn to Susie and has her perform the lead part when the original lead dancer, Olga, goes into hysterics accusing the women leaders of the dance company (who from now on will be called the madams) of being witches and killing Patricia, the girl who was seeing the therapist at the beginning of the film.
It’s around this part of the movie that the mood of the film takes a complete turn. As Susie begins her dance, the film cuts to Olga who is getting her things and leaving the building in a rush. However, before she can make it out, she becomes disoriented after running into some of the madams, and finds herself trapped in one of the practice rooms below the studio where Susie is. This is where the body horror begins and any boredom the viewer might have been experiencing vanishes.
With each movement of Susie’s body, the film cuts to Olga, whose body responds by contorting in progressively more and more disturbing ways. First, her arm breaks and twists impossibly behind her, then her legs become mangled as she is thrust against the wall and the floor. It doesn’t take long for Olga to become unrecognizable as she screams and moans throughout this scene, which at points became quite difficult to watch. In the end, the madams come and impale her with scythes so they can pick her up by the handles and carry her away.
It’s hard to describe the film without mentioning the stark imagery, from the costumes of the dancers to the satanic symbolism that appears in Susie’s dreams. The film does not shy away from portraying the sadism of the madams, who turn on their own students whenever they sense any disloyalty from them.
It is clear pretty early on in the film that the madams intend for Susie to be part of some kind of ritual, and she must be trained in order to help complete it properly. At first, Susie seems pretty clueless about this, but as the film continues it seems she is either intentionally ignoring the danger signs or is a willful accomplice.
Though I have not watched the 1977 original Suspiria, I did enough research to see that the films are quite different, in both plot and visuals, to speak to some of their differences. The plot is dramatically different, with a different setting entirely and many of the events either altered or that don’t take place at all. A search on google images reveals many of the scenes from the original to have a dominant red color, with all the rooms in the film bathed in red light.
The remake is much more subtle, with black being a more prominent color. The remake is also more sexually charged, especially during the dance performance near the end of the film where the dancers are wearing nothing but sheer underwear and red ropes tied around the torsos. It creates a tension that makes the women both desirable and terrifying at the same time.
A great deal happens in the last 30 minutes of the film, that it is hard to give a full review without mentioning it. The film has an intense twist, followed by enough gore to make a warlord cringe. If you’d like to watch the film without any spoilers, I suggest you to stop reading here.
In the final scene, Susie is brought forward to sacrifice herself to Mother Markos, who all the other madams have supported and who appears to be the source of their power. Madame Blanc seems to sense that something is wrong and tries to stop the ritual, but Mother Markos kills her, seemingly fed up with her insubordination and perfectionism.
Mother Markos herself is a disgusting creature covered in boils and almost unrecognizable as a human being. She reminds Susie that nothing will be left of her after the ritual is over, and Susie’s calmness for the first time shifts into something more sinister. It is clear she is not afraid of the Markos, or of anything else transpiring in the room. This is because, as Susie reveals, she is, in fact, a true Mother, one of the three that the coven has worshipped… Mother Suspiriorum.
As she casts away her old identity, Susie also takes swift revenge on the members of the coven who have abused their power, bringing forth a demon who proceeds to graphically murder each and every one of them. The only members to whom Suspiriorum shows mercy are the victims of the coven, including her roommate and Patricia, who suffered horribly and are little but shells of their old selves. They ask for a quick and painless death, and receive it.
The imagery in Suspiria was compelling and exhibited body horror at its best. It also sent a message, that even the most terrifying, powerful people can overestimate their own abilities and find themselves in trouble. At the end of the film, Susie is a completely transformed character who defeats all of her enemies and shows compassion while the other witches show only cruelty. Through appearing weak she lulled the madams into a false state of security and struck her blow just when the viewer was losing their last ounce of hope for any kind of justice. That justice may be raw and almost as disturbing as earlier scenes in the movie, but it is justice nonetheless. This justice carried out felt like a satisfying ending to the film, which otherwise might have felt empty and without meaning.