An American dancer travels to Berlin to join a mysterious dance troupe.
“Today we need to break the nose of every beautiful thing.” – Madame Blanc
There are movies that need never be remade. I thought that “Suspiria (1977)” belonged in that category. Argento’s “Suspiria” is a unique film that is steeped in atmosphere, saturated in vibrant colors, and dripping with gallons of blood. I consider “Suspiria” to be a prime example of the giallo genre, a genre that I myself am a huge fan. The original “Suspiria” was, for a long time, my second favorite horror film (second only to “The Shining”). Just to give you a glimpse of how much I love it: I watched it four times in 2018, including once on the big screen with Goblin (the band that wrote the score) accompanying the film live. I love that movie to death. So, as you might imagine, I looked forward to this film, but nervously. The things that gave me hope were the involvement of Luca Guadagnino (director of “Call Me By Your Name”- one of my favorite films of 2017), veteran actress Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton) playing three separate roles, and the pulchritudinous Dakota Johnson (“Bad Times at the El Royale”)- (and as an added bonus it also a cameo from the original Susy- Jessica Harper).
As the reviews rolled in, critics seemed split- they either loved it or hated it; few fell on middle ground. Sadly, the film did not come to Grand Rapids for a theatrical run, so I didn’t get a chance to see this film in theaters as I would’ve preferred. I had to wait… three tedious months before I finally got to see this movie. But you know what?
It was worth the wait.
“Why is everyone so ready to think the worst is over?”
This film is a wonder of a remake. I won’t call it perfect- there are a few scenes that keep me from saying that, but this movie… Wow.
Let me start by saying that before I saw it for myself, I read that Argento didn’t like this film, saying it ‘betrayed the spirit of the original film.’ Au contraire, Argento! Though I admit I love a great deal of your work (see my Argento Deep Dive from October 2018), and I think some of your movies are true works of genius, you are 100% wrong about this movie betraying the spirit of the original.
The film might follow a different path, but the story undoubtedly takes place in the same spiritual world Argento first imagined. Argento’s film is smaller, more compact. It’s brilliant, yes, but in its own way. Guadagnino’s film is Argento’s film evolved by forty years. The world has grown older, more complex, moodier, and undeniably darker. The film is far more epic. This new one has brought huge changes in terms of the intricacies of the worldbuilding, and that was something wholy unexpected. As we work through the complexities of the film, it feels like we’ve stumbled upon something archaic and rooted in darkness. There is a unspoken presence to the entire film that just exudes atmosphere. There are few horror films that truly feel this epic in scale, scope, theme and meaning, and also grotesque violence.
I’m still reeling from it. I’m still processing it.
And I already have plans to rewatch it in two days time.
So what did I like about it so much? This film takes the characters and ideas that Argento had and it turns them into a story that feels fresh and new, while still having elements of the original. You could watch both films and not know how either one would end completely. They exist as great movies as their own, but together they sort of compliment each other. They’re two sides of a coin. The original is rich in color (reds and blues paint nigh every frame), while this movie feels purposefully drab with splashes of very vibrant color. While the two films are set in 1970s Germany, the original is in Freiburg and the Cold War isn’t really addressed. In the remake, the Cold War becomes a ubiquitous background symbol of division, which is also heightened by changing the location to Berlin (the dance academy quite literally looks out at the Berlin wall- cue the Cinephile references to “Possession (1981)”). One of the main plotlines of this new film revolves around division amongst the school and the coven inside, and this location change works as a constant reminder of that. There is a theme of crossing over, of changing sides, and the wall is used as a symbol of that.
Susie Bannion (Johnson) (or Suzy- 1977) herself is quite different. In the original film she seems quiet, disinterested with the weirdness that keeps happening around her, one might even think her a bit airheaded at times. In the original, Suzy herself doesn’t really take action against the school until near the end of the film- she seems like a puppet more than a protagonist for much of the movie- her friends do more of the mystery solving legwork. In this film, Susie is far surer of herself; she demands an audition to the dance school even though it is not normally something the teachers would allow; she volunteers to dance the protagonist after being at the school for a few days; she seems to take action more, her backstory is deeper, and the choices she makes are far more compelling than Suzy-circa-1977. She’s a more interesting protagonist, in short.
We do see a certain amount of the film from one of Susie’s friend’s perspectives as well. Susie’s friend, Sarah (Mia Goth, “A Cure for Wellness”), is intent on finding out what happened to one of the other dancers and also her friend, Patricia (Chloe Grace-Moretz, “Clouds of Sils Maria”). Sarah’s perspective gives us a fair amount of revelations, and it’s her perspective that also adds a lot of tension later on in the film as Susie begins to reveal who she really might be. Mia Goth does a remarkable job as Sarah. Chloe Grace-Moretz is Chloe Grace-Moretz; I’m never appalled by her performances, but I’m never blown away by them either.
