At first glance, it seems like Dario Argento’s 1977 cult horror classic, Suspiria, would be impossible to remake. Not because it’s so well-written or satisfying as a narrative, but because Argento’s film is so stylized, so drenched in its own peculiar atmosphere and so specifically tailored to the director’s own particular vision (what there is of it) that any attempt to recreate or refashion what the legendary Italian horror auteur had wrought would fall hopelessly short in the areas where Suspiria is strongest while delivering something more conventional as a film.
But the idea of current hotshot Italian filmmaker, Luca Guadagnino taking on the challenge (after David Gordon Green, director of the new Halloween, spent years trying to get it off the ground) was an interesting one. Guadagnino’s films, including I Am Love, A Bigger Splash and last year’s acclaimed Call Me by Your Name, all have a sensual, fleshy, almost luscious quality that could in theory bring a new dimension to the horror genre, especially in a story set in a ballet academy that is actually a coven of witches.
Shifting sexuality, the sheer unmitigated power of womanhood, the release of energy generated by dance and art–all could perhaps find a unique new outlet in a tale that, in its original form, was skimpy enough to invite a nuanced, intelligent reinterpretation.
The final product of Guadagnino’s obsession (he says the original Suspiria has haunted him since he first saw it at age 13) is indeed a reinterpretation, and an ambitious one, but curiously not the voluptuous buffet of supernatural and corporeal delights that one might have hoped for. The new Suspiria (written by David Kajganich, whose recent credits include The Terror and the upcoming Pet Sematary reboot) doesn’t shy away from bloodletting that has kept Argento’s film high in genre annals, but it attempts to find a deeper meaning in the material than perhaps there ever was.
To find that thematic coherence, Guadagnino and Kajganich strengthen the narrative spine and add entirely new subplots while making the agenda of the Markos Dance Academy’s secret coven more ambivalent–and yet, contradictorily, more structured via the internal politics of the coven’s hierarchy. By setting the story in 1977 Berlin, as the city is reeling from the protests, kidnappings and terrorist attacks of the German Autumn, the filmmakers attempt to link world events to the supernatural goings-on, but it’s a tenuous connection at best that never really crystallizes into anything revelatory.
By positioning the tale amidst contemporary events and draining most of the film of color (in complete contrast to the gaudy blues, reds and greens of Argento’s film, this Suspiria is, until the third act, resolutely cast in pale grays and drab browns), Guadagnino tries to bring a sense of realism to his witchy lore that ultimately doesn’t suit the story: Argento’s admittedly thin and often logically disjointed film was so rich visually and atmospherically that it worked better as a dark, dreamlike fairy tale.
Having said that, there’s still much to admire in 2018’s Suspiria, starting ironically enough with the director’s insistence on not trying to ape the original. While the experiment may or may not work, there is a boldness here in the filmmaking that makes the viewer want to see more even as the movie occasionally lags through its hefty 152-minute running time.
Certain set-pieces–such as the already much-remarked-upon sequence where new student Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) does her first dance under the watchful eye of academy director Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) while a rebellious ex-student is literally flung around a room below and turned gruesomely into bloody pulp–are both horrifying and viscerally exciting to watch. Guadagnino likewise embraces the gore of the genre, especially in that nearly insane third act, nor does he cut away from the casual sadism exhibited by many of the members of the coven, played by a coterie of European actresses whose otherworldly flair and eerie timelessness make them seem to have walked right out of the year the movie is set in.
The plot, however, mostly remains the same: After an opening sequence in which a Markos student named Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz in an unrecognizable cameo) warns her psychiatrist Josef Klemperer (played by Lutz Ebersdorf, who is played under heavy prosthetics by Swinton) about the danger at the heart of the Markos Academy, we meet Susie as she leaves behind her sheltered Mennonite existence in Ohio to come to Berlin and join the school. Susie does not have any formal training as a dancer, but her raw talent catches the attention of Madame Blanc and the other teachers/witches, even as they engage in their own power struggle over who shall lead the coven. There are references to three Mothers–Suspiriorum, Tenebrarum and Lachryharum–that steep the proceedings in antiquity and myth.
Blanc makes the somewhat ethereal Susie into her protégé, even as there are other, much more nightmarish plans hinted to be afoot for the young innocent. Meanwhile, Klemperer learns that Patricia has disappeared and begins his own investigation into the Markos Academy while also continuing his own personal search for his wife, who went missing under the Nazis. These plot threads all coalesce in the movie’s final third, when Susie’s starring role in the school’s revival of a major ballet that has not been performed in years is just the first sequence in a far darker ritual that resembles a Lucio Fulci flick more than anything Guadagnino has executed before.
Guadagnino jumps freely back and forth in time and amid his storylines, disorientingly bouncing from scenes of a dying woman on an Ohio farm to flashbacks of Klemperer and his wife in happier times (the Klemperer storyline also provides space for a cameo from the still-luminous Jessica Harper, star of the Argento film). The secret of the academy, as it were, is given away fairly early in the game, which doesn’t allow the film to generate much in the way of narrative suspense, although it does keep one wondering how the director is going to tie all this together in the end. The answer is, he doesn’t, not quite, and the movie’s finale may leave some viewers puzzled if not outright frustrated.
Swinton, as one might expect, dominates the film with her performances (there is a third one: see if you can spot it) and brings an austere regality to Blanc, her long gowns and cascade of hair making her seem like a totem who could be either 50 or 500 years old. She matches herself as Klemperer, bringing a genuine depth of melancholy to her gender-bending role even under a massive amount of latex.
Johnson is all soft murmurings and unknowable glances when she’s still, creating the effect of a vessel waiting to be filled, but she is primal energy and ferocity when she’s dancing, as if she wants to will her body into new and impossible shapes. The breakout performance may be from Mia Goth as Sara, friend to both Patricia and then Susie, whose own suspicions about the school and genuine concern make her the movie’s most empathetic character.
Guadagnino has wisely decided not to try to emulate the percussive, prog-rock score done by Italian ensemble Goblin for the original movie, instead enlisting Radiohead’s Thom Yorke to create something more droning and subtle. Yorke’s music, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s cinematography, and Walter Fasano’s editing all combine to make this a significantly different auditory and visual experience from the 1977 movie, even as they pay homage here and there to the era stylistically.
Whether they help to support Guadagnino’s remixed version of the story itself is another matter. His vision of ancient feminine power unleashed could in theory be a heady one that would catapult Suspiria directly into the concerns and issues of today. Instead, this still always interesting and sometimes wildly experimental film ends up in a netherworld between past and present, horror and art house, thick red blood and dreary gray stone.
Suspiria opens in limited release this Friday, Oct. 26 before expanding nationwide on Nov. 2.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye
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