Tremble, Tremble!!! The Witches are Back…
Remakes can be controversial, especially in the horror genre. The fandom around genre classics can get territorial, defensive over their nostalgia, enraged at the very idea of a new “insert film here”. When Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria was announced, there was a very particular type of confused rage. Guadagnino is no hack, his films are rich and expressive, heartfelt, well written…what was a guy like that doing with one of the keystones of Italian genre cinema? Dario Argento’s Suspiria is in every way an “experience” film, a staggering work of audio-visual terror saturated in lurid colouring and phantasmagorical thrills. You don’t so much watch Suspiria, it happens to you. That’s a very tough type of film to update.
Listen for the Whispers
Which is why he doesn’t really bother trying to capture Argento’s famous colour palette or replicate the simplistic fairy tale quality of the original’s story. From the get-go, Suspiria 2018 is a world poised on the verge of great change; Dakota Johnston’s mousy American Susie settles into the alien atmosphere of a Cold War Europe; soldiers fill the streets, citizens are disappearing left right and centre, and the Berlin Wall casts a dark shadow over the faded grandeur of an old Deco dance academy. Here, be witches.
Or so says Chloe Grace Moretz’s seemingly paranoid dance school runaway Patricia, seen in the film’s opening act divulging her theories to dubious psychiatrist Josef Klemperer. She soon disappears without a trace. Whilst the old man investigates the academy, Susie sets out on her own journey of discovery.
Sub plots around Klemperer’s long-lost wife, Susie’s shuttered upbringing in rural America, and the backdrop of the iron curtain, all seek to flesh out the bare-bones of Argento’s witchy fantasy. Whilst some of the story arcs don’t quite fruit, they do serve Guadagnino’s purpose in shifting the film’s core focus towards conflict and systems of power. Not just that, but it’s a film which actively characterises dance as a form of witchcraft, as opposed to the practice being a backdrop. One of the film’s crowning achievements in macabre comes as a girl is nightmarishly contorted by an unknowing fellow pupil’s performance right next door. As the dance becomes more and more frantic, the girl’s body is savaged and snapped in the kind of body horror scenes that would make Cronenberg wince. Like Alex Garland’s Annihilation, Guadagnino’s Suspiria plays with loss of self and the blurring of boundaries between women’s bodies and minds. Both films take this blurring as the herald of some terrifying, but not necessarily bad, change in the natural order.
Perfection Commands Sacrifice
The most exciting prospect of the new Suspiria was the casting of Tilda Swinton as Madam Blanc, the school’s mysterious artistic director. Guadagnino and Swinton have long been a powerhouse professional pairing, each mining the other for exquisite cinematic opportunity. By now, you will have heard of Swinton’s dual role in the film, a decision which even now, after loving the film, doesn’t sit right. For Guadagnino, it’s an opportunity to say all of its key characters are played by women. For Swinton its another excuse to drastically transform herself for her art. But does the film benefit from the choice? Not really. Depending on how you take it, Swinton’s transparent turn as an old German man could be a fun gimmick, or misstep in the films’ polemic discourse.
Consider it: Guadagnino’s Suspiria is a film about conflict and matriarchy, sisterhood and dangerous archaic power structures. Sure, you can say all the key players in Suspiria are played by women, but what does it say when one of the film’s main characters is male, played by a woman? Why not just have Swinton play two female charcters? Or, better still, why not have Jessica Harper as the central charcter, desperately seeking her lost husband, as opposed to vice versa? Harper’s cameo is a total gem, though and a welcome moment of nostalgia. It feels like a bit of a slap in the face, especially when you think one of the film’s actual many fantastic female performers was squashed off the poster, just so Guadagnino could include a fake male actor’s name.
The Beauty Hides the Blood
Gone are the vibrant colours of Argento’s fever dream, drained away to a murky, earthy, residue of beiges and browns. The iconic Goblin score, which fans rightfully touted as irreplaceable, has been…replaced. Radiohead’s Thom Yorke steps up to the plate offering a winding, eerie composure and a stunning centre piece song, Suspirium. Guadagnino is far more careful with the story, and reserved with his schlock, than Argento ever was. The result is that, though heady and worth mulling over, Guadagnino’s feels far more immediately rewarding by the closing credits, and way more visceral.
Aside from problematic theory around the film’s gimmick, there’s little to fault Suspiria for. The pacing is impeccable, the cast is pristine, the scares are careful, insidious, and often shocking, and the payoff instantly iconic. Technically it’s one of the finest marriages of text and form in 2018 cinema. The benchmark is high for genre this year.
Dir. Luca Guadagnino
Stars. Dakota Johnston, Tilda Swinton, Chloe Grace Moretz, Doris Hick, Malgorzata Bela, Angela Winkler, Alex Wek, Mia Goth