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‘Suspiria,’ ‘Showgirls,’ ‘Carrie,’ and ‘Climax’: Women Dancing With Death and the Occult

Luca Guadagnino’s reimagining of Dario Argento’s giallo horror classic fits in a long line of horrifying allegories about the terror visited upon women’s bodies, including this year’s violent, powerful ‘Mandy’

A collage of film characters dancing Amazon Studios/Ringer illustration

Earlier this year, Dakota Johnson made headlines when she told Elle magazine that working on Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Suspiria “no lie, fucked [her] up so much that [she] had to go to therapy.” Just two weeks later, the audience at Amazon Studios’ CinemaCon panel in Las Vegas got to see why. Johnson took ballet lessons for six months while filming the third Fifty Shades film in Vancouver to prepare for the role of Susie Bannion—the ambitious newcomer to the mysterious Markos Dance Academy, originally played by Jessica Harper in Dario Argento’s 1977 original. In one scene, her character distorts her and other dancers’ bodies in more extreme and painful ways: Each of her dance movements twists the limbs of another dancer in another room beyond their literal breaking point.

This already notoriously gory sequence might be the most disturbing passage in a film full to the brim with such horrific scenes—Guadagnino’s version is an hour longer than the original—and perhaps is more exciting, too. Young Susie, with her love of dance and her appetite for recognition, pushes the boundaries of her art form and of reality itself. The punishing choreography, when fully realized in Susie’s performance, reaches beyond the laws of physics and performance to become a kind of incantation, a dance with the higher spirits, that grants the dancer new and dark powers.

A remake of Suspiria has been in the works for years: At one point, David Gordon Green was attached to the project, with the Black Swan herself, Natalie Portman, set to play Susie, but the director went on to work on another sort-of-remake of a classic horror film instead. Yet Nu-Suspiria’s release comes, perhaps not so serendipitously, at an interesting time. A pair of arty genre movies that made the festival rounds this fall share at least some of the same themes of bodily horror, physicality, and the occult: Gaspar Noé’s 1990s-set dance-and-drug fueled bad dream Climax, and Panos Cosmatos’s romantic heavy metal revenge flick Mandy, a surprise theatrical and VOD success. These stylish and provocative films’ different approaches to the female form—its expression through dance and/or cult practices, and its relationship to the horror genre—reveal new (or more reactionary) ways to employ tropes used in such exterminating angel-classics as Carrie or even Showgirls. However gratifying these genre efforts might be, those reimagined tactics speak to our current times of turmoil, especially for women. And as movies directed by men, they may actually say more about society’s bad conscience and a need to finally let women be more than Final Girls.

Like Suspiria, Climax follows a troupe of dancers in a single building (Suspiria does go to other locations, but the bulk of the film takes place in the Markos school in Berlin). Noé is famed for his long take style, and his first bravura unbroken sequence shows a group of multicultural young adults rehearsing their big number, combining different styles of 1990s urban dances from voguing to krumping. Relentless, passionate, and cheering each other on as they each take the spotlight, the dancers are astounding and their joy is contagious; for the director of the brutal and despairing art-house hit Irréversible, this level of genuine enthusiasm and admiration for characters (and artists) feels almost romantic. No trace of cynicism taints the images, and the director has spoken of his love for his cast at every premiere like a proud dad. This is not to say that the performances themselves aren’t often aggressive; many are very sexual, while others (like krumping) resonate with pent-up tension and release. Noé perhaps understands the power of dance can allow anyone to express their most disturbing feelings safely and creatively: Bodies can be sensual without being preyed upon, or violent without causing harm. The camera (which Noé often handled himself) doesn’t objectify the dancers per se; instead he lets them perform for it; the characters are in control of the gaze that is directed at them and return it.

Still of ‘Mandy’ of a frowning woman with long, brown hair, a Black Sabbath T-shirt, and a cigarette in her hand
Mandy (2018)
RLJE Films

There is some of that same reverence of dance and in particular of the female body moving on its own and for itself (as opposed to solely for others to look at) in Suspiria: Susie is clearly enraptured by the exercise even as she is showcasing her talents to her instructors. Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s camera emphasizes the suppleness and delicacy of Susie’s movements, while the hammering sound design gives them more visceral impact. This exhibitionistic self-expression has its precedent in Paul Verhoeven’s 1995 classic Showgirls, where Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley) may be performing for paying customers (be it in a seedy strip club or a luxurious casino) but is still fully committed to her talents (“She can dance, can’t she?” notes one dance floor admirer). She moves with a more than palpable ferociousness, for which Berkley has been heavily criticized but which gives Showgirls its typically Verhoeven-elevated tone and makes it camp—and thus earnest and direct in its criticisms of masculinity and American entertainment culture.

