Suspiria (2018): “the horror remake as high art”
Horror remakes have been a hot topic for what feels like forever. Personally, nothing will reach the nadir of remakes whose sole purpose is so people don’t have to read subtitles. That happened on a near monthly basis in the J-Horror cycle. Another wing of horror remakes is revisiting classics, there is no hard and fast rule for how this turns out. For every hideously misinformed Wicker Man or the Fog, there’s an instantly forgettable [the] thing. The rarest of all beasts is the remake that treats it as a good cover version, in that they adapt to create something totally fresh. Good job too as back when it was announced that indie super darling Luca Guadagnino was going to remake one of the most loved of all 1970s horror movies, Suspiria, it would be fair to say that there was a lot of angry voices.
The original Suspiria, directed by Dario Argento, is a 100 minutes of classic Italian horror in the sense that it is most definitely style over substance but to such an extent that it elevates above and beyond its raw components. Many movies get that little bit better when seen on a big screen and the phantasmagoria of Argento’s 1977 classic is not just better in that large public setting, it demands it. As he highlighted on his press tour, Guadagnino is not remaking this just to cash in on legacy, he did it to pay homage to a style of cinema and a movie that means an awful lot to him. He could have told the same story but called it something else, sure, but in doing that he wouldn’t really be paying homage to his formative years in the same way. Many have claimed that, like Halloween III, this would have been better received if it didn’t have that name, personally, I am not so sure.
Argento’s film was a bloodthirsty supernatural slasher set in the world of witches hiding in the plain sight of a dance school, drenched in red and scored by Goblin’s iconic score. In 2018, Guadagnino has re-framed events by moving them to Berlin at the height of Baader-Meinhof, and gone are the heightened primary colours, in their place are earthy tones and a score by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. Opening with an exchange in a psychotherapist’s office, events play out much the same with a new American dancer learning that the prodigious dance school in inhabited by witches. However, where the original focused solely on Jessica Harper trying to survive, this 2018 version substitutes Harper for Dakota Johnson and looks at events from the witches perspective – detailing their mythology and the power dynamics of their community. This is the inverse in every way.
The extent of Guadagnino’s inversion is about as all-encompassing as possible, much to the extent that horror isn’t the first genre you’d associate this new Suspiria with. For much of the film, there is a mystery than needs unfolding and that is played off against the process of learning a new dance and the training, as amazing as this sounds, Suspiria in 2018 is more dance than horror. That’s not to say it doesn’t have anything horrific happening, it is set within a witches coven after all and the gore is incredibly nasty. The first time anything horrific surfaces are when one of the dancers, Olga (Elena Fokina), is looking to leave, and as Johnson makes all the movements of the dance, Olga receives brutal blows and twists in the same direction and velocity. The contorted mess of a person left on the floor is a body horror nightmare that I never knew I had. Respect has to be given to the prosthetic work, as detailed in one of the discs few extras. There’s a sequence with Mia Goth too which sees her discover something ancient and otherworldly in the darkness of this old dance company. And the last sequence which goes full-on hysterical, the most fitting way I can describe this is to invoke the hysteria of Mexican nunsploitation icon Alucarda only with more monstrous aberrations, tribal incantations, disgusting chest cavities, elder witches, erotic dancing and exploding witches.
I wouldn’t go as far as calling it an issue, but it is unavoidable once you notice it. In any scene with violence, it will also cut back and forth between the grotesque and someone dancing. This is one of the key factors where I referred to Suspiria (2018) as a dance film with witches – albeit one dripping with dread. Let’s not use that as a tool to whip the film with as this is still incredibly unsettling in those moments. The climax especially as it comes at the end of an opera-like six acts, with guts removed, partial decapitations and enough red to warrant the reappearance of the originals all-consuming red filter. By this point any and all comparisons to the original have become a thing of the past turning Guadagnino’s creation into an entirely new and much uneasier proposition than anything Argento ever imagined, developing with more coherence as a narrative journey.
I have a great deal of affection for Suspiria (2018), just to run through the reasons; this is one of the best-edited horror movies of the past decade and the cinematography places it on a complementary pedestal to the original (and long missed) Italian horror cycle. Dakota Johnson offers up a career making physicality, Mia Goth, too, puts in the performance of her career, and Tilda Swinton is typically excellent although why she plays multiple roles doesn’t add up to much. It is also a fascinating insight into the witch, an entity that is incredibly under-utilised to the extent that the mythology and possibilities have had its edges smoothed over the years. Guadagnino does no such thing here. As contentious a statement as this is, this is one of the finest witch movies ever made.
Onto the issues then, the biggest being the length. As I have gone to some lengths to explain, the two may share a setup and a name but beyond that, they divert in some wild ways. Even so, Argento told his story in the sweet spot for horror (100 minutes), contrarily Guadagnino has done one of the biggest sins in horror – he hasn’t just gone over 2 hours, considerably over too with his hitting near two and a half hours. A great deal of the added length comes from the scenes which move events away from the dance company and onto the sole male character, the psychotherapist from the first scene. The A+J romance is nought but a distraction to add some weight to the chosen political era, and for me, that is the biggest failure as it sets up a political context and almost completely neglects to give it any depth. The only way it pays off is in the 15-minute epilogue with an emotional scene shared between the ‘witness’ and the new ‘head witch’. You can include all the satisfying references to the three mothers trilogy that you want, 158 minutes is too long. That is one experiment too far for this experimental leaning remake.
SUSPIRIA (2018) is out now on Blu-Ray from MUBI