Fantastic Fest Review: Luca Guadagnino's Intoxicating New 'Suspiria'
by Jeremy Kirk
September 24, 2018
We've long-since moved past the belief that all remakes, horror remakes in particular, are inherently bad. From John Carpenter's The Thing to David Cronenberg's The Fly and even as recently as Fede Alvarez's take on The Evil Dead, the horror remake is wide open in terms of quality and sense of purpose. Even so, the thought of a filmmaker bringing a new vision to a classic tale of horror is met with trepidation regardless of the quality of that filmmaker's previous work. Now we have Luca Guadagnino taking on Dario Argento and his classic tale of a witch's coven at a dance academy, Suspiria. In a nutshell, Guadagnino's take on the story is transcendent, taking all the best elements of Argento's classic, reworking them for improvement, and even fleshing out the things that didn't work in the 1977 film. It is sure to leave you breathless.
Dakota Johnson fills in for Jessica Harper in the main role of Susie Bannion, the young new American student at a distinguished dance company located in Berlin, 1977. Susie is filling in for another student who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. From the point of her arrival, a certain darkness seems to be lurking in the corridors of the school, and the teachers, chiefly Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), appear to be part of a close-knit society. Anyone who has seen the original Argento film knows the underlying horrors that await Susie as well as the other girls at the academy, horrors in the form of a coven of witches in control whose intentions are soon made known in abundance.
The apprehension that comes when a filmmaker chooses to make a new version of a beloved classic doesn't begin or end with mindless cash-grabs trying to make a quick buck. Even Gus Van Sant's version of Psycho was met with negativity due to the beat-for-beat retelling of Hitchcock's horror film. Guadagnino's Suspiria, from a screenplay by David Kajganich, falls under neither of these umbrellas, instead sifting through what worked in Argento's film and expanding on the overall narrative. This new Suspiria is its own beast entirely, the Call Me By Your Name director bringing about the same sense of nightmarish dread and delivering the same level of fever-dream imagery that made Argento's film so memorable.
At the same time, the new Suspiria tentacles the main story with elements of the revolutionary attitude that filled the air of the film's historical setting. Berlin in 1977 was a city divided, more so than by the wall that separated the community into East and West. The film brings that duality of mindsets into the walls of the academy, the coven of witches in control at odds with themselves as to how to proceed with their ritual.
I bring this last part up so freely, because Suspiria makes no bones about the nefarious plot at the center of the film. Guadagnino and Kajganich never shy away from this or keep it hidden from view. Instead, the new film rewards fans of the original, making the dangers in the school transparent from the outset. The film is informed by Argento's Suspiria, to the point that fans of the film are never ahead of the plot waiting for it to play catch-up. This does wonders in the expansion of the story, and everyone, those who love Argento's film as well as those who've never seen it, are sure to be rewarded for the time spent with this new film.
Guadagnino allows the story to play out in the most deliberate of paces. With a runtime of over 150 minutes, the viewer might fear the film will wear on their patience. Quite the contrary, as this extra time allows more freedom for the story to breathe, the characters to be well represented, and the subtext to bubble up under the proceedings with near-flawless results. Where Argento's film was a dreamlike tale of bloody horror told through the lens of every color imaginable, Guadagnino's film is a meditative, feverish nightmare that builds to a gloriously macabre crescendo. The horror elements pop up here and there, and they only help to serve the story being told about struggles of power and how little the world outside can do to stop it all.
Filling the role of Susie, Dakota Johnson brings a strength that wasn't as evident in the 1977 original film but is a much better fit for the story being told this time around. She's curious about the underlying dangers at work in the school, but, unlike Harper's performance, she never appears overwhelmed by the threat. Instead, Johnson pounds the part into her own sense of submission, her physical and emotional attributes expanding on the character as well as the rest of the film.
Swinton is also doing masterful work here, her Madame Blanc as dangerous as the rest of coven but with a fleeting sense of humanity. You know her intentions, but the naturalness of her attitude about it all makes you wonder if the coven in control doesn't have a point. It should also be mentioned Swinton plays the male part of Dr. Josef Klemperer (credited as Lutz Ebersdorf), the outsider who begins to believe the residents of the academy are in danger. It's this role that expands on the original story the most, bringing in a new viewpoint of the divided world in which the characters find themselves, as well as bringing about the most in terms of emotions this new Suspiria has to offer. It's an incredibly engaging performance, and Swinton's chameleon abilities add to the hypnotic and dreamlike aspects of the overall film.
The whole of Guadagnino's Suspiria is a hypnotic experience. The horror elements are cringe-inducing, the dance sequences performed and edited at a feverish pitch that get the viewer's heart racing more so than when the film heads into darker territory. With Thom Yorke's score reverberating as an undercurrent to it all, this new Suspiria horror ends up being a wholly immersive experience that pulls you in from absolute beginning to absolute end. Much is made in the film about the Three Mothers, the three, ancient witches who make up Argento's trilogy that includes Inferno and The Mother of Tears after Suspiria. This leads the viewer to the belief that Guadagnino has intentions of bringing Argento's entire trilogy to new life. If his take on Suspiria is any indication, it is sure to be a trilogy well worth anticipating.
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