* * * 1/2
Fans of the original will not be disappointed, but the uninitiated deserve a warning: this remake is an unwieldy, bloody, at times glorious, mess of a film whose reach often exceeds its grasp. Suspiria (2018, Dir. Luca Guadagnino) is a no holds barred homage to the original 1977 Dario Argento Giallo horror film, and deserves a lot of credit for its visual style. The film’s lead actors are a perfect fit for their roles, and Thom Yorke’s soundtrack is worth the price of admission alone. But the 2 ½ hour run time is a bad sign – it gradually becomes clear that what worked decades ago as a wicked little supernatural horror film, begins to fail under the weight of themes and subject matter above and beyond its genre confines. It would have been best to leave well enough alone with the story about witches running a dance academy. Do you really need more than that?
The story for this reboot mirrors the original, with some superfluous content layered on top. The setting is 1977 Cold War era Berlin, home of the Tanz Dance Academy, which is interestingly enough run by a coven of witches. Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) is a new, mysterious dancer who arrives at the Academy and quickly, through her seemingly unaccountable talents, rises to the top. She becomes the favorite of Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), the head artistic director and choreographer of the Academy. The main story focuses on the Academy – the machinations of the witches, who are working out a messy succession dispute, Susie’s rise in the dance school, and the slow reveal of who she really is. One extraneous bit of content focuses on the geo-political atmosphere of the time, and particularly a hostage situation that keeps appearing on the news. This is clearly meant as a comparison to the innocent dancers at the school, who are essentially the witches’ hostages. However, it feels like the context of the hostage story is only offered as a means of presenting this metaphor, which makes the whole thing seem forced. Another element that distracts from the overall thrust of the movie is the story of an elderly psychiatrist, Josef Klemperer (also played by Swinton, in some crazy makeup), a man grieving for his wife, who went missing many years ago during WWII. This character does interact directly with the main narrative and add interest in a number of scenes (e.g., one of his patients is a former dancer at the Academy, and he begins to inspect the strange happenings she reports). However, we are also asked to become invested in his personal story and the themes that it carries related to guilt and WWII / the Holocaust. That is all worthy of exploration, but is a Suspiria remake the best place to tackle this?
While the story is at times distracted, the film gets a number of things right. For one, the casting of Swinton and Johnson are both excellent choices. As soon as you see Swinton in her role as Madame Blanc, it immediately makes sense. Johnson is convincing as the determined young dancer with an unknown past and a definite edge. Another major positive for the movie is its style, and the commendable job it does of honoring the 70s aesthetic of the original movie. Some of the scenes feel like they came right out of an Alejandro Jodorowski film. There is a lot of fun for the audience in the jarring jump cuts, extremely fast close ups, and wild, surreal dream sequences. This remake achieves essentially the inverse of what the 2017 IT remake accomplished, in that as much as this tries to lovingly re-inhabit the world of the original film, IT (2017) consciously transported the source material and took great pains to update the overall aesthetic. Thom Yorke’s soundtrack is quality, at times fitting nicely within the world of the film, and at others stretching the confines of the given scene; some of the songs are just too striking and beautiful to play second fiddle to the images on the screen.
The film’s climax, a kind of Witches’ Sabbath meant to solidify the succession and hierarchy in the coven, is an absolute over-the-top, leave nothing to the imagination blood bath. Stylistically, there are some interesting things going on here. As elsewhere in the film, the dancing and choreography in this scene are impressive. The image of the frenzied, ritualistic dancing gives the scene a truly visceral impact. However, as the scene builds, and witch after witch has her head exploded, and dancer after dancer has her bowel spilled, we get a little fatigued and start to wonder if the point couldn’t have been made sooner? The overall effect is less than the sum of its many, many gruesome parts. As a contrast to this climax, The Witch (2015) accomplished so much more in its final scene, I believe precisely because it showed so much less, and only hinted at the horrors to come. Maybe in requesting moderation, I’m asking the impossible of a Suspiria remake?
Anyone who enjoyed the original Suspiria will find something to like here. The film certainly has a lot of chutzpah, and doesn’t suffer from the typical symptoms inherent to horror remakes (i.e., a complete lack of imagination or pulse). Unfortunately, you’ll also find some extraneous bits and pieces that ultimately frustrate the overall pacing and impact of the film, leaving you a bit dizzy and underwhelmed by the end. My recommendation is to walk into this with an abiding love for the original, and an equally strong will to go wherever the film may take you, because it most certainly will go there.