Remake of cult horror classic engages in mesmerizing, confounding dance of death
Directed by Luca Guadagnino
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth, Chloë Grace Moretz
There are those who would argue Italian director Dario Argento’s 1977 shocker Suspiria is a masterpiece of horror—a disconcerting, nightmarish, hyper-visual classic executed by one of the finest practitioners of genre cinema at the peak of his skill. (I, to be clear, would be one of those.) So it is with a heavy amount of trepidation that we approach the idea of a remake. Remake a bad film or a heavily dated film with talent and intelligence, and audiences will praise you. But why, as a director, would you want to tackle the signature work of a master filmmaker? Hard to say. You could ask Gus Van Sant why he decided to remake Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Or you could sit down and watch Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria.
Guadagnino made his mark with arty European dramas like The Protagonists, I Am Love, A Bigger Splash and the 2017 Academy Award-winning film Call Me By Your Name. Thematically, the supernatural horror of Suspiria would seem like something of a stretch for Guadagnino. But, being an Italian, we can only assume he grew up under the long, dark shadow of Argento.
The setting for Suspiria has been moved, slightly, from Freiburg, Germany to West Berlin. Interestingly, it keeps the timeframe of the original. Set in 1977, the film exploits the real-life tension of the era. Screenwriter David Kajganich (writer-producer on Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash and writer-producer for AMC’s historical horror series “The Terror”) sets the action against the terroristic actions of the far-left Baader-Meinhof Group (aka The Red Army Faction). It’s a decision that both grounds the film in a historical reality and mirrors the political struggle within the film. Setting the film in a volatile and divided Berlin adds quite a lot to the film’s tension. Aside from the backdrop and a few tangential storyline additions, however, Guadagnino and Kajganich’s Suspiria sticks surprisingly close to the original (which was itself inspired by Thomas De Quincey’s 1845 essay collection Suspiria de Profundis).
To Berlin’s iconic Tanz Academy comes ingenuous American Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson, looking all of 19 or 20). The young phenom has come to study modern dance from the legendary choreographer Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), a high-minded disciple of the academy’s founder, the mysterious Helena Markos. It’s not long, though, before we come to realize that the Tanz Academy is run by a coven of immortal witches, looking for just the right student to sacrifice in order to revive their founder, who is allegedly a several-
Suspiria doesn’t beat around the bush about its supernatural roots. And its approach to witchcraft is a matter-of-fact one. This brand of witchery doesn’t involve pointy hats or spell books. Instead, it’s a sort of organic mental power derived from nature, feminine power and ritual. Dance provides a key source for this final element. There is quite a bit more dance than in Argento’s original. Guadagnino stages the film’s extended interpretive dance sequences as primal, ceremonial and (in one standout instance) quite deadly. Johnson proves up to the task, using her body as an acting tool even more than she did in the 50 Shades movies. Wisely, Guadagnino never restages any of Argento’s famous death sequences, instead weaving his own elaborately memorable montages of blood and viscera throughout.
Despite some truly gruesome goings-on during Susie’s tenure at the witch-filled Tanz Academy, much of Suspiria is slow-going. Although all the major characters and events in the 1977 script by Argento and collaborator Daria Nicolodi occur here, Kajganich adds a number of side steps. A brief introductory sequence involving a former dance student (Chloë Grace Moretz) sets up the witchy mythology quite nicely. There are also a number of flashbacks to Susie’s childhood—being raised by a strict Mennonite community in Ohio. This adds some interesting background, but it’s hard to tell how essential this information is. Far more distracting is an extended perambulation involving an elderly male psychiatrist (played, for shits and giggles, by Swinton as well) investigating the academy’s hidden secrets and reminiscing about the wife he lost in World War II (original Suspiria star Jessica Harper in a welcome cameo). It makes for one too many plotlines in an already overstuffed, overly long film.
The original Suspiria went off on a number of phantasmagorical flights of fancy, ignoring the traditional logic of narrative storytelling for the sake of visual shock and awe. The new Suspiria takes it even further at various points. Gone is Argento’s disorienting soundtrack from art rockers Goblin. In its place is a droning, dirge-like series of compositions from Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke. Guadagnino also dumps Argento’s garish slashes of neon red and blue, replacing them with the grim gray concrete of wintry Berlin. Absent too are the eye-boggling Art Nouveau fittings and op art styling of Argento’s dance school, replaced with the rigid deco-industrial conformity of Guadagnino’s reimagined setting. The results are far less hypnotic than Argento’s. (His Suspiria is nothing less than an intentional assault on the senses, both aural and visual.) But there’s still something darkly mesmerizing about this new version.
As mentioned earlier, the political struggles out on the streets of Berlin mirror the power struggles inside the dance school. Despite their bloody work, the witches here are not portrayed as strictly evil. In fact there’s something of a philosophical division going on between the old-school menace of the demonic Helena Markos (Swinton, in a third makeup-heavy role) and the artsy, feminist, “Pina Bauch meets Stevie Nicks” style of Madame Blanc. Swinton, unsurprisingly, is perfectly cast and is given a much-expanded character to work with. (Really, who would you want running an avant-garde dance academy full of immortal witches, other than Tilda Swinton?)
Luca Guadagnino, to his credit, hasn’t made half a movie with Suspiria. This massive spectacle is more like two and a half movies—not all of which work. But the one at the very core works frighteningly well. It’s ravishing, challenging, dark, erotic, gruesome, punishing and pretentious all at once. It’s the sort of film that neatly divides audiences into “didn’t get it” and “gotta see it again to figure it all out” camps. In the end it does nothing to replace Argento’s cult classic. But it’s a fascinating/