Five Frights of Halloween: Suspiria (2018)
It’s safe to say that Luca Guadagnino isn’t too concerned with following the path of least resistance in the movie business. The director of last year’s awards darling Call Me By Your Name, the film that established young Timothee Chalamet as the newest up and coming Hollywood star, seems like the sort of blank check that could get Guadagnino any job he wanted.
So why did he take that opportunity to remake Suspiria, Dario Argento’s classic 1977 slice of giallo horror? Well, because he could, apparently. Stepping into Jessica Harper’s shoes as Susie, the American ballet student poised to join a prestigious German dance academy (known only as Tanz) with sinister goings on behind every corner is Dakota Johnson, no stranger to Guadagnino after working with him on A Bigger Splash. Joining her as one of the directors of the academy, Madame Blanc, is another Guadagnino standby (and A Bigger Splash) costar, Tilda Swinton. It doesn’t take long for Susie to realize something is up; the troupe’s star dancer, Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz) has gone missing, and Susie’s new friend, Sara (Mia Goth), seems convinced there are sinister goings on deep in the bowels of the building. At the same time, a psychotherapist who treated Patricia and dismissed concerns about the academy as delusions (credited as Lutz Ebersdorf, but actually Swinton in enough makeup to look pretty convincingly like an 80 year old man), begins to suspect foul play when his patient goes missing.
There’s plenty that links this new version of Suspiria to Argento’s original, but to call it a remake would be unkind. Sure, the broad strokes are there; the American ballet student comes to Germany and discovers that a coven of witches are controlling the school with aims to sacrifice her to rejuvenate their leader. Beyond that, though, it’s pretty clear Guadagnino (alongside writer David Kajganich) is far more interested in forging his own path. The running time certainly metes that out, weighing in at close to a full hour longer than its progenitor. He also seems to have loftier artistic aspirations, referring to the film as “Six Acts and an Epilogue Set in Divided Berlin” in the opening titles. And yes, it is set at a ballet school, but the dance performances of the film are guttural, violent performance art, having little to do with the plies and pirouettes of your standard ballet routine. This ain’t your daddy’s Suspiria.
Indeed, the story of this new Suspiria isn’t the only way it breaks from its traditions. Like Argento, Guadagnino employs a contemporary rock artist to supply the score. But the music, from Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, cuts far closer to a traditional horror soundtrack than Italian prog rock band Goblin’s 1978 score, save a few traditional songs here and there. It’s excellent work, mind, full of cacophonous sounds, tinged with a fair bit of John Carpenter synths and squealing strings that fully take advantage of a good theater’s surround sound. Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom makes a concerted effort to differentiate Tanz from the outside world. Outside shots tend to be slow and stately, taking in the scenery of a segregated Berlin that hasn’t had the opportunity to recover from war and occupation. But once the action moves inside, Mukdeeprom’s camera comes alive, panning and zooming all over the confined spaces and using mirrors to play tricks on the eye. The wild colors that made Argento’s film so striking have been replaced by browns and slate greys and oppressive precipitation. It’s more realistic in that sense (this isn’t a haunted fun house the way Argento’s academy was, even with hallways and rooms chock full of floor to ceiling mirrors), but that doesn’t make the action any less horrific or fantastical.
Make no mistake, the horror bona fides of this new Suspiria are on full display. This is a brutal and nasty piece of work when it wants to be, and while the initial body count pales in comparison to the buckets of neon blood Argento spilled, Guadagnino more than makes up for it in ingenuity and inspiration. Apocalyptic, seizure-like dream sequences hint at the darkness and evil within. The horror is about bodies and bones, about weight and tension that snaps sinew and contorts torsos and makes joints do things they never should. It's debased and profane, not about catharsis but endurance and what happens when your endurance gives out. You have to look away because the camera never does. And in a grand, operatic bloody climax, Guadagnino fully embraces the legacy of his master, flips on the red lights and goes for it. It turns out that there's more than a little bit of your daddy's Suspiria in there after all.
With Dakota Johnson, Guadagnino has found an excellent lead to take up Harper’s mantle. We learn more about her character here than we did in the 70s (you’d have to, really, what with the extra hour of screen time), which makes her more of a fully formed character than a vessel against which to inflict horror. She transitions from this shy, unsure of herself outsider into a being of preternatural confidence with the inhumanity that the movie needs to make the case for the power of the witches behind her transformation. Swinton, in her recognizable role, is unsurprisingly a perfect fit, tall and lithe and gaunt, able to command a room with little more than a look. Of course she’s a witch. Just look at her. And in her other major role, she brings a surprising affection to this doddering old man, the audience’s closest surrogate who looks in on the madness from outside and can’t quite comprehend what he’s seeing. Rounding out the main cast, Mia Goth continues her string of alluring and aloof characters in incredibly weird movies (see also: A Cure for Wellness, Nymphomaniac) and Moretz impresses in the few scenes she has to work with. And the gaggle of ladies that form the core of the coven are a wild bunch indeed, each bringing their own unique strengths to the table.
Where Suspiria falters at times is Guadagnino’s desire to stuff as much content into the proceedings as he does. There are some unnecessary subplots about the Holocaust and terrorists in Berlin that provide some color and may not actively detract from the core story, but are certainly superfluous. And he delves deeper than he arguably needs to into the extended backstory Argento padded out in Inferno and The Mother of Tears. But, in a way, the excessive subplotting fits into Guadagnino’s overall scheme. This film is all about excess. Excessive choreography, excessive sound design, excessive makeup and excessive violence. There’s nothing more excessive than having Tilda Swinton play an octogenarian and making up a nonexistent actor to cover up her credit (and that doesn’t even take into account her third role in the film). Guadagnino is all in on making this thing as crazy as he possibly can, and that confidence, that belief in everyone and everything involved in mounting this film of overflowing ambition, oozes out of every frame.
It goes without saying that this new Suspiria is not for everyone. That makes sense, the old Suspiria wasn’t exactly a crossover genre star the way some horror films leak into the mainstream. It’s too long, too weird, too violent, too precious and self-consciously arty (it’s got chapter headings, for god’s sake), too depraved for wide swaths of the public. But it’s another case of Amazon taking a flier on an otherwise unmarketable film with horror elements from a respected director (looking at you, The Neon Demon and The Handmaiden). But this is beyond both of those movies. It’s sumptuous and sexy and also not even remotely sexy all at the same time. It’s an audio visual overload, a feast for the eyes and the ears that might make your stomach hurt from overindulging in the macabre, but it’s worth the pain. It’s tempting to get caught up in the comparison game when a beloved classic film is remade. Sure, we didn’t need a new Suspiria, and making a new movie and calling it Suspiria puts more than a little bit of pressure on the shoulders of the filmmaker who makes the active choice to invoke Argento’s seminal horror film. But Guadagnino, with a remarkably insane final product, passes the test with flying colors, making an opus that lives up to the past and forges a new path all at the same time. There’s a high bar for entry here, but it’s one that provides untold treasures for clearing. The only option is to give your soul to the dance.