What many—including myself—often forget about Showgirls is that, for all its fun, flamboyant dancing and its ridiculous underwater orgasm, it also has one extremely harrowing rape scene in its final half-hour that Verhoeven, in his usual blunt and effective style, doesn’t prepare you for. Realizing that her skills alone don’t suffice to make her a star, Nomi starts to compromise her integrity—and her body—to get to the top; after accepting a party invitation, her best friend, Molly (Gina Ravera), is attacked by a famous singer she admires, and Nomi takes her to a hospital. Nomi essentially sells herself to Zack Carey (Kyle MacLachlan), the entertainment director at the Stardust casino, and Molly has been physically hurt. In Verhoeven’s allegory, men have compromised dance’s ability to be a pure mode of expression, recasting it as salacious sleaze and robbing Nomi of the strength she had found in her body.

In Brian De Palma’s Carrie, our heroine (played memorably by Sissy Spacek) also finds her self-actualization through dance violently taken away from her. Carrie hadn’t planned to actually dance with Tommy Ross (William Katt) at prom night. She is already overwhelmed by how kind he is to her, let alone that he invited her to be his date: She Never Dreamed Someone Like Him Could Love Someone Like Her. But Tommy is so gentle and tall and patient and blond that they eventually rise up from their seats and soon, everyone around them disappears. De Palma uses his famous rotating camera movement in close-up to focus on the couple as they twirl, with Carrie finally letting herself go. It’s a beautiful moment when the awkward young girl finds herself in tune with her developing body. No longer panicked by the changes it goes through (getting her period for the first time was traumatic), she is going through a teenage mirror stage when she realizes that the movements and beauty of the limbs reflected in Tommy’s loving eyes are, in fact, her own. But soon, the room will come back to her and everyone it in—even Tommy—will become terrifying and cruel again. When the bucket of pig blood lands on Carrie’s head and her prom queen tiara, she screams out in anger and heartbreak, her homecoming-queen moment defaced by cool kids; she is shamed for that body she doesn’t yet know well, but which everyone recognizes to be beautiful and, therefore, in need of taming.

Both Carrie and Showgirls definitively reverse their heroines’ humiliations; Carrie uses supernatural powers (and great editing from De Palma) to lock her entire graduating class in the gymnasium—in a way, using their dancing against them too—and murders them (she’s next to go, but she’ll be dancing on their graves). And Nomi (or at least Verhoeven) learned a thing or two from Carrie: After realizing that Zack is not her friend, Nomi moves to escape the golden cage of the Stardust, boldly taking matters into her own hands. Slyly seducing the rapist via the promise of a private dance, she then holds a knife to his throat before drop-kicking him and destroying him with countless blows of her very pointy boots (“”I kicked the shit out of him,” she tells Molly, and she’s correct). At the end of Showgirls, Nomi hitchhikes to Los Angeles—perhaps to try her luck as a performer for Hollywood, but hopefully remaining in control of her body and skills this time.

In Climax, the loss of control is simply self-destructive, with no redemption in sight. After a long day of rehearsals, the dancers partake of a sangria prepared by their choreographer, Emmanuelle (Claude-Emmanuelle Gajan-Maull); it quickly becomes apparent that it’s been spiked with a powerful hallucinogen. The culprit has to be a member of the troupe (Emmanuelle denies it’s her), and, as the drug takes effect, the dancers become more suspicious of each other and more ready for a fight. Jealousy, resentment, and aggression take hold. Many are still dancing, but now alone and without grace. What was once exuberant is now grotesque. No longer entranced by movement, the dancers see their lowest impulses awaken and take over their bodies. In an homage to Andrzej Zulawski’s 1981 horror masterpiece Possession, Noé has main character Selva (played by up-and-coming star Sofia Boutella) re-create the iconic (and much-memed) tunnel rapture when Isabelle Adjani threw herself against the walls, contorting her body violently with her eyes wide open. Even though no such thing as a tentacle fuckmonster is possessing Selva, her movements, like Adjani’s, are now demonized. After showing his troupe gloriously owning their physique and pushing the limits of acceptability in the safe space that is the dance floor, Noé chooses to turn their skills into signs of perversion and violence, degrading those healthy bodies until most of them die.

