What’s the point of remaking Suspiria if you’re going to take out all the stuff that made the 1977 original so unique?
Dario Argento, the director of the original, asked that question himself after he’d seen this remake – wondering, in short, “why?” – after director Luca Guadagnino’s new version debuted in 2018. There’s something in what he says.
Out goes the original film’s original grand vision – its bad-trip looks – and with it goes the original story’s big idea of witholding of what was going on until the film’s dying moments. In comes a bracketing structure which introduces Chloë Grace Moretz at each end of the film, for no real reason except maybe for marquee purposes.
In between Moretz’s topping and tailing the story remains largely the same – a young dancer called Susie (Dakota Johnson) arrives at a strict German dance school run by a charismatic leader (Tilda Swinton) and staffed by a phalanx of female weirdos. What Susie doesn’t know is that all the senior women are in fact witches. She’s too busy dancing to notice, and is so brilliant at it that she catches everyone’s eye. Soon, unbeknown to Susie and her fellow students, she has been marked out as the next victim of the coven’s ailing leader – new blood, new life etc.
In the original, the story played out through the innocent, ignorant eyes of the unwitting Suzy (as her name was spelled then) and the audience was as unaware that the senior women were witches as she was. In this version Guadagnino and writer Daniel Kajganich give us that right up front, later using it as a hook to flip the entire narrative as it arrives at its big blood-soaked finale.
They also add in exterior political background detail. It’s 1977, as it might have been in the original film (its grip on reality wasn’t that powerful), and outside in Berlin the Red Army Faction and Baader Meinhof gangs are doing their thing, kidnapping German capitalists and winding up in prison as a consequence.
Guadagnino deliberately doesn’t ape the style of the original film, which was one of the reddest movies ever made – there were super-saturated acres of it – avoiding the colour as much as possible for the first two thirds of the film, and knocking his own normally bright, high Vogue style back to near monochrome in an attemtpt to get grungey. Along with some spookey distorting lenses, the effect is almost vintage Polanski, Rosemary’s Baby era.
He injects some classy visual montages and pulls off a couple of queasy, gory set pieces to show he can do nasty in his own way. They’re very effective. As are odd, funny scenes set among the senior women, like the one where a policeman turns up to investigate reports of weirdness, and winds up zombified and semi naked while the female staff laugh at the size of his penis, or maybe just the fact of his penis.
It’s a great film if you’re looking for one about the power of a gang of cackling old broads, and the support actors are very good value, in particular Jessica Batut as the house mother, a woman who’s stylish (as you might expect from a dance teacher), but also scary and yet somehow sympathetic.
It’s another ice-queen performance by Swinton, who goes all in. That old male professor of the occult who is knocking about doing low-wattage investigation is also Swinton, and she seems to be doing it just for kicks. Johnson is either miscast or misplaying Susie as a too-naive backwoods girl, and there’s a strong “what might have been” aspect to the film if you can re-imagine it with her and the spookily beautiful Mia Goth (as a fellow dance student) swapping roles.
Hey ho. The urge to compare is strong and yet you’ve got to feel for Guadagnino. It’s not like this is a gun-for-hire job either. He’s been trying to make this film for years.
It’s an hour longer than the original, and an hour worse. To distance himself from Argento, Guadagnino increases the amount of dancing in it. In the original Argento showed us the students limbering up and little more. Here, Guadagnino gives us entire dance numbers, brilliantly choreographed in urgent Pina Bausch style by Damien Jalet, but like the political-background stuff, it’s gravy rather than protein.
I liked it a lot more than this review suggests. It’s a good though too-well-behaved film, ripe with a paranoid atmosphere, but it doesn’t get really going until Thom Yorke’s soundtrack openly starts being more like the original one, by Goblin, and Guadagnino decides that there’s been enough pussyfooting and it’s time to go all in on the Argento tribute-band stuff.
Suspiria (2018) – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2022