Madame Blanc (Swinton) and Susie’s relationship is also far more flushed out, as are Susie’s relationships with the other students. This movie is almost an hour longer than the original, and most of that time is spent just flushing out and developing the world (and a good portion to bloodletting). What I love about the world is that at first everything is subtle, but slowly details float to the top of the murky world. The world reveals itself slowly, almost seductively, tempting you with more secrets and drawing you further into the world until it suddenly feels like there might be danger. There is a draw to this movie, a through line, that seemed to pull me straight through wanting the next scene constantly, needing to know what was going to happen. Yes, it is two and a half hours, but I was never once bored. In fact, when we paused for a quick moment at one point I was elated to see that we had an hour and a half remaining. I fell into this world as easily as one falls in and out of love.
Where this film really succeeds in its reimagining is the direction in which the story chooses to go, and its here that I have to throw a big SPOILER tag up. I want to talk about the end of the film. If you don’t want to read what happens at the end, meet me at the verdict. There will be spoilers for the original and the remake.
I think the reason that Argento thought this film betrayed the spirit of the original is because of the way this film ends. The original ends with Suzy killing Madame Markos, burning the school and with it a large number of the coven, and escaping into the rain with a smile on her face. This film’s mythos is a little bit more complicated. In both films there exist a fabled group of Three Immortal Witches that have existed since before time known as the Three Mothers; Lachymarum, Tenebrarum, and Suspiriorum. In this film, Markos claims herself to be The Mother Suspiriorum, though there are rumors throughout the coven that her claim is unfounded.
In the end, Markos has been using the ritual to prolong her life, but as she calls Susie forth, Susie reveals that Markos has falsely declared herself the Mother Suspiriorum. She kills Madame Markos, but then instead of destroying the school and the coven, she kills only those disloyal to Madame Blanc. Susie sets herself as head of the coven, declaring herself to be the true Mother Suspiriorum.
I wont deny that the way in which the climax of this film was shot did not win me over 100% when I first watched this (The second time through I loved it). I actually thought what was happening in the film itself was brilliant, but the way in which it was depicted did not work for me completely. Most of the film is shot with extremely high production value without many gimmicks; it looks absolutely amazing for the most part. The climax however, involves a lengthy scene of ritualistic violence that blends the lines between reality and the metaphysical, and also between life and death.
The camera work goes handheld for much of this scene, and there’s a weird motion blur effect that kind of washes over the whole thing. Thom York (Radiohead) does an extremely haunting song while Death literally manifests itself and bows before Susie. Then as death walks about the room the heads of those whom opposed Madame Blanc literally explode.
Despite the fact that I loved what was happening as far as plot progression, the fact that the whole screen fades to red still kind of felt… overdone… I really hate to say that, because I know that this was done intentionally as an artistic choice. The scene itself is chaotic, gore-soaked and bloody. The girls fling themselves all over the place in a way that rivals the physicality of Isabella Adjani’s subway possession scene in “Possession”. Its absolutely hellish, and it is exactly how the story should end for this remake. Still, I don’t think it looks as great as it could’ve. The content- the meat of what was happening was great. I loved the fact that in this version Susie is secretly a more powerful witch than any of the others. I love the fact that she schemes against her fellow students to get closer to Madame Blanc. And I even love the way that she kills Markos. Overall the climax just didn’t hit me emotionally like some of the other dance scenes in this movie.
Let me say this though-it could’ve been a lot worse. The experimental bits in this movie worked a thousand times better than the experimental crap in “House that Jack Built”. I just didn’t like the camera work. I suppose therein lies the curse of cinephile and film critic- I can never be 100% satisfied with something that even has a few little flaws. In the end, I am 95% on board and in love with this film, and that’s more than I can say for more than half of the Best Picture Nominees for this year. I think this movie falls just short of “Hereditary” for being the best horror film of the year; but as for my personal favorite horror film for the year, I think this might be the one.
Seriously, if the ending looked just a little, tiny bit different, this could’ve potentially rivaled “The Shinning” for my favorite horror film.
Alright, I know I’ve already talked at length about this film, so I’ll try to wrap it up with a few last thoughts. First, for those who have not seen the original, I recommend it highly, though I don’t think it matters which version you see first. Second; this film is not perfect, and I don’t expect everyone else would give it a 5 star rating. This is a film that I knew would be near and dear to my heart before I even saw it because it was a retelling of a movie I already love. And third; this is a bit artsier than your average horror film; it’s deliberate in pacing, and sometimes quiet in its revelations (though sometimes not so quiet); it expects you to pay attention and put things together yourself. That being said, for myself, I expect this will become tradition for me to watch this film with its original as a double feature. This is a rollercoaster of a film; it is all at once horrifying, beautiful, disturbing, entrancing, wondrous, revolting, hypnotic, and of course, bewitching.
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