Suspiria, 2018 edition follows the same path, but even more literally than Carrie, Showgirls, or even Climax. More than with Carrie, Nomi, and Selva, Susie’s skills become weaponized. The purity of dancing, the idea that it creates a separate realm where unusual movements and behaviors are tolerated, has been lost. Instead, dancing here is a way to connect to the devil and help realize his will. Susie’s beautiful, capable female body is employed to kill.

It’s in this connection between dance and ritual that Suspiria reflects the year’s other major genre movie, Mandy, and how it conceives of women and their bodies as sources of power that men (or/a.k.a. the devil!) want so desperately to tame and abuse. Even though she doesn’t occupy the screen for long, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) haunts the film and Nicolas Cage’s Red, who watches his wife burned alive at the hands of an occult hippie sect. Many critics have praised Riseborough’s performance in the scene when, drugged up and in clear peril, her Mandy laughs defiantly in the face of the Mansonish Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), a failed musician and murderous cult leader who hides his profound insecurity and need for constant validation behind claims of transcendence. Unable to win Mandy over with music, mind-altering narcotics, or physical threats, the cult leader decides to destroy what he can’t make obey.

In Cosmatos’s romantic but gory vision, Red avenges his wife by destroying her killers, drenching the screen in dismembered limbs. Yet before he can attack the bodies of others, Red has to master and empower his own muscles: In the film’s most heartbreaking and bizarre scene, right after Mandy’s horrible death, Red goes to his bathroom in his burnt-down house to drink a bottle of whiskey and express his rage and pain in long, loud cries. Only Cage could perform this degree of suffering with hilarious but nevertheless realistic and heart-wrenching abandon, and, when Red later finds some cocaine lying around, it makes sense that he would take it with such violent delight. The man is down to his last nerve, with only his body to exact his revenge, so he needs it to be wired up and to dull the pain (echoes, here, of the French artsploitation flick Revenge and its self-medicating heroine).

Whatever you think of Guadagnino’s Suspiria, it’s the only 2018 release that can compete with Mandy’s uproarious blood fest. From that dance scene on (which occurs relatively early in the film), the degree of body horror in Suspiria gets only greater—and Susie sinks deeper and deeper into a sinister mysticism. In this all-female environment, however, rather than being hated (by a man) for its power, Susie’s athletic female body is revered precisely because of its potential. The women around her recognize a better, stronger version of themselves in Susie, and in some somber form of female camaraderie, aim to get her to join their ranks. The question is whether Susie will let her worshipers constrict her in their adulation: When you lead the dance yourself, are you free to change the routine? Is there a loss of agency in climbing to the top?

Even as Susie’s dancing is preyed upon, Guadagnino undeniably admires it—and thus, admires her strength without denying the violence it causes. In his previous films, the director demonstrated his love of dance as a powerful tool for communication and self-expression. Ralph Fiennes rocking out to the Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue” was A Bigger Splash’s most joyous (and best) moment, revealing in Fiennes’s Harry Hawkes an endless well of energy and joy, and more than a little bit of arrogance; Armie Hammer’s strange moves in Call Me by Your Name became a meme, but in the context of the film functioned to show a man trying to reach out to his crush awkwardly, as you do on the dance floor. Even when she is obeying the orders of Mother Suspiriorum, Susie gets to express herself through her performance; she proves that she is much stronger, and much less of an innocent little girl, than she may seem to be.

Guadagnino’s Suspiria and Cosmatos’s Mandy are wildly different films—one aiming to be a serious art film, the other reaching for B-movie grandeur—but both recognize that a woman’s body can’t simply be attacked. Their reverence for the female form takes them in somewhat opposite directions, but ultimately, both Susie and Mandy raise hell as women who wouldn’t have their strength doubted or controlled. Noé’s Climax, while at first also celebrating the expressive power of dance, then chooses to show it spoiled and made unsafe for pure exploitation purposes; even if you’re willing to grant Climax a political or anti-drug subtext, its view of the human body remains mostly negative. With their focus on the resilience of women and their physical abilities, both Suspiria and Mandy (whose namesake gets revenge via the proxy of her extremely angry and fearless husband) follow Carrie and Showgirls in a line of films letting women into the body horror genre (or at least, for Showgirls, into physically horrific situations) not simply to be butchered, but to better defend and reclaim their agency. They’re dancing on their own.