When I first learned about this film I was filled with great apprehension. There is only one way to remake a classic, and that is to make something new. You must let it stand or fall on its own. Dario Argento’s masterpiece was less about the story and more about the visuals. Luca Guadagnino has not only gone for something different, he’s done it with a different tone and feel that makes it a completely different kind of movie. If you’re having some hesitation whether or not you should see it first, you might want to read on.
Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria from 2018, based on the screenplay by David Kajganich and characters created by Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi, is a movie re-imagined from Dario Argento’s Suspiria from 1977. It is not made frame by frame, is doesn’t pay homage or tribute nor does it cower from the original’s shadow. Instead, it attempts to do its own thing acknowledging that the original exists. The premise is similar but the focus is completely different and the story develops to a different crescendo.
I reviewed Dario Argento’s Suspiria for its 4K restoration back in Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival 2017. Back then, I said it was all about the bright, vivid colors and the sounds. Guadagnino has obviously seen the original but he’s not as shy with the dialog and the story. His main leads are the newcomer dancer, Suzy Bannion (Dakota Johnson), the veteran dance instructor, Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), and an aging psychologist, Dr. Josef Klemperer (Lutz Ebersdorf – which is an alias for Swinton).
The action takes place in the divided Berlin of 1977. I will let you guess which side of the wall we’re on. The first thing you will notice if you’re looking for the original (which you shouldn’t, but you can’t help it) is that the color palette is muted. There’s no primary colors at all. The world of this Suspiria looks worn, aged, old and corrupted. Don’t expect Goblin to show up in the soundtrack. This movie does have striking visuals but of a different nature. Horror will be dark rather than bright but it will remain shocking.
In this new incarnation, the dance school is still a front for a witch coven. However, it’s the dancing that will take prominence here, as it is the medium and the purpose to the story (and the way the coven casts their spells, it seems). The dance style is aggressive, shocking. It feels like we’re watching a martial arts combat to the point that moves feel and sound more like blows. Here’s also where I managed to shed a bias that I had for Dakota Johnson’s acting skills. She does a lot of her own dancing in the movie. There is a professional dancer doubling for her on some scenes, but when she needs to dance she is convincing enough for the role.
The end result is a reinterpretation of a classic that has its own tone, and the style of horror is more corporeal, more visceral and surprisingly sparse. Guadagnino saves most of the gore for one climatic scene. The payback becomes anti-climatic because unlike Argento’s original ending cut, Guadagnino commits the ultimate sin of wrapping up some loose threads with an epilogue and a dialog full of exposition for the sake of one character.
I couldn’t manage to care enough about the third lead, Dr. Joseph Klemperer aka Lutz Ebersdorf aka Tilda Swinton. because of all the makeup. I didn’t recognize Swinton underneath the layers of the disguise but I can recognize a person with a ton of makeup on. Swinton does a great performance as Madame Blanc. Her other two roles in this film were not as memorable – or perhaps they were memorable for the wrong reasons. And yes, she has a third role that I can’t tell you about because it’s a major spoiler.
The movie announces itself as six acts and an epilogue. I don’t think all acts work in capturing the audience’s attention. There’s a long lull in there. The initial shots contain some interesting camera work, but nothing resembling the vivid sets and crazy shots of the original. There seems to be an overabundance of characters, but surprisingly not a lot of stories to tell, although a lot are hinted. Some real world scenarios are in the background, including a possible terrorist subplot that gets lost somewhere. Then there’s a story about the Dr. Joseph Klemperer’s wife Anka’s disappearance which only has one thing going for it: Anka is played by Jessica Harper, the lead actress who played Suzy Bannion in the original film.
The new Suspiria works on a different spectrum than the original, and the results are mixed. It’s not the same film. This version avoids the extremes from the original to the point of ignoring some lessons in horror film making. That is to say, the movie does go on a bit too long. After delivering one horrific scene, the movie promises more horrors but waits a little too long in the delivery. I’m all for a slow burn, but the candle seems go out after a while. The movie seems to make it up for all the waiting with the climatic scene, but when it doesn’t end there and we literally see the aftermath it does feel like a concert movie where the director has decided to include the stage being disassembled at the end as part of the film.
Recommended with a lot of reservations. It’s flawed but it’s not bad. Don’t expect Argento’s masterpiece here, that would be an unfair comparison either way. There’s some quality at its core but some aspects really needed not to be included in a movie that feels longer that it is. Guadagnino does succeed in making a film that feels like an inspired but not copycat creation from the same source. I’m not sure I can recommend it to a fan of the original, since it embraces much of what Argento was avoiding. The result might be a mixed bag, but still one you might want to sample.
That will do for now.