Written by: David Kajganich (screenplay) Dario Argento Daria Nicolodi (characters)
Directed by: Luca Guadagnino
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Chloe Grace Moretz
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Patricia wrote about Three Mothers lost to time, predating all Christian invention. Pre-God, pre-devil. Mother Tenebrarum, Mother Lachrymarum and Mother Suspiriorum. Darkness, tears, and sighs."
Of all the remakes to come down the pipeline during the last two decades, the oft-rumored/threatened Suspiria redux has always inspired the most skepticism and intrigue all at once. Quite frankly, it’s perhaps the most bewildering proposition imaginable: how, exactly, do you replicate an actual nightmare? Suspiria is less a film and more the suggestion of a fleeting yet powerfully lucid dream. Forget lightning in a bottle—Dario Argento harnessed the stuff of fevered tempests and channeled it into a technicolor freak-out that’s so ethereal, ephemeral, and idiosyncratic that it’s hard to imagine why anyone would bother with imitating such black magic.
And yet, how could you not be fascinated by—or at least have a begrudging respect for—the bold motherfucker who dared to do so? Enter Luca Guadagnino, a filmmaker that obviously inspires a lot of fascination and confidence. Not only has he helmed some of the finest films in recent memory, but he’s also a professed fan of the original, at one point referring to it as an obsession he’s harbored since he was a teenager. Before directing it himself, he actually secured the remake rights a decade ago and was set to produce David Gordon Green’s take before it fell through.
If nothing else, this is the rare case of an artist pursuing a genuine passion project rather than a studio exec scanning a list of notable horror titles that hadn’t received the remake treatment yet. Suspiria is very much in good hands with a person who understands the folly of simply retracing Argento’s steps, a notion that’s evident from the opening title card, which hails the film as “Six Acts and an Epilogue in Divided Berlin.” There’s a sly, almost playful dimension to such wordiness that foreshadows Guadagnino’s desire to embellish upon the original film, to the point where it’s barely recognizable as Suspiria.
For the most part, the film bears out that approach: Guadagnino has taken the suggestion of Argento’s film and spun an elaborate web of intrigue around it. The basic logline—aspiring American ballerina Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) attends a prestigious German dance studio run by a coven of witches during the late 70s—remains intact, yet it’s only the barest of bones in this new version. Guadagnino turns Argento’s unswerving lucidity against itself, crafting instead a lingering, hazy dream out of similar material. Like the original, it begins amidst a driving rain storm, where Patricia Hingle (Chloe Moretz) seeks refuge from the studio in the home of Josef Klemperer (Tilda Swinton billed as Lutz Ebersdorf), a psychiatrist bewildered by the girl’s cryptic ravings about a coven of witches who will “eat her cunt on a plate” if she’s discovered.
Similarities begin to dissipate from this point forward, however: while Patricia’s disappearance looms over the dance company as Susie rises through its ranks with her almost preternatural talents, David Kajganich’s script sprawls about the premise, delving into its protagonist’s traumatic Mennonite upbringing, the inner-workings of the coven, Dr. Kelmperer’s attempt to find closure for his wife’s disappearance during the Nazi’s rule, and even the tumultuous historical context of the German Autumn. Clocking in at 150 minutes, it’s practically a tome, especially compared to Argento’s relatively fleet-footed outing.
With that sprawl comes more depth: long hailed as perhaps the ultimate display of style over substance (or, more accurately, style as substance), the original Suspiria is an otherworldly phantasm that resists profundity. In contrast, Guadagnino’s film practically sprains itself in trying to be about something. Pointedly setting it in a “divided Berlin” during the R.A.F. hostage crisis (which unfolds throughout as background noise on radios and televisions) immediately tethers this Suspiria to a tangible reality and a specific historical context. There’s a moment in the film where the coven of witches insists the girls must believe that they are still “of this world,” a line embodies the film’s approach at constructing a more real—or at least believable—take on this mythos.
