Suspiria 2018 (Review)


Suspiria (2018)

Directed by Luca Guadgnino

Italian horror cinema in the twentieth century is long, storied and highly influential; besides issuing many benchmark films (including arguably the first slasher, “Twitch of the Death Nerve”) The Boot even birthed their own cinematic Renaissance with the subgenre of Giallo. The Dons of dark cinema are an impressive lineage: Bava (both Godfather Mario and son Lamberto), Fulci, Lenzi, Mattei, Deodato, D’Amato, Martino, Freda and Soavi but none resonates quite like Dario Agento. With a career spanning half a century and creating such genre institutes as “Deep Red,” “Phenomena,” “Tenebrae,” “The Bird With the Crystal Plumage,” “Opera” but the mother of all (or three as it were) is his 1977 masterpiece, “Suspiria.” A vibrant international cast, stunning visual flair that astounds to this day and a score that’s gone well beyond the confines of celluloid – a dark, modern fairytale amidst the overwhelming nature of a fever dream while also being often considered Argento’s most linear narrative are many of the fine reasons for its resonance.

In the more than forty years since its release, “Suspiria” has been a feature that’s been one of the few films to escape a remake, reimagining or the Platinum Dunes treatment (best known by its working title, “Markos: The Motherfuckin’ Witch”) but eventually director Luca Guadgnino was tasked for the job. The initial response from the fanbase and horror community seemed relatively positive and many had high hopes; some may remain in good spirits after a séance at their local theater but mine completely plummeted through the stained glass long before the credits rolled.

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“Suspiria” is not a bad film; not at all – it’s just so unbelievably bloated. You have excellent cinematography, rich in both earth tones and the drab setting of wartime desolation. The company here is a bevy of highly skilled actors and most adapt to their roles like a glove. The outline of the original remains but Guadgnino conjures his own vision of Argento’s ideal. All the ingredients are there so why does the spell feel so spoiled?

First and foremost, like 2018’s other cinephile darling “Mandy” the major pitfall is the run time; the swath of canvas to fill is far too wide and it quickly descends from a creepy supernatural spin into a lo-fi masturbatory exercise masquerading as high-class cinema. Everything but the kitchen sink is here of arthouse horror to the point that its paint by numbers with a bounty of scenes that feel slathered on so that podcast nerds can verbally jerk off to how “daring” and “visionary” it is. There is so much excess here, acting as a dam that generates zero on-screen electricity; instead, it’s a drain for attention, interest. The 1977 title accomplished all it needed to and more in 100 minutes while it’s 2018 companion tacks on an hour of pointless subplots, peripheral characters and political subtext that bludgeons the viewer with virtue signaling when a ballet of blood, sex and magic intertwined was the promised prize.

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The opening, which features an almost unrecognizable Chloe Moertz Grace as Patricia who puts the viewer into a nearly first-person perspective as the camera darts like eyes around the rooms, manic yet focused, indulging in moment of sanity before digressing into her insanity. Her character has escaped the dance academy of the damned and tries to convince an aging psychiatrist of its devotion to witchcraft amidst the masquerade of a respected troupe. Dr. Jozef Kemperer (the first of three integral roles played by Tilda Swinton and the one of the two under heavy prosthetics) attempts to assist but his young patient departs before any real assistance can be provided, leaving only a diary of her investigations and assertions behind for him to pore over. The world outside is of a Germany divided in the grip of the Cold War, the Iron Curtain resilient and confining as ever while the radical Red Army Faction wages an ongoing guerilla offensive and as we hear and see throughout the film is amid its hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181 while back in what looks to American farmland, a religious family can be seen cleansing an ill woman, as stark imagery is interspersed.  Patricia, unlike her 1977 doppelganger doesn’t have a horrendous fate and it really sets the tone for the future of the film as while atmosphere will reign over action as in the work of Argento, “Suspiria” will not be the symphony of violent delights that contrasted so well with the drama and mystery of the original.

