REVIEW: Suspiria (2018)

Theatrical Release Poster – Amazon Studios

The following is a review of Suspiria — Directed by Luca Guadagnino.

The original Dario Argento Italian horror classic Suspiria is one of those films horror fanatics scream from the rooftops for you to watch. For the longest time, I was one of those who ignored that call. To prepare for Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 reimagining of the same name, I finally decided to sit down and watch Argento’s film, and while I didn’t love it as much as its disciples do, I recognized it as a stunning stylish classic with a frightening musical theme, but the dialogue and the acting left something to be desired.

After I saw Guadagnino’s reinterpretation, which, I must admit, I have struggled with, the overwhelming feeling that I was left with was that of surprise by just how different Argento and Guadagnino’s films are — and that is both good and bad. Indeed, in some ways, Guadagnino and Argento’s films, which share character names and a general premise, are polar opposites. After my first viewing, I can say that what I dislike about one film, I like about the other — and vice versa.

In Guadagnino’s Suspiria, we follow Susie Bannon (played by Dakota Johnson), an American aspiring dancer who comes from a Mennonite family from the state of Ohio, as she travels to a dance academy in West Berlin in 1977 in pursuit of her dream. But the dance academy has secrets hidden beneath the floorboards, behind the dizzying mirrors, and within the souls of those who oversee the academy.

The academy is overseen and led by a coven of witches, one of which is the dance teacher that Susie becomes fascinated by — the mysterious Madame Blanc (played by Tilda Swinton). Although most of the students at the academy are unaware of the true intentions of Madame Blanc and the rest of the gathering of witches, one student has reached out to and piqued the interest of Dr. Josef Kemperle, an elderly psychotherapist.

Luca Guadagnino has gone out of his way to express how deeply he cares for Argento’s genius. I have seen interviews in which he has stressed how he almost wanted to stalk Argento when he first saw the film. He has spoken of this powerful feeling of watching Argento’s Suspiria, and, in a way, I am sure this is the passion project that Guadagnino has spent his entire career waiting to make, which is why it is so fascinating and, to an extent, confusing that Guadagnino’s reinterpretation feels so alien when compared to the original film until Guadagnino’s film reaches its nightmarish, stylish, and phantasmagorical climax.

What I thought was perhaps the most fascinating thing about Guadagnino’s changes is that Susie Bannon isn’t really the character you think she is, that Mia Goth’s Sara Simms isn’t either, and, more than anything else is, Guadagnino’s interest in the daily life and perspective of the coven.

However, some of his other changes do not work whatsoever. I think that, at its worst, Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria is bloated, self-important, and has a tendency to overexplain the tiniest premise details of the original to such an extent that it takes away from the interesting characters and mystery at the dance academy. Although the character Dr. Josef Klemperer is a cinematic achievement in make-up as a disguise (the elder male character is played by Tilda Swinton under heavy make-up), the use of Klemperer and the political environment of the film’s setting — Cold War-era West Berlin — is too distracting.

There clearly is a method to the madness, but, ultimately, I think the focus on Klemperer and Berlin in 1977 takes away from what works so well about the film. It is an unnecessary change in focus that makes the film drag, which is exactly what this film doesn’t need. Guadagnino’s film is almost an entire hour longer than Argento’s original, and you can feel the length. Ultimately, the build-up reaches a satisfying outpour of hallucinatory and nightmarish images in the mindboggling sixth chapter, which finally resembles Argento’s visual style after the majority of the film had operated with colder and much more muted visuals.

For this reimagining, Guadagnino hired Radiohead-frontman Thom Yorke to compose the film’s themes, some of which Yorke sings on. His score is so different to listen to than the original film’s iconic theme, the sound of which on its own frightens me to my core (the original film’s theme should be held in as high regard as the themes of Halloween and The Exorcist). Yorke’s score has its strengths — and his track “Unmade,” is a beautiful piano ballad that you can lose yourself in — but it does not become as memorable or effective as the original film’s theme.

However, there are elements in Guadagnino’s film that are superior to the original film. For one, I think the character dialogue is much stronger, and the acting is top-notch here as well. Dakota Johnson gives what is perhaps a career-best performance as Susie, who the camera adores and whose movements are enchanting, and both Tilda Swinton and Mia Goth give strong memorable performances as well.

The best thing about this film to me, though, is the potentially nightmare-inducing body-horror that is the result of a terrifying dance sequence — yes, there is such a thing — and the jaw-droppingly gruesome and hallucinatory sixth chapter. I’ll let you discover the sixth chapter on your own, but I will warn that it will be hard to stomach and comprehend for most audiences.

I saw Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria in the same theater room that I, during the previous Oscar season, saw his warm and deeply moving adaptation of Call Me By Your Name. The experience couldn’t have been any more different. People were weeping at the end of Call Me By Your Name due to how Guadagnino effectively made us connect to a youth-defining and ultimately devastating summer love. At the end of Suspiria, the theater room was empty. No one else had bought a ticket for the film, which I could imagine someone sleeping through or walking out of.

I wish I could say that I felt as overwhelmed and moved by Suspiria as I was by Guadagnino’s coming-of-age masterpiece. But while my issues with his reimagining of Suspiria are quite severe, there are some truly exceptional things about his decidedly different take on Argento’s classic. In certain ways, it is the polar opposite of Argento’s film. It isn’t as terrifying, but Guadagnino’s film is just as, if not more, memorable than Argento’s.

Guadagnino’s passion project is an art house film that is fascinated by themes that make it a much more complicated, convoluted, but, honestly, interesting film. But I was missing the Argento style for the majority of Guadagnino’s film. What I am left with is a reimagining of an international horror cult classic that succeeds at things Argento’s film perhaps didn’t, but which also fails at some of the things that perhaps made Argento’s phantasmagorical horror fairy tale so frightening. It really is a completely different film, for better and worse.

7.5 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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