(By Matt Konopka) It wasn’t too long ago that horror fans received the stunning news that our beloved Suspiria (1977) would be receiving the (inevitable) remake treatment. You can take our Prom Night and our When a Stranger Calls, but you may never take our Suspiria! But they did, and this past weekend saw the limited release of the update. Fans, including myself, have considered the original Suspiria to not only be a great horror film, but a masterpiece. So, did its modern sister live up to the pedigree?...
…Based on the film from Italian horror master Dario Argento (Tenebrae), this new Suspiria is directed by Luca Guadagnino (Call Me by Your Name) and written by David Kajganich (The Terror TV series). The film follows Susie (Dakota Johnson), an American girl who travels across the world to become part of a world-renowned dance company where she will be taught by her idol, Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). Soon though, she, along with her fellow dancers, begin to learn that everything is not as it seems, and that the company may in fact be run by witches with a sinister purpose.
This film is going to disappoint a lot of people. But it’s also going to blow a lot of audiences away. And that’s exactly how it should be with a remake. While Suspiria is not my favorite Argento film (that honor goes to Tenebrae), I have always held the film in a high regard, because when I was younger, this was one of the films that changed the way I look at horror movies. They weren’t just fun, guilty pleasures that I loved. They were art. Through his use of just about every color in the rainbow, Argento made a film that was, on one hand, a violent gore fest, and on the other, a beautiful depiction of death the way only a genius could see it. Many filmmakers have tried to copy Argento’s style in this film, and all have failed. Director Luca Guadagnino knows that, and has taken an intelligent approach to the source material in a way that has allowed him to create his own artistic masterpiece without trying to replicate its source material.
This is not your parents’ Suspiria film. Where the original was a celebration of death through color, this remake is about rebirth through pain and punishment, represented by a dark, drab setting. Very rarely is it not raining outside, and much of the set design emanates in harsh tones of red, brown, and grey. Kajganich litters the script with characters reflective of the dreary tone. Dakota Johnson is utterly captivating as our heroine Susie, a young woman escaping a tortured past with no idea where she is going, but full of every ounce of will she needs to be able to sacrifice in order to get there. You also have Tilda Swinton’s character, Blanc, a surprisingly cautious witch dealing with the misery of the route her coven has taken, and Dr. Josef Klemperer (also brilliantly played by Swinton), an old man struggling with the loss of his wife years ago, attempting to occupy himself with anything to escape the pain of not knowing what happened to her, in this case, by trying to uncover the mysteries at the dance company.
The deep-seeded torment which each of the characters goes through in the film hit me in a way that is completely absent from Argento’s original. Even Chloe Grace Moretz making a brief appearance as Patricia is wonderfully uncomfortable to watch in her display of fear and paranoia early on in the film. Guadagnino and Kajganich have brought a depth to this version, giving us characters who we deeply care about, that are engaging and likeable in such a way that my body tensed up every time I thought something might happen to them. The performances are so good in this film, that I could easily hand a Best Supporting Actress Oscar to Tilda Swinton right now and feel great about it, and she isn’t even the scene-stealing star of the show. That goes to Johnson who, hopefully between this and her role in Bad Times at the El Royale, can finally silence her critics and prove her range goes far beyond films like Fifty Shades of Grey. Johnson is a force of fucking mother nature in Suspiria. The way she moves, speaks, and expresses herself through her eyes, it’s like being entranced by a dance version of a siren song. Come awards season, if Johnson isn’t nominated, Hollywood has failed. Mark my words, she will be.
Pain is the glue that holds everything together in Suspiria. It’s actually quite astounding in the way that Guadagnino manages to achieve the same effect as the original, but in a different way. Argento’s film mesmerized audiences with his unique look at the macabre beauty of death. Guadagnino takes a vastly different approach, showing us the pain in death, but with much the same effect. The remake of Suspiria focuses much less time on kill scenes, but when it does, the moment is downright cringe-worthy. During one particular scene involving a girl in a dance studio, I felt like that kid in that episode of The Simpsons when Homer impersonates Krusty and beats up their version of “the hamburgler”, to the point where the kid cries “Stop. Stop. He’s already dead”. These few scenes of death are so excruciatingly painful that they are eerily enthralling. I couldn’t look away. Just like the original, the violence in this new Suspiria comes with a purpose, and is truly art in every sense of the word, but in their own way.
And yes, the film is still horrifying, but in a much less “fun” sense than the 77 version. The score is actually the perfect representation of this. I’ve always felt Goblin’s original score has this sort of haunted house vibe to it, the kind of place where it’s fun to scream in the dark and laugh with your friends at the over-the-top or cheesy horror surrounding you. That’s a compliment to Goblin, just so we’re all aware. But in this new version, Thom Yorke’s score does not take center stage the way Goblin’s does, that memorable theme drumming in our ears every so often. Instead, Yorke’s score becomes a haunting piece of the film, fitting in perfectly without ever distracting from the scene. Like everything else in Suspiria, the sometimes somber, sometimes chilling score sets the mood for what is ultimately a heavy film that will challenge audiences emotionally and push them to their boundaries.
Interestingly enough, despite ideas of witches, horrific monsters, and otherworld obsession prevalent throughout, Guadagnino and his team attempt to make it all feel as natural as possible. Argento had much more of a focus on the horror, building up the mystery of what was happening with an array of strange effects and bloody kills, and sinister eyes appearing in windows. The filmmakers seem to understand that any viewer stepping into this new rendition of Suspiria already knows we’re dealing with witches, so instead of waste time in revealing who the villains are, Guadagnino tries to make them feel like real people with lives outside of witchcraft, and he succeeds. The fact that a coven of witches resides within the walls of the dance company is revealed much earlier than expected, and allows the filmmakers to continuously revisit the witches in their natural settings. They still retain the same mythology as Argento’s version, with a belief in three witch mothers not unlike gods among them, but whether they’re killing, showing mercy, or just joking around and having a good time, we see them as characters that go beyond the label of what they are. This allows the audience to buy into what’s going on a much deeper level than in Argento’s film, and we have to, because this Suspiria is not a version which spoon feeds it’s audience. If Argento’s film is a masterpiece of B-horror sensibilities, then Guadagnino’s film is the arthouse horror through realism piece.
There are going to be devoted fans of the original Suspiria who absolutely hate this film. It does so much the same, but in such a different way, that it bears little resemblance its counterpart. Some viewers will likely be put off by intense scenes/images of violence and the discomforting feeling of pain and sadness which latches itself on early and won’t let go, but for those that can push past all of that, Suspiria is a unique piece of arthouse horror that will mystify, shock, and inspire fans everywhere. At two and a half hours, Guadagnino takes his time with the pacing, creating a film which moves slowly but with a clear goal in mind, all leading to a finale which is the most mind-boggling display of art, blood and horror that you will see this year.
Suspiria releases in theaters everywhere November 2nd.
By Matt Konopka