Introduced shortly thereafter are a multitude of familiar characters including protagonist Susie Bannon (Dakota Johnson), headmistress Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), Susie’s confidante Sara Simms (Mia Goth) and bratty Olga Ivanova (Elena Fokina) are all here and largely of the same stock as their established counterparts. While the story generally plays out in the same format and order expected, Daniel, his piano and canine companion are completely absent (replaced in rehearsal by electronic elements) which is disappointing but Olga’s fate more than makes up for it and is worth the price of admission alone. As shocking as original with phenomenal sound and screen editing, bound to leave many in equal parts disgust and awe; it’s aftermath and her disposal are equally chilling. Just replaying it as a morbid memory is enough to send forth shivers.

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Sara’s downfall is wince inducing but feels shoehorned in and accelerated in its delivery; this was a death that truly took my breath away when I first saw “Suspiria” decades ago but her demise, especially compared to Olga’s feels almost merciful. The dream sequences, a centerpiece of the original are nowhere near as potent here and are largely mundane at best while the flashbacks to Susie’s family (a Mennonite family in Ohio) are haunting but horribly disjointed. The reveal of their devout religious lifestyle feels like one of the only subplots that should have been fully explored and not just tacked on to feed contrast with third wave feminist doctrine and “witchcraft beliefs,” which are as equally poorly presented and pastiche.

A genuine boon here is Thom Yorke’s distinct score which like the effort by Goblin includes a variety of instrumentation and approaches and the integration of vocals. It’s not Yorke’s first foray into film scoring but previous entries were largely short films while here there is such an ample running time that his soundscapes are fully explored and absolutely breathtaking. It’s not Goblin and it’s not Radiohead either; it’s Thom Yorke, composer and his conducting in the years to come is one of the brightest spots in the bleakness of this film.

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As mentioned earlier, besides an overwrought length are the two major meandering missteps of “Suspiria” – the subplots involving Dr. Kemperer, his wife and the Holocaust and the other being the real world actions of the R.A.F. With respect to the former, it’s completely unnecessary and adds absolutely nothing to the story. The 1977 film featured psychiatrist Frank Mandel (starring the legendary Udo Kier) but this furthered the plot while screenwriter David Kajganich’s introduction of his vision of the character is beyond superfluous; its sole saving grace is allowing the incredible Jessica Harper to cameo as the doctors wife – otherwise, it’s a big build up to much ado about nothing. Dr. Kemeperer still could have played an expanded role, especially in the finale with roughly the same amount of screen time as Dr. Mandel had.

Regarding the R.A.F. subplot, it starts off clever, a sublime recurring theme and could have still been used sparingly with potent effect. Instead, Kajganich goes for the sledgehammer approach and attempts to bridge parallels between Cold War politics and the current state of what can easily be assumed as largely American affairs that are so ham-fisted and far reaching, it borders on parody.  Like many films where the subtext bludgeons while the on-screen sculpting dazzles and delights, the political and poetic do not mesh well here. Horror is the one of the best avenues for social commentary (from “Night of the Living Dead” and “Deathdream” to “The Purge” and “Get Out”) but no matter how hardened the resolve, “Suspiria” is a purely supernatural film, as much a part of the nature as the witches who worship, celebrate and in the case here, pervert it.

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The climax is a gorgeous crescendo as it begins but it’s crimson filter grows old fast and whirling dervishes of witches dancing, blood spilling and madness overtaking feel less like an homage to Dario Argento and more akin to a Busta Rhymes video (HAPPY HALLOWEEN MOTHERFUCKER!!!) lensed by Marilyn Manson.  It’s a much greater and Grand Guignol finale than the original and has such a promising start with the reveal of Helena Markos (the second of Swinton’s prosthetic presentations) and without spoiling too much, it’s like the lovechild of a Clive Barker painting with “The Mermaid in the Manhole” fresh in his mind.

Along with “Halloween,” this was the other tentpole remake/reimagining of the 2018 season and definitely the far weaker of the two – Luca Guadgnino is no Rob Zombie but he sure as hell isn’t Dario Argento either. “Halloween” didn’t reinvent the wheel but it found its rhythm and ran with it (or stalked as is Michael Myers preferred predatory pace) while “Suspiria” attempts to dance the Totentanz and merely stumbles. It has all the right moves in its head but once they take the stage, the performance is uninspired, truly wishing to be a defiant shout, an orgasmic scream before finally settling as a sigh of what could have been…

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