Suspiria (2018)

NOVEMBER 4, 2018


If you go back through my tweets about the idea of remaking Suspiria, you'd see that I did a 180 on the idea. At first, like many, I was aghast at the idea of remaking this particular title - it was just such a singularly odd film and so deeply entrenched in Dario Argento's sensibilities that I felt trying to mimic it in any way would just come off as phony at best. It didn't help that the filmmaker attached was David Gordon Green, whose comedies (at least, the ones I had seen) didn't leave me with much confidence that he'd be the guy to do this. But after the trailer I came around a bit, as it certainly didn't look like a carbon copy, and after the first volley of reviews I completed my transition: I was legit excited to see what new director Luca Guadagnino was doing with the material.

However, in an ironic twist no one could have seen coming, I walked out almost wishing David Gordon Green had directed it instead, because he proved to be such a good fit for Halloween and perhaps could have made something more in line with my own (admittedly kooky) tastes. I didn't dislike this new Suspiria, but I had trouble connecting to it more often than not, and felt a few of Guadagnino's choices kept me at bay when it wasn't particularly necessary. I suspect it's the sort of film I'll like more on a second viewing, but as it runs two and a half hours I'm not entirely sure when or even if I'd ever be willing to give it that much of my time again. I could watch the original again (which required no "warming up") and still have time for half of another film I perhaps haven't seen at all. Or I could go for a taco.

Before I get into my issues with it I'll say this much: this is definitely NOT a soulless, "let's cash in on the name" kind of remake that largely gives the "sub-genre" such a bad name. Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich kept the basic concept of Argento's original - a girl named Suzy Bannion enters a European dance studio that turns out to be run by witches - but precious little else, making it very much its own thing and keeping cutesy nods to the barest of minimums. The closest it gets to winking at the audience is casting Jessica Harper (the original Suzy) in a bit role, but even that feels more like a genuine creative choice (given the part she plays and its use in the overall story) than a producer's idea of giving the fans something to cheer for. I went long stretches without even thinking about the original - basically every time someone was in danger I wondered if they'd walk into a barbed wire pit, that's about it.

And for whatever problems I may have had with it, I was never thinking "this sucks" - if anything I was trying my hardest to engage and walk away the fan of it I hoped I would be, rather than checking out as I normally would for a film that was seemingly on a different wavelength than I am. The actors were terrific across the board, for one thing - Dakota Johnson as Susie (they changed the spelling, yes) is wonderful and continues to prove that she's a million times better than the 50 Shades material she's sadly still best known for. She's got a tough role; she's a bit naive at first, almost ditzy, so we can see how transfixed she is by the school and Madame Blanc, played by Tilda Swinton, but she pulls it off deftly. She also has to dance - a LOT, as this film actually has some concern about the dancing that they're ostensibly there to learn. Johnson apparently trained for over a year to get the dancing down, and Guadagnino cast mostly actual dancers to play her fellow students as opposed to actresses. It'd make a good companion piece with Climax, now that I think about it.

As for Swinton, well, she can't look out a window or take a sip of water without finding a way to make it fascinating, so it should be no surprise that she's great, but what IS surprising is that her character is kind of the most normal person in the movie. Unlike the more sinister original incarnation of the character, Blanc here is torn between wanting to stand by her coven (despite wanting to take control of it due to a lack of faith in its current leader, Markos) and wanting to protect Susie, whose dancing prowess and innocence have Blanc having understandable misgivings about sacrificing her. Unfortunately (widely publicized spoiler of sorts incoming) she also plays the role of Josef Klemperer, the film's only male character of note, and it's a distracting choice that did the movie a disservice in my opinion. Someone made a good point, that it smartly tied into the film's feminist approach (that a woman had to act like a man to make her voice heard), but I dunno, it just felt like a great actor trying an experiment that rendered a hefty chunk of the movie feeling phony and almost goofy.

See, Klemperer is a psychiatrist who didn't believe his patient (Chloe Moretz) when she said that the school was run by witches, and now that she's disappeared he feels guilty and responsible - and he's also carrying a lot of baggage from losing track of his wife during the Holocaust, still holding out hope that she is alive and living somewhere under an assumed identity. It's a tragic, meaty character... but the entire time I was just distracted by the (very obvious) fact that it was just Swinton in old man makeup. I kept hoping it'd have some in-film point to it, but it doesn't; it serves only to add more "food for thought" in a movie that's already overstuffed with it, and as a result the character never truly came alive to me, which hurt because Klemperer is kind of our detective here, since Susie is less curious than the original incarnation, giving us less of an "in" to the proceedings. We're also continually updated on the hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181, though as my knowledge of that even is limited, I couldn't begin to tell you what connection it had to the story of a witch monster running a dance studio. There's a strong (and timely) message of what women can do when they work together (hammered home when we learn the true fate of Klemperer's wife), but it gets muddled with all this other stuff that I'm apparently too dim to connect to the rest of it. As for the traditional horror elements, they're often jaw-dropping, particularly an early sequence where Susie inadvertently acts as a human voodoo doll for another dancer, who - if I'm following it right - is mimicking Susie's movements with her arms and legs, but with her torso not being controlled the same way, resulting in some human pretzel visuals that are as horrifying as they are impressive. The replacement for the barbed wire is suitably ghastly, and - well, I don't want to spoil anything, but if you ever thought the original ended rather abruptly, you'll be happy to know you get a long and detailed look at the final coven sequence, which ends... messily. Guadagnino also likes to make quick edits during a simple motion (someone turning in their chair, or opening a door), which can make the less "horror" scenes still feel uneasy, and he also throws in the occasional very fucked up dream sequence for good measure.

In fact, for better or worse it often reminded me of David Lynch's work, especially the most recent (and best) season of Twin Peaks. It's a little messy, and there are tonal shifts and weird choices, but it's kind of fascinating in its own way, and demands you give it your full attention to let it work its magic over you even if you're not always sure what was happening. But that was a TV show, so when there was an episode that didn't work as well, he'd usually get me back with the next one - a movie is a different experience. I truly wish I could say I flat out loved it instead of being mixed, especially when so many of its cast and crew brought their A-game (even Thom Yorke's score is quite good, and I haven't exactly been a fan of what he's been doing since OK Computer), but it's certainly a memorable and distinct piece of art. Since that's a critique some have made about the original, in that respect it's one of the most successful remakes ever. I walked out of the theater kind of bewildered, but after a couple days found myself closer to "I liked it" than "I didn't" (which, again, suggests I'd enjoy it more a second time around), so if nothing else you know it's not a disposable cash-in. Long story short: it's worth watching, despite itself, and proves once again that horror remakes can be valid if their creative teams are gung-ho about making them and not just taking a job from a studio hoping to make easy money on a dormant IP.

What say you?

1 comment:

  1. I would be VERY interested in seeing a "Lutz Ebersdorf"-free cut of the movie to see how much better it plays.

    From my Letterbxd review (

    Lastly, it tries to pull off a stunt performance for Tilda Swinton where she plays an man in old age makeup. This ended up being the final straw. The makeup is surprisingly good but you can still immediately tell it's Swinton (I could tell from the first time I saw the trailer!). And the voice is obviously not a man's voice. And not only is the casting (and intentional misdirection - Lutz Ebersdorf, bah!) misguided and distracting but the whole character is not only inessential, but you could cut almost every scene that "he" appears in (and cut any shots of "him" out of the remaining scenes) and it would not impact the film AT ALL. It would just make the film 20-25 minutes shorter (which would be a blessing).


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