Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth, Chloe Grace Moretz, Angela Winkler, Jessica Harper
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… a gorgeously shot art film with striking imagery and solid performances…
If nothing else, you have to admire the artistic intent behind Suspiria (2018). Even attempting a remake or reimagining of Dario Argento’s beloved batshit bonkers ballet-school-beset-by-witches 1977 original is a bold proposition, and yet for much of its runtime director Luca Guadagnino makes a decent rationale for the film’s existence… right up until he doesn’t.
Suspiria is primarily set in the Markos Dance Academy in Berlin, during the politically fraught German Autumn of 1977. This backdrop adds a sense of chaos and unpredictability that fits the material surprisingly well and adds historical context to a tale that in Argento’s hands played out more like a demented fairy tale. The story really kicks off with the arrival of American, Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) who immediately impresses the severe and enigmatic Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) with her almost supernaturally good dance skills. The dance academy is, of course, a front for a coven of witches – this is established quite early with a minimum of fuss – and we get an insight into the various factions and conflicts that exist within the group, which play out a bit like a supernatural body corporate meeting replete with voting and passive aggression. It sounds goofy on the page, but it works on screen, giving the relationships between these magical women some room to breathe.
The plot wombles along, in no particular hurry and generating only a nominal sense of tension, for five of its six acts (each of which are labelled in a large, imperious font) with plot strands involving Susie, Blanc, inquisitive shrink Dr. Jozef Klemperer (*cough* “Lutz Ebersdorf” *cough*) and Sara (Mia Goth) – all of whom have their own agendas and arcs. Despite the lack of significant narrative propulsion, these slower early sections are when Suspiria works best. Guadagnino has a real eye for this sort of material, and sells the concept of a creepy dance academy spectacularly well, featuring scenes of dance, nightmares, sex and death that rival and occasionally surpass the original in terms of jaw-dropping imagery and ghastly set pieces. The problem is each of these moments seem to exist in isolation, rarely impacting or changing the overall story, giving the film’s better moments a sense of impermanence and struggling to make them feel like they matter. Numerous intriguing character beats – particularly between Susie and Blanc – are abandoned or underutilised in favour of yet another sequence of Klemperer looking lost and banging on about his missing wife.
Still, despite the deliberate pace and the oddly cold directorial style, Suspiria engages for the first five acts. In the sixth act, however, the wheels come right off the whole vehicle and the film takes a sudden and unexpected dive into the narrative equivalent of a room bafflingly filled with barbed wire. We won’t get into spoilers here, but it’s rare that a film’s ending so gleefully and pointlessly betrays the film that preceded it. If the first five acts are a meticulous and icily beautiful exercise in graceful style then the ending is a goofy monster mash replete with not-terribly-convincing gore, unimaginative monsters and plot twists straight out of a D-grade horror sequel with a roman numeral in its title. Hell, it almost feels like Luca handed over the directorial reigns to latter era Argento, as the climax wouldn’t have been out of place in Dario’s rather dire Mother of Tears (2007) instead of the A-list production it actually is.
So, what ultimately, is Suspiria (2018)? It’s a gorgeously shot art film with striking imagery and solid performances – particularly Johnson, Swinton and Goth. It’s also a remake that, despite having ten times the budget and running almost double the length, fails to be anywhere near as memorable and iconic as the original. It’s not a cynical cash grab – this is the product of considerable passion and effort – but it comes off the rails so thoroughly in the final act it’s almost possible to recommend without heavy qualification.
Perhaps the score is the best representation of this film. The 1977 original was scored by Goblin and is a screeching, discordant, unsubtle but brilliant and unforgettable experience that is still referenced, beloved and imitated to this day for its sheer gonzo lunacy. The Thom Yorke score for the 2018 version is meticulous, well-crafted, musically sound and utterly forgettable once it finishes. It’s a case of passion versus perfection, and perfection, while technically impressive, is often deadly dull.
Suspiria (2018) is a well-made film and beautifully shot with stunning dance sequences. It’s also slow, long and ultimately not all that satisfying. Worth a look for the curious, and certainly not an insult to Dario Argento’s most infamous film, it’s just sadly lacking that certain black magic that transforms an aesthetically impressive horror flick into an unforgettable genre classic.