The Movie that could not be remade, has been remade. Luca Guadagnino’s complex retelling of the Giallo Classic is artistically compelling.
★★★.5 out of ★★★★★ if you don’t want to take the trip.
★★★★ out of ★★★★★ if you do want to take the trip.
Here’s the thing. This film has a lot of layers. Nazis. Feminism. Political subterfuge. #MeToo movement. Patriarchy. Revolutionary ideology. The Roman goddess of childbirth. The Brett Kavanaugh hearings. Witchcraft. Sexual kinetics. The social contract with the State. Lady fights. Allegory to the original Dario Argento joint. And 19th century English poet Thomas de Quincey and his psychotropic essay Suspiria de Profundis (Sighs from the Depths).
Weirdly, and in a weirdly satisfying way, these are all things that heavily feature in Luca Guadagnino’s remake of the 1977 Dario Argento film by the same name — but not really the same story. Guadagnino’s remake cannot, I repeat, cannot be taken on it’s face. This is not a film to casually stroll through on Netflix and say to yourself “…ok, witches. I got it. It’s about a bunch of angry witches trying to turn a young lady into a witch.” Nope. There’s a lot more too it. The hyper-complicated infrastructure that Guadagnino manufactures requires you to roil in the mythology of the three-headed witch coven while simultaneously reconnoitering all the Nazi holocaust allegory and late 20th-century political intrigue. For good measure, he also throws in some pre-Christian witch history featuring Mother Tenebrarum, Mother Lachrymarum, and…Mother Suspiriorum.
Sadly, unless the viewer is willing to go down into the dark and unwelcoming basement with Guadagnino, you probably ain’t going to dig what he’s laying down.
For the uninitiated, Suspiria, on its face, involves a young woman Susie Bannion (super-duper-superbly played by Dakota Johnson) from the United States who’s accepted into an elite dance company in Germany. Turns out the dance company is run by a coven of super-witches that are somehow tied the Roman goddess of childbirth. Fairly simple…ish. Guadagnino molds the mild into a story of intrigue and betrayal, with an unnerving backdrop of late 1970s leftist bomb throwing and political upheaval — because witches just ain’t enough. Upon Susie’s somewhat unannounced arrival to the Markos Dance Academy, she immediately gains the attention and admiration of head…ish witch Madame Blanc (also played rather superbly by THE Tilda Swinton). However, not being satisfied with one role in the Suspiria remake, Ms. Swinton decides to take on three, yes three, sophisticated roles. She plays head witch Madame Blanc, witch overlord and eventual foe Mother Helena Markos, and the 80+ year-old Dr. Josef Klemperer. No sweat. Just three completely different and fully off-the-rails performances. At one point in the film these three characters ALL appear in the same scene.
Susie and Madame Blanc’s relationship gives allegorical glimpses of motherhood, love, and female jealousy and combativeness. It’s a complicated relationship that’s punctuated with freaky non-sequiturs, terrifying and mundane dream sequences, and violent brutality. Suspiria never embraces the “look left, look right…gotcha” horror trope, but instead toils in dark and ever-present barbarism. There’s no jump scares, but it does offer a heaping dose of unpleasantness.
Supiria, for all its complexities, does give the viewer a reasonable roadmap that’s laid out in six parts and an epilogue. However, once you decide to piece this puzzle together, and assuming you do, the epilogue is kind of serves as a lazy…ish exposition dump. It’s not terrible, but it does feel like Guadagnino felt that if this exposition didn’t take place viewers would leave the theater super-pissed and unsatisfied, but instead, we’re left just feeling moderately confused.
Suspiria has an interesting soundtrack that simply doesn’t compare to the genius of the original featuring Goblin. Suspiria has exquisite set design and locations. Suspiria has wonderful acting and fascinating interplay between all the characters. Suspiria is a thing of grotesque and horrifying beauty. Regrettably, unless you’re willing to turn on, tune in, and drop out with Guadagnino it’s just a pretty picture that makes you sigh from the depths.
