In the mid 2000s mainstream cinema saw the rise of a subgenre of horror films known as Gorno, so called because the depictions of gore were so gratuitous and explicit that they compared to pornography in their show it all and show it close approach. Movies like James Wan’s Saw and Eli Roth’s Hostel started a fad that ended up with Tom Six’s Human Centipede films pushing things to the absolute limits of decency at which point the whole idea started eating its own tail. Trends change though; Wan and Roth are now making superhero flicks and kid’s films and rather than these depictions of extreme violence going back underground they started to feature in bigger and better funded films. These movies often feature well known actors and are running in multiplexes alongside those superhero flicks and kid’s films.
Earlier this year we had Revenge which featured a wince inducing amount of injury detail involving shards of glass, bullets, knives and rusty tin cans. Then there was Hereditary that had close ups of important body parts that had been separated from their owners and become infested with ants. Only in the last month or so we’ve had Nicholas Cage and Andrea Riseborough in Mandy, where barbed wire and chainsaws are used for the kind of things you should only do with ribbons and pillows, and Netflix has dropped Apostle featuring Michael Sheen, Dan Stevens and various contraptions designed to mangle, grind, slice and drill through human beings.
Now there’s Suspiria; Luca Guadagnino’s follow up to the beautifully sweet and achingly romantic Call Me By Your Name. Suspiria, it has to be said, is not beautifully sweet and achingly romantic. There was a lady sitting behind me when I saw the film that I suspect had elected to see it based on her enjoyment of Guadagnino’s previous movie. Whether this be the case or not she certainly hadn’t expected to see what she witnessed on screen that evening as my viewing experience was punctuated by exclamations such as ‘urgh’, ‘ew’ and ‘oh no!’ coming from over my shoulder. At one point I think I might even have heard her crying although I thought it impolite to turn around and check. Her reactions, while uncommonly audible, where understandable though because Suspiria is a hyper violent story about cold and vicious witches running a dance school with the sole purpose of having a ready to exploit group of young women at their disposal. I don’t think she was enjoying it.
This Suspiria is based on Dario Argento’s 1977 film of the same name. Argento is a director who became famous for depicting bloody violence back when that was unusual enough for you to become famous for it and Guadagnino is clearly a fan. This new version of the movie is clearly fuelled by a certain desire to be more Argento than Argento. The plot holds few surprises with Guadagnino’s Suspiria almost being more of a mood and character piece (it is certainly more of a character piece than the original) and the mood and characters created are both quite dark.
I say the plot hold few surprises but it evidently did for the woman behind me and actually the ending is significantly different from the source material. Guadagnino and his collaborators, an important one of whom is cast member Tilda Swinton, have deliberately made the female protagonist less of a victim which has necessitated an update of the denouement. Even before the closing chapter though Dakota Johnson’s Susie is much less unsettled by the increasingly weird and macabre events going on than Jessica Harper’s Suzy was before her. While the over the top violence of the late seventies is being gleefully replicated the gender politics of the time have thankfully not become more acceptable so clear effort has been made to make the lead a more empowered character, making this a much more feminist film.
I’m not sure I’m comfortable heralding Suspiria 2018 as a champion of progressive pro-female values though. It is certainly a female centred story; men barely figure in the movie at all but while the women in the film are mostly very strong, few of them are role models and there is a fair amount of arguably unnecessary nudity. Interestingly the witches all still confirm to patriarchal notions of the monstrous feminine aberration too. Significant effort has been made to reclaim this for womenkind but they’ve tried to have their cake and eat it and I’m not sure they’ve been successful. These are demonstrably the kind of witches that feed you up and bake you in an oven, not the kind that turn up in your class at Hogwarts.
This new Suspiria is definitely a women’s narrative. There is actually only one male character in the main cast and significantly even they are played by a woman. It wasn’t announced initially but it has now been confirmed that unknown geriatric actor Lutz Ebersdorf is actually Tilda Swinton playing duel roles. None of this quite works though. Suspiria’s secret was that it didn’t need men to tell its story but this hid the secret that with its male director, its male writers, its male cinematographer, its male editor and its male composer, it actually did. I have no issue with men promoting the female voice but this is definitely a case of men speaking for women. This would have been a very different film with a predominantly female creative team. You only need to see Raw, The Love Witch or the aforementioned Revenge to see what a female director would do with broadly similar material.
Suspiria is a lovingly crafted homage to giallo cinema, replicating the genre’s typical elements of horror and eroticism to genuinely artist levels. The film is shot beautifully and the atmosphere strongly felt. As suggested it doesn’t compromise on the violence (it makes The Wicker Man look like Bicentennial Man) but to contemporary eyes this is almost funny (not for the woman behind me) and in this more respectful age the parts that would have once been designed to titillate fail to do so. Evisceration and decapitation may have gone mainstream but having naked women flailing around in satanic rituals feels a little like remaking Breakfast at Tiffany’s and still having Mr. Yunioshi played by a gurning white guy. Fans of Argento’s work will enjoy the film but I’m afraid that anyone not viewing this through nostalgia tinted spectacles may think that this type of film making should have been left in the past where it belonged. If you want to see an effectively modernised and female centred version of this kind of shocking, sexy cinema then I would heartily recommend Nicholas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon. In the end this new Suspiria cleaves too close to both the cleavers and the cleavage. None of it is offensive but it is outdated.