Rating: 3 out of 5
Remakes have an unfair burden in fans of the original who cannot separate the qualities and aesthetic of the original for a new vision offered by a different filmmaker. Luca Guadagnino ran into that problem this year when he released his update of Dario Argento’s 1977 horror classic Suspiria. I suspect many people who loved the original have condemned this latest edition because it lacks many of the things that were essential to not only Suspiria but the rest of Argento’s catalogue, ridiculous dialogue, over-saturated colors and of course a score by Italian prog-rock band Goblin (but sometimes Iron Maiden or Ennio Morricone, Argento is a weird dude). Guadagnino made the brilliant move to instead throw out everything we loved about the original except for it’s plot and recreate the story in his own inimitable style. While certainly not perfect (let’s be real though neither is the original, the dialogue was originally written for twelve year olds, Argento is a weird dude), this 2018 update of Suspiria is at the very least interesting, and if an auteur wants to remake this movie every forty years or so, count me in.
This recreation follows a similar path as the original in terms of basic design, a young American woman named, Susie (Dakota Johnson this time around), joins a German ballet company after another member, Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz), disappears. In the opening fifteen minutes of the original we see Patricia run away from the academy and brutally murdered before we even get the opportunity to know her. This time around we get to know her character immediately, Moretz plays this character with a manic nature that is simply enrapturing. The moment she hurdles herself into the office of psychologist Dr. Josef Klemperer (Tilda Swinton who also plays Madame Blanc and Helena Markos), the stakes are high, the quick cutting and use of montage in this scene is brilliant, she hears voices everywhere. Her character goes missing, however, the masterstroke that the story employs this time around is her fate, for much of the film, remains unclear. This is only the beginning of the mystery as a myriad of clues begin to pile up around Susie and her next door neighbor Sara (Mia Goth).
This film works for about an hour and forty five minutes, the intrigue and suspense keep ramping themselves up, however, they cannot sustain themselves under the weight of the answers to our questions. As everyone who enjoys mysteries knows, the best part is the build, often times the solutions can feel underwhelming or easy. The problem with the end of this film is the lengths screenwriter David Kajganich goes to say something. He purposefully places the story in divided Berlin under American and Russian occupation and attempts, very desperately to get across the point that we need to live with guilt and pain, that they are essential to our experience. This makes the conclusion exhausting, even adding an unnecessary epilogue to the finale that beats you over the head with it’s point in case you had missed it over the two and a half hour run time. So you won’t walk out of the theater with the best taste in your mouth.
Those initial one hundred and five minutes of film preceding the overbearing conclusion boast some fantastic direction from Guadagnino. He films the dance scenes as if the actresses are possessed, and the ladies of this dance troupe act accordingly. Their movements are sharp, intense but very precise, their gaze solid and firm. Johnson bares the majority of this work making for one of the most memorable audition scenes in recent memory, she blurs the line between possession and obsession. This is a commanding, physical performance. Not to mention Tilda Swinton who juggles three roles with ease, her Madame Blanc character in particular has an ominous power radiating from her throughout the film, it’s a dark, weathered kind of wisdom. Thom Yorke created the soundtrack this go around, and even the frontman of Radiohead was clearly daunted by the shoes he had to fill. Rest assured the soundtrack and direction are just as idiosyncratic as the original. The film plays an exciting game of ping pong between long, thoughtful wide shots, capturing these big, sprawling spaces and fast, snappy, close ups, tracking faces, movements, glances. The reaction shots from the assistant teachers surrounding Blanc in particular create a sense of pervasive unease, their eyes lust after Susie bursting with envy and perhaps just a bit of hunger.
So the movie doesn’t always work, but neither do any of Argento’s films, from The Bird With the Crystal Plumage to Deep Red to Tenebre all the way into his later masterpieces like Phenomena and Opera, they are all deeply flawed films that survive on their sheer commitment to the ridiculousness of their material. Guadagnino has subverted the task of remaking a beloved property from an individual filmmaker by avoiding the originals outlandish tendencies in favor of a coherent narrative. Now the screenwriter may have added a few layers to many to this tale but the ride is nonetheless a delight, the story at its base is so incorruptible that any director willing to have fun with a tale of witches running a dance academy and isn’t scared to be themselves in the process is capable of making a good horror movie.