An American woman from a deeply religious background (Dakota Johnson) arrives in Berlin in 1977 to join a prestigious dance company, just as another American woman in the same company goes missing. As one begins her training under the company's leader, Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), strange and terrifying incidents begin to occur that threaten to reveal the dance company's sinister true form.
It's hard to grapple with something like 'Suspiria', because its very nature is to be extreme and upsetting. There isn't anything in 'Suspiria' that could be construed as being anything remotely like Luca Guadganino's previous work. There is none of the beauty and sadness of 'Call Me By Your Name'. There is nothing of the soapy drama of 'A Bigger Splash' here. Instead, 'Suspiria' feels like a rejection of everything that Guadagnino's work to date. It's bleak, harsh and disturbing in a way that's unlike anything he's done to date.
It's not just in the sheer lack of colours - except for the bright-red of the dance company's costumes - or the sharp lines of their building and interiors, but instead how so much of the violence appears out of nowhere. Horror film lives or dies in atmosphere and tension. It has to ramp up for the inevitable release, and repeat this dance throughout a movie. 'Suspiria' doesn't follow this pattern in the slightest, instead opting for smacks and jabs of horror. It's not that it's frightening, it's that you cannot expect to know when it will come. Indeed, one scene opens with a casual conversation and literally snaps in a split-second into a blood-soaked death that's barely explained.
The violence and gore in 'Suspiria' is prolonged, inelegant and intimate. Bodies are broken and snapped like twigs, urine and vomit is rinsed off the ground, blood and viscera flies through the air. But between all this are themes of motherhood, hypocrisy, politics and psychology. The film is set during the German Autumn, and the violence outside plays out on radios and televisions. Chloe Moretz' disturbed dancer was, herself, a part of the violent political movement, though it's referenced only fleetingly and informs her character arc and the reason for Dakota Johnson's arrival.
So many ideas are being communicated in 'Suspiria' that none of them can get through fully, and the experience of watching it all force itself through the screen is akin to sensory overload. Generational guilt, radical feminism, motherhood, violence and dominance, matriarchy versus patriarchy, vanity, art - it's all there to see, but only if you can focus in on it.
That said, 'Suspiria' does boast some truly unforgettable moments and performances. Tilda Swinton's boldness and vitality shines through the messiness, eagerly throwing herself into every scene and exquisitely playing with the conventions of performance itself. Mia Goth, who's as much the audience surrogate and the one actually playing in a regular horror movie, makes one of the most disturbing moments in the movie. Dakota Johnson gives a curiously vacant portrayal that comes full circle in the final scenes and explains itself, but only just.
Ultimately, you'll get whatever you want to get out of 'Suspiria'. If you want an art film, you can take it on those terms and unravel the subtext and themes to your heart's content. If you want a horror movie with guts and shocks everywhere, you can take that from the experience easily. That it is so rich in both contexts is brave, but also its distinct failure. 'Suspiria' feels chaotic, and Luca Guadagnino pulls the camera around the screen like it's in a dance itself, and the script does the same. It pirouettes from straight-up horror to avantgarde drama, but never rests on one long enough for it to engage with it seriously.