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Film Review: Suspiria

30 November 18 words: Fabrice Gagos

Does Luca Guadagnino's Suspiria remake live up to Dario Argento's beloved original film? 

Director: Luca Guadagnino

Starring: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Doris Hick

Running time: 152 mins

Let’s make it clear: there is nothing wrong with remakes or adaptations per se. And yes, that includes remakes of acclaimed masterpieces.  

There are no good or bad ways for doing so, as long as your main focus is to create a good film whilst keeping in mind exactly why you chose to use the original source material.  And, despite what everybody says, remaking and adapting stories is not some modern phenomenon, but has been the main purpose in cinema right from the beginning. Even older classics are often remakes of even older films: Scorsese's Cape Fear or, to stay in the horror genre, John Carpenter’s The Thing or Cronenberg’s The Fly come to mind.  

Sometimes remakes and adaptations stick to the original story and setting while experimenting on the same themes, like John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven brilliantly did with Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. They transpose the whole story to another universe, culture or time. The problem is not about whether we should remake films or not, the problem is about failing too often to deliver a good film and being lazy and overconfident. 

Take Suspiria, Dario Argento’s 1977 Giallo cult horror masterpiece, full of colour and disturbing imagery. You could simply actualise the film without changing anything using new SFX technologies, making it easier to watch for a 2018 audience, and getting rid of his awful English dubbing. Alternatively, you could set the action in 2018 to see what influences, if any, forty years of technology and social evolution would have on the story.  

A movie that lazily relies on concepts designed to fit the post #metoo era

Director Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name) chose to stick with the 1977 Berlin setting, but in a totally opposite artistic direction. Whereas Argento’s movie was full of saturated primary colours accompanied by a hypnotic prog rock soundtrack (performed by Italian band Goblin), the new Suspiria is plunged in bleak heavily muted colours with a more simplistic (and forgettable, albeit highly acclaimed) score by Thom Yorke. The outrageous blood red building of the original is replaced by a more realistic sad grey block of cement. Fair enough, at least we know we’re not in a Giallo anymore. 

Story-wise, the two films share little in common apart from the key characters and some obvious scenes, like the exhausting first dance or the step counting scene, which will either please or infuriate hardcore fans.  

Guadagnino’s Suspiria is structured in “six acts and an epilogue” - something that is literally announced on screen - beginning with a frantic Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz), visiting her psychiatrist, Dr Klemperer (Johnny Dep... sorry, Tilda Swinton under layers of make-up to play the only main male character of the story, more on which later...), telling stories about witches running the dance academy she’s studying in. The good Doctor is quickly convinced that Patricia is subject to paranoid delusion, but when she goes missing, he decides to investigate. 

Meanwhile, Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) travels from Ohio to Berlin to join the Helena Markos school of dance, following her dream of being a dancer at Madame Blanc's (Tilda Swinton, again) company, which she has admired for what seems to be forever. Whilst in the original we discover the school through the eyes of a clueless Susie, undergoing the same downward spiral as her, this time there’s no mystery at all: the fact that the school is run by witches is made explicit immediately. More so, it seems that there is a power struggle going on in the house between Madame Markos (guess who?) - the original creator of the school, who is seemingly several hundreds year old - and the more progressive and much younger Madame Blanc, who wants to take over and change how the coven is managed.  

This lack of mystery about what is taking place in the academy has a purpose which I won’t spoil here, but is definitely not the best decision from Guadagnino, as it essentially kills almost everything that made the original Suspiria a masterpiece, most notably the awkward and oppressive ambiance. Horror is more about not knowing what unfolds in front your eyes than simply serving some questionably shocking imagery every once in a while. And that’s the whole point: carrying all the stigmata of the modern horror genre, Suspiria tries desperately to be so much more of a horror movie that it eventually fails to become.  

Some reviews predicted Suspiria would probably become “one of the most divisive films of the year,” arguably because of its “intentionally ambiguous vision”. Unlike the original, there are no lines drawn between good and bad, only a vague grey area. How visionary! However, these grey areas merely lead to a lack of point of view in a movie which lazily relies on concepts designed to fit the post #metoo era in Hollywood, claiming that it’s only about powerful women.

In case it’s not obvious enough, Guadagnino uses the political context of the post-war divided Berlin of the “German Autumn” - during which a large part of the population held a grudge against the older generation in power -  to create a parallel with women's contemporary power struggle against men. This could have been a clever idea if it somehow connected with the story. Instead it feels more like backdrop, an intellectual token to make the film look smarter than it is. 

Then there is the Dr. Klemperer character... While not in the original movie