★★★★ out of ★★★★★
Artistry in its many forms is on display full here. While I do not have the undying love of the Argento original, as Mike does, I do LOVE Argento’s art direction from Suspiria 1977. That movie was pure art deco bathed in fuschia and cyan hues, layered with Goblin’s swirling, kaleidoscopic soundtrack, it was a visual and audial wonderment. Suspiria is usually considered the high-water mark of Italian Giallo features, and it had a number of brilliantly violent set pieces, with flashing blades, and crashing glass, and though that film was considered to be a bit dream-like at the time, is a much easier film to follow than Guadagnino’s remake.
This film eschews the vibrant colors, going with a much more subdued palette, emphasizing the Cold-War bleakness of Berlin. Guadagnino opted to put the dancing front and center, utilizing the bold choreography of Damien Jalet for the biggest artistic impression in this film. The dance is mesmerizing, and as is mentioned in the movie, it is not “pretty”. The movements are a mix of writhing sensuality and sudden violent jolts. Full credit to Dakota Johnson for doing the dance. That’s her, not a dance double, and she gets a standing ovation from me for her dancing here. The dancing in the original was a context. The dancing in this movie is much more forward and powerful.
Any doubts as to whether this is a horror movie are erased in a juxtaposed scene, where Susie is asked to perform the lead phrase from the upcoming showpiece that Madame Blanc’s piece (which is actually a ritualistic spell) and the torturous and grotesque consequences of that spell on one of Susie’s classmates. This was the scene that, when shown in Las Vegas for Cinemacon had people fleeing the auditorium. It is BRUTAL.
That said, there are long periods in the film that are devoid of any horror. There is real tension through the movie, but it is a dramatic tension. The movie is also an hour longer than the original, and you can feel it. The script packs in lots of exposition and lots more philosophical musings are present. I’m still not sure what to make of a continuing exploration of a terrorist attack that runs in the background of the film. It adds texture, to be sure, but it really didn’t seem particularly relevant to the story at hand. So, be ready to try and puzzle your way through some of the plot points.
The story regarding Joseph, however, is brilliant. But the brilliance of the story isn’t punctuated until the epilogue. Mike and I mused about this, but there is a critical piece of information divulged in the epilogue, that if you are not listening carefully, will leave one of the primary threads of the story opaque to you. The lightbulb in my mind went off on the ride back to my house, when Mike and I were trying to sift through the story.
I also took the opportunity to review the original film, and as different as I think the movie was from the original was in feel, it actually is absolutely 100% Suspiria. The characters are all here. Susie, Olga, Patricia, Sarah, Madame Blanc, and Madame Markos; they got the band of witches back together. The location, though not as colorful, is hugely compelling, and critical to the feel of both films. The plot, for the most part, holds. Stylistically, it is different. This movie goes for body horror and has many more layers that you have to dig through. The original had a slasher component to it that this one does not, and the horror elements are more subtle as a result in the new film, but also makes for a film that is more dreadful than scary.
Full disclosure, I did NOT know that Tilda Swinton played Joseph until I went back to IMDB for this review. I am completely floored. (So that’s why his voice seemed so high and whispy!) There is a bit with some full frontal nudity of the old man, and well, hell… it’s not really an old man! Mike is right, what Tilda Swinton did was utterly astounding. That means that this movie has a casting call list that is almost entirely female. WOW. (We do get a couple of cops who are men, but that’s it for male characters.)
This movie grew on me the more I thought about it. It is super thinky, and is absolutely not a film for everyone. It is at times very self-conscious, and at times you think that it is being a bit too clever for its own good. Artsy fartsy, perhaps? Overindulgent? Sure. But the strengths of the film stuck with me. Like the Halloween remake, I think that if you have a strong opinion of the original, you might have a strong adverse reaction to this one. Also if you don’t like modern dance, this might drive you crazy. I actually think I like this one more than the original, and that may be sacrilege to say, but I did find this awfully compelling.
Suspiria is Rated R for some grisly body horror and some shocking images. It is fairly restrained for most of the movie though. The movie is in theaters now, and will almost certainly be heavily promoted by Amazon Prime, as it is one of their productions.