Guadagingo further grounds the proceedings with a comparatively muted, earthen aesthetic: gone are Argento’s otherworldly day-glo nightmare hues, here replaced with more natural photography. This is not to say Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s photography is drab by any means. On the contrary, it’s often lush and evocative, particularly when it does resort to nightmarish flourishes once the coven begins to infect Susie’s dreams with bizarre imagery: it’s more The Ring than it is Suspiria, but they’re unnerving, primal bursts that stand in sharp contrast to the film’s otherwise solemn, subdued pitch.
The script’s more vested interest in its characters as, well, characters and not simply avatars results in more nuanced, complex performances this time around. While this is not at all a slight against Jessica Harper’s turn in the original (it’s one of the all-time great portraits of a woman trapped in a nightmare, desperately trying to surface for air), it’s fair to say the script here affords Johnson a more fascinating Susie Bannion on the page. Kagjanich scatters a laconic, elliptical backstory for her via flitting flashbacks and nightmares, and Johnson’s turn is somewhat cagey: there’s naturally the almost blank, doe-eyed innocence of a girl leaving rural Ohio for Berlin, but something more disconcerting and wry lurks behind her eyes too. You never quite trust this Susie Bannion, whose ascent in the ranks comes with a crooked smile that undercuts that small town virtue. Between this and Bad Times at the El Royale, Johnson delivered a pair of definitively shifty performances in 2018, and she remains an impressive talent on the rise.
Swinton is the center of the film’s gravity, however, turning in three distinct roles here. Her most conventional turn has her assuming the mantle of Madame Blanc, the school’s revered headmistress. It’s a perhaps unexpectedly warm turn, as Blanc almost becomes a surrogate mother to Susie, guiding her and perhaps even protecting her from the coven’s sinister intentions. An obvious iciness also undergirds the performance: like Susie, there’s always the sense that Blanc is also hiding something—only, in this case, the audience knows the foul workings of the coven.
In fact, the script completely pulls back the curtain on this devious cabal, allowing a glimpse into the politicking and bickering as they elect a new leader and debate about which girl will be taken as a sacrifice in place of the missing Patricia. It’s one of the redux’s more unexpected developments, one that further insists on the its verisimilitude: apparently, Kagjanich has said he finds horror to be more effective when it’s believable, and the script reflects that to an almost belabored degree for those of us who believe the opposite. Lifting the veil and finding that the monster essentially holds board meetings is downright odd—though it is in complete defiance of the original, which—Udo Kier’s exposition dump aside—resists the idea that this coven is in any way earthly.
Also unexpected is Swinton’s turn as Klemperer, an intriguing choice that feels like it could have fit snugly into the original film. There’s just something slightly uncanny about it: almost immediately, you can spot that this is an actor buried beneath makeup, delivering a slightly off-kilter performance. Once you realize it’s Swinton, you almost expect it to lead somewhere—perhaps some wild twist or revelation—that never comes. Instead, it eventually becomes clear that Swinton and the filmmakers are playing this straight: Klemperer simply is as he appears, a heartbroken widower who brings a staggeringly humane dimension to the film.
His quest to discover his wife’s fate dovetails with his investigation into the coven, not only because the witches lure him with her apparition (Jessica Harper in a nice nod) but also because his eventual abduction reveals a thematic crux of victimized women and the men who ignore them. The witches berate Klemperer for not listening to Patricia and the other girls who bring him concerns, then force him to watch their unholy ritual unfold in the bowels of the school. Here, he bears witness to the heretofore mysterious Helena Markos (Swinton again, this time buried under even more latex as a bloated, almost distended demonic creature), who looks to feast upon Susie and her friends to extend her already unnaturally long life—at least until the thing goes completely off-page with a plot twist that muddies the waters a bit.
