Next in the trend of remaking classic horror films is Luca Guadagnino’s Suspira. A shocking film, but not necessarily in the way you would expect or covet.
Luca Guadagnino Suspiria remake exists at the odd intersection of terrorism and dancing. Where as the original film utilized dancing as a front for practicing witchcraft, this new version strangely adds a third pillar upon which the plot resides. It tries to weave in strings for historical context, to add depth to what was previously a somewhat straightforward supernatural thriller. But those threads are weak at best, nonsensical at their worst. A clear indication of a filmmaker unable to edit his own ideas at the expense of celebrating the original film. For a film that runs two and a half hours, it is an exercise in lack of self control and distraction from the tedious, but necessary, task of storytelling. Surely, Guadagnino has created a work of art, but that piece is frustrating, vague, and unnecessarily muddled.
It starts with a title card that tells us to expect 6 acts with an epilogue. That’s the first warning you’ll be squirming in your seat, and not just because of the films’ more violent moments. Guadagnino decides to chop up his film for the sake of narrative structure, but doing so only makes it more tedious than it already is. Title cards are also an excuse for the audience to take a breath. In a thriller such as this, you don’t want your audience to have the opportunity to breathe. This is a simple, yet clear, example of how the directors’ creative decisions end up hurting his film.
The first act finds an elderly psychiatrist in Berlin suddenly having to deal with one of his patient’s psychotic episodes. She is a dancer from a nearby school, and her behavior is obsessive and downright frightening. But her sudden disappearance after the meeting with the leaves an opening at the school for an American dance student Susie Bannion to join. The school is run by a group of older women instructors, and immediately they are impressed by Susie’s talents. As her attendance at the school continues, a set of strange occurrences take place against the backdrop of RAF activities during the German Autumn of 1977.
Unlike the original film, Guadagnino's version unveils the true workings of the dance academy almost from the beginning. Although it takes time for the film to describe the details sufficiently, there is never a doubt to the audience about what is going on. I’ll say it here because even if you’ve never seen the original film, you’ll figure out within the first few minutes of screentime. The script even wastes time with dialogue from several characters trying to cover up the situation by inventing possibilities to explain what is ultimately occurrences of witchcraft. It’s a futile attempt and shows the filmmaker’s indecision to commit completely to the approach of style over substance.
But even though we know it is witchcraft from the beginning, the film is frustratingly vague in its intent. For two and a half hours, this version of Suspiria never fully commits to an investigation of the supernatural the way the original film did. Trinkets show up, spells are placed, and the witches talk telekinetically - but the actual details of their arrangement, the purpose behind their motivations and actions, is never clearly defined. If the film were purely an exploration of the supernatural through the lense of dance, the occurrence of the unexplained would have been permissible, even welcomed as a stylistic contribution to the tone. Even when we do finally get more details, those facts don’t arrive until the climax of the film. It is a complete waste of a very important part of the story which otherwise would have added a considerable amount of intrigue and tension. It’s almost as if the filmmakers would rather have made a film about the implications of the terrorist situation in Germany but found a loose connection to allow it to work as a remake of Suspiria.
Stylistically, the film has a look of its own. Gone is the avant-garde production of the original film, which I would say has one of the most unique and vibrant color pallets of any film ever made. This new one is full of dull browns and greys. Blood red is the only pop of color. The sun doesn’t even shine until the epilogue. It’s cold, depressing, and gloomy. The original film’s other most memorable attribute, a psychedelic prog rock nightmare, is also toned down by Thom York to become more atmospheric, and calming, yet still sinister. These creative decisions make the new film more monotonous and haunting than interesting and creative. I felt that if the plot details had been better realized, the less-is-more approach to the production would have worked. But as is it doesn’t add a lot of excitement to a nearly three-hour film.
Thankfully, the film does have some redeeming qualities. The acting is very good, even if there are again some questionable creative decisions. Dakota Johnson is suitable enough in the lead role, initially timid but grows more confident as the witches’ fascination in her swells. One of the highlights of the film are the performances of the women who play the witches, or madams, at the dance school. Silent, hysterical, shy, and commanding, they all create interesting characters through their physical performances rather than with a lot of dialogue. They help to give the film its twisted edge. This includes Tilda Swinton, who, in addition to playing one of the main madams, can be seen in the film in two other roles. It’s a bit perplexing and seems completely unnecessary, but she does well.
Ultimately the film centers around a dance school, and indeed the film’s dancing moments are its most interesting. In these moments, the film ramps up its intensity. It contrasts the strength and beauty of its dancers with the grotesque and horrific actions of its witches. At times, the film feels as experimental as Susie’s improvisations when she is given the lead role in the next big production. Guadagnino may also be improvising on the fly, he culminates his film with a shockingly excessive climax full of blood, violence, and nudity. He’s more interested in that moment than in the previous 2+ hours we’ve had to sit through. If only he had taken the time to set up that twist with sufficient backstory and focus, it may have paid off. But as is, you can add 2018’s Suspiria to the list of heavily-anticipated remakes that completely fail to live up to expectations.