The fall of 2018 has been notable for a lot of reasons to a lot of people. One of the things it might be remembered for a bit less than others is that it was the year when two remakes/reboots of classic horror movies from the late 70s went head to head against each other. One, Halloween (2018) was a remake of an American slasher classic that had become a household name after several sequels and numerous imitators. That reboot (technically sequel) was made with the backing of horror super producer Jason Blum and has now made more a hundred and fifty million dollars at the box office. The other film I’m thinking of is a bit of a different beast. That film would be the movie Suspiria, a remake of the 1977 Italian film of the same name. The original Suspiria is very well known among horror aficionados but to most average movie goers it’s a pretty deep cut and even if it was more well-known I’m not sure that Luca Guadagnino’s new interpretation of it is probably not made for the masses, which is probably part of why it’s looking like it will leave theaters without so much as making two million dollars. For film/horror fans Guadagino’s film may be the bigger must-see of the two films given that it’s coming hot off the heels of Guadagino’s Call Me By Your Name and it seems to be doing some pretty radical and interesting things with Dario Argento’s original film.
Like Argento’s original film this remake is set in West Germany in 1977 and focuses in on an American teenager named Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) who has been accepted into a prestigious German ballet academy called the Markos Dance Academy. As she arrives the school is in a bit of tumult because of the disappearance of a student named Patricia Hingle (Chloë Grace Moretz). As an audience we know a bit more about Hingle than Bannion does as we saw her confiding to her psychologist Josef Klemperer (played by Tilda Swinton in heavy makeup) prior to her disappearance that she has seen a whole lot of really strange things happening at this academy. Bannion, oblivious to all this, begins trying to impress her teacher Madame Blanc (also Tilda Swinton). Meanwhile, she meets other students named Olga Ivanova (Elena Fokina) and Sara Simms (Mia Goth) who are suspicious about what happened to Hingle and begin looking into their teachers who we increasingly come to realize are part of a coven of witches that are in the midst of some sort of internal power struggle that their unsuspecting students are in the middle of.
When you think of the original Suspiria the first thing that will come to just about anyone’s mind is Luciano Tovoli’s gorgeous cinematography, which used a very wide frame and some rather extreme colored lighting to create a sort of dream like (or rather nightmare like) vision. For his remake Guadagino has opted not to even try to match that look and has instead gone for more naturalistic cinematography. He also isn’t using Goblin’s famous score and has instead tapped Radiohead’s Thom Yorke to do a distinctly different though certainly interesting in its own right score. So we basically have a remake of a movie that is largely known for the way it looks and sounds which doesn’t retain either the look or the sound. Instead the main thing the movie seems to retain is actually the story and concept, which is a pretty bold choice given that the script was easily the weakest element of that original film… or from another perspective it was the element most in need of improvement.
The plot of the new Suspiria is told in a more straightforward way than that of the original, which was rife with strange character motivations and at times felt like little more than an excuse to show people being murdered in elaborate ways, but it adds to the mix a certain amount of its own brand of convolution. While watching it I found myself a bit lost as there are a lot of characters here and a lot of names that you need to attach faces to. By the film’s finale I was pretty actively confused by what was going on in the plot, though reading the film’s summary on Wikipedia after the fact did clarify a few things. I also found that some of the thematic additions that Guadagino added did not really add up. Guadagino for example seems to be way more interested in the fact that this story is set in Germany than Argento was. Guadagino goes to great lengths to point out that the film’s events were happening at the same time as the “German Autumn” in which the Baader-Meinhof group had hijacked a plane resulting in a great deal of political tumult and the film also deals with the German generational guilt over the events of the second world war through the Klemperer character… which is all plenty interesting but I haven’t the slightest clue how any of it really ties into the film’s main plot about a witches coven killing running a demonic ballet school. In fact I’m not terribly clear why the Klemperer character is in the movie at all. He ultimately has basically no effect on the plot and I haven’t the slightest clue why it was decided to have him be played by Tilda Swinton.
So, this new Suspiria is a rather curious piece of work. Few people who are unfamiliar with the original movie will find themselves interested in this one, and it’s also so different from that movie that it may very well also alienate the hardcore Argento fans. It also manages to be a too gory for the arthouse crowd and too artsy for the grindhouse crowd. So there’s already a pretty limited audience for the thing, and even someone like me who sort of fits into that small audience still found myself kind of confounded by a lot of it so it’s sort of apparent why this thing is more or less tanking at the box office. And yet, there’s a certain something to it. It’s various ambitions and over-reaches make it kind of fascinating and there are certain elements of the production that are kind of amazing. Swinton certainly does some impressive work in her triple role and if there’s any justice the movie will earn itself at least a nomination for best makeup effects at the Academy Awards. It’s also got some really well staged set pieces like a dance/murder scene early in the film and its gory finale is an amazing piece of filmmaking even though I kind of didn’t understand what the hell was going on. I can see this thing getting a bit of a devoted cult following in the years to come and I may well warm up to it myself over time, but for now I’m not quite ready to commit to any sort of strong support for it.
***1/2 out of Five