Is dance-horror a thing right now? Luca Guadagnino’s modern-dance remake of Dario Argento’s Suspiria follows on the heels of Gaspar Noé’s brutal Climax, about a street dance group succumbing, Lord of the Flies-style, to their baser instincts. Josephine Decker’s forthcoming Madeline’s Madeline, about an unstable young woman in a physical theatre company, features a dance finale that boils over from psychodrama into horror.
In the past, dance-horror movies – and there are more than you might think – have been fixated with ballet. But Guadagnino transposes Argento’s ballet-school setting to a German modern dance company, and the expressionist performance style – sometimes described as “moving from the inside out” – accompanies a shift of emphasis from the female dancer as desirable object to forceful subject. Tilda Swinton’s mother-figure, Madame Blanc – part Pina Bausch, part Martha Graham – demands strength rather than beauty from her dancers. Damien Jalet’s choreography for the all-female troupe emphasises group power over individual excellence, and with their cutting limbs and razor-sharp breaths, the dancers seem to incorporate the lacerating dynamics of the slasher movie into their own bodies.
Suspiria’s final dance sequence might be the latter-day descendant of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, written for the Ballets Russes: a kind of folk horror in choreographic form that shredded the veneer of classical decorum to unleash the primal forces pulsing beneath it. Similarly, Jalet’s choreography is all savage ecstasy, runic repetition and primitive abandon, marking a sacrificial moment of death and rebirth.
The final dance of Madeline’s Madeline (with choreography by Faye Driscoll) also recalls the Rite: a masked, tribal uprising spills out from the studio into the streets in a surge of raw ferocity. The story concerns a teenager (an astonishing performance from newcomer Helena Howard) who is caught between two mothers: her real one, forever dealing with school, transport and meals; and an artistic one who runs a theatre group, using creative sessions involving masks, role-play and improvisation. The climactic sequence erupts when the irreconcilable worlds collide and fuse, culminating not in death but in delusion.
Climax is the most dance-driven of this crop of films, with virtuoso cinematography that incorporates the camera directly into Nina McNeely’s choreography. Climax feels like one long Rite of Spring that moves ever more brutally towards dissolution. The story, such as it is, tells of a hip-hop dance group at a warehouse party, whose drinks have been spiked. Its feels like the world is turned upside down (as the camera sometimes is) and shaken until all the nasty stuff falls out: violence, incest, cruelty, despair, scapegoating, greed. Two of the most distressing scenes feature a child separated from its mother, and an attack on a pregnant woman (all these films are riddled with mommy issues). Hip-hop dance – with its crazy angles, inverted postures and dislocated joints, its gladiatorial formations, superhuman technique and youthful drive – is the perfect vehicle.
Suspiria, Madeline’s Madeline and Climax do contain some time-honoured ballet horror tropes: the dance group as a deviant family, and an obsessive figurehead with whom (in Suspiria and Madeline’s Madeline) unstable young performers become murkily entangled. Why might ballet exert such a tug? Its global, instantly recognisable iconography certainly lends it a cinematic immediacy, but the reasons go deeper than that. It’s also because ballet itself is steeped in 19th-century gothic. Its best-known stories are supernatural tales of female revenants and doppelgangers in moonlit forests, and to this day ballet remains haunted by the ghostly power of its own most iconic image: the ethereal ballerina, deathly pale and shrouded in gauze.
Cinema has drawn upon ballet not only in the musical, but also in the morbid and the macabre: witness films as varied as La Mort du Cygne (Jean Benoît-Lévy, 1937), Étoile (Peter Del Monte, 1989), Audition (Takashi Miike, 1999), Wishing Stairs (Yun Jae-yeon, 2003), Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010), Livide (Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, 2011), and of course Argento’s 1977 version of Suspiria.
Ballet has also served up some stock characters and storylines to the dance-horror genre, particularly through the influence of the Ballets Russes in the early 20th century. The scandalous sexual relationship between the company’s impresario Sergei Diaghilev and its star dancer Vaslav Nijinsky reappears in the screen archetypes of the monstrous maestro and the mentally unstable young dancer, their pathologies played out in stories of psychological possession and sexual ambivalence. Powell and Pressburger’s 1948 The Red Shoes – which tips into horror in its central ballet sequence – is among the best known of this lineage, but it is also the highbrow offspring of more muck-raking antecedents The Mad Genius (Michael Curtiz, 1931) and Specter of the Rose (Ben Hecht, 1946).
In this new glut of dance-horror films, the different dance genres enable different stories and images to emerge. That the racial diversity of characters in Madeline’s Madeline is taken for granted is facilitated by its genre of physical theatre. Climax, with street dance as its medium, is also strikingly receptive to racial and sexual diversity.
Horror can be a hugely conservative, even reactionary genre, but recent films such as Jordan Peele’s Get Out and woman-centred horror including Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014) and Anne Biller’s The Love Witch (2017) have demonstrated that it can also be among the most progressive. Suspiria, Madeline’s Madeline and above all Climax do the same for dance-horror. For in the end, the danse macabre – whether culminating in death, delusion or dissolution – is inside us all.