However you take it, something does come into focus here, a certain irony in the realization that, for all its grasping at profundity and meaning, Suspiria is still at its best when it’s simply elemental. Guadagnino fashions his own menagerie of nightmares, some of which would feel right at home in Argento’s own phantasmagoria: shots of girls creeping down halls, discovering secret passageways and other gruesome findings. Rather than recreate the original’s iconic murder sequences, he crafts his own indelible sequences of brutality, leaning on horrific imagery, Thom Yorke’s haunting (and, again, comparatively restrained) score, and an array of impressively diabolical gore effects. One girl’s body unnaturally contorts against itself, falling victim to the witches’ curse, leaving her in a lifeless, mangled heap; other victims aren’t so lucky, as they’re left rot in the school’s hidden passageways, their skin seemingly flayed off. Horrific, scattered bursts are but preludes to the blood-soaked crescendo, where exploding heads play like staccato grace notes of a twisted concerto.
Guadagnino clearly revels in this outrageous climax and mostly cedes to the primal ecstasy of Suspiria: this, perhaps, is the sort of bold, lucid hysteria one expects from a film bearing this title. Not that he completely loses the thematic threads woven up until this point, with the motifs of toxic motherhood and rebellion resurfacing briefly from the bloodshed, along with newly-introduced notions of mercy and forgiveness. Even when it’s at the height of its gory indulgence, Suspiria at least has an eye trained towards inspiring something more than just horrified awe—it remains thought provoking, even as bodies eviscerate as if they’re part of a carefully sequenced pyrotechnics display. This Suspiria might not be about ballet any more than its predecessor was, but Guadagino and company take direction form the artform, especially here with the most grandiose, operatic ritual sequence committed to film.
Whether or not it endures beyond that awe and actually manages to be about something is debatable. At first blush, many of those thematic threads become tangled or serve as embellishments at best. If you squint hard enough, the shadow of the Holocaust, Susie’s abusive upbringing, and the German Autumn do messily congeal to reveal the horrors of how repression and denial birth new monsters into the world. Often, these monsters victimize women, and yet it’s interesting how the actual monsters here are also a coven of witches, a notion that calls attention to the self-perpetuated toxicity of womanhood. There’s also the unexpected specter of forgiveness haunting the epilogue, though even that involves an act of mercy and forgetfulness that seems to fly in the face of what the film has to say about repression. Suspiria is a jumble of contradictions, and I hesitate to say it doesn’t work—this is a dense film that almost demands another pass to in order to determine if its themes come into better focus.
One that is quite evident is the running theme of rebellion, as various characters—including the unseen R.A.F. resistance fighters—engage in upsetting the apple cart, so to speak. Patricia—and, later, some of her friends—literally absconds the school, while Susie’s presence upends everything; strife and in-fighting define the coven, whose warring factions fall along the lines of tradition and radicalism. And then there’s Guadagnino himself engaging in perhaps the ultimate act of rebellion (some might say sacrilege) in daring to tackle Suspiria in the first place. In doing so, he’s certainly fashioned his own, distinct puzzle box that functions much differently than its predecessor: in trying to find meaning in Argento’s technicolor dreamscape, he gets lost in his own funhouse, where the audience is invited to also be bewildered.
He inspires a different sort of bewilderment than Argento: where the original Suspiria is an unfiltered nightmare, this one sometimes feels more like a therapy session that attempts to parse nightmare logic. It is not entirely successful, perhaps because nightmares aren’t meant to be neatly and tidily understood. In an ironic, almost roundabout way, Guagadino actually upholds and reconfirms the hypnotic elusiveness of Argento, as this Suspiria ultimately feels like the shards of some half-remembered dream, here shored against the ruins of history and multiple generations longing to find meaning in a cruel, horrific world. After all, as Madame Blanc intones to Susie: "when you dance the dance of another, you make yourself in the image of its creator."
It might not be quite as spellbinding, but this Suspiria cannot be easily dismissed as any other, more conventional remake. While I can’t imagine it ever replacing the original, I also cannot imagine it simply trailing off into the ether and being forgotten like so many of its contemporaries.
Suspiria arrives on Blu-ray later this week courtesy of Amazon Studios and Lionsgate Home Entertainment. Special features include a trio of behind-the-scenes featurette focusing on the film's production.
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