Cast: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth, Lutz Ebersdorf, Angela Winkler, Ingrid Caven, Elena Fokina, Sylvie Testud, Renée Soutendijk, Chloë Grace Moretz, Jessica Harper
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Running time: 2 hours 32 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
One could say, if they were being charitable, that Luca Guadagnino’s remake/reimagining/cover version of Dario Argento’s 1977 classic Suspiria goes so far into its own direction as to be admirable. Whereas Argento’s film was an operatic fusion of dream logic and bright red gushing blood untethered to narrative coherency, Guadagnino’s take is downbeat, austere, and attempting to ground itself in reality. Argento used violence as an exaggerated series of garish images; a primal call to embrace the ludicrous exhilaration which the horror genre can attain. By comparison, the new Suspiria is self-serious nonsense made by talented people which fails to deliver on even the most basic horror movie level.
Having all the hallmarks of a passion project, Guadagnino’s film is overlong, meandering, and overstuffed with plot. Taking the skeletal narrative of the original and then diving into world-building isn’t inherently a mistake, but one has to parse through what the filmmaker has added here and question its existence. While it’s laudable Guadagnino refuses to ape Argento’s Giallo style (which would have been reductive), he nonetheless layers in pastiche of another sort. There’s a heavy Rainer Werner Fassbinder influence here; from the drab late 70’s Berlin setting to the use of crash zooms, but without the German wunderkind’s perverse humor and affinity for actors. Meanwhile, the fractured editing and kitschy post-production slow motion brings to mind the work of avant-garde filmmakers like Peter Greenaway and Derek Jarman. And if one is looking for less obscure influences, there’s a specific deep focus shot that’s ripped straight out of Brian De Palma’s Obsession. However, unlike De Palma, who often uses pastiche as a means for lurid entertainment value, Guadagnino seems almost terrified of entertaining the audience.
Suspiria is not a film about Susie (Dakota Johnson, purposefully affectless), the talented Mennonite dancer from Ohio who arrives at the Markos Dance Academy in Berlin, circa 1977. Nor is it about Susie’s relationship with Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton, purposefully morose), her tightly wound teacher. The role of witchcraft, so prevalent in Argento’s original, is also not that important here, replaced by Guadagnino’s interest in political machinations. The film is really about Dr. Josef Klemperer (Swinton again, purposefully old and boring), a psychiatrist whose wife went missing during the Holocaust, and whose used here primarily as a narrative device to represent past atrocities. In fact, Guadagnino spends so much time with Klemperer as he investigates tales of witchcraft at the dance academy, that Suspiria could have alternately been titled Senior Coven Sleuth: The Movie, but that would also require a film with a sense of humor.
Every once in a while, Guadagnino finds a particular image or sequence that works; such as an extended dance scene using jagged cross-cutting and bone-snapping grotesquerie. However, as viscerally effective as such moments are, they are never tied to anything remotely compelling from either a character or narrative standpoint. They simply exist, devoid of the one thing that a truly great horror film can achieve; a sense of psychic dread. Suspiria is too formally up its own ass to care about involving us in this way; its badge of courage rests in pivoting away from base horror signifiers and talking down to an audience wanting genre thrills.
As Klemperer’s investigation begins to take the focus away from Susie’s dealings with the witches, Guadagnino’s real obsessions start to take center stage. Klemperer’s personal misery is a thematic sign-post about never forgetting the horrible atrocities human beings are capable of throughout history, and this exposition-heavy messaging completely derails the film. Meanwhile, Thom Yorke’s slowcore music is also a problem; especially when he starts morosely crooning over montages which feel utterly disproportionate to one another. Yes, it would have been a miscalculation to try and emulate Goblin’s brilliant prog-rock score from the original, but the Radiohead singer’s contributions here feel overly ostentatious.
As Suspiria draws to a close; complete with a bafflingly laughable (not in a good camp way) finale where the blood finally starts gushing, the film’s interest in Nazism, political violence, half-hearted nods to feminism, and (gulp) old man confessionals regarding dead wives tips the scales into the realm of embarrassment. What this Suspiria lacks is sensuality, danger, psychological insight, and horrific imagery linked to the kind of terror which tingles the spine (no, Holocaust metaphors don’t really fit the bill). Instead, we get a turgid, scare-free Red Army Faction/Lufthansa Flight 181 hijacking history lesson along with some leftover body horror scraps to nibble on. Sadly, the only spell cast by Guadagnino here is a steadily building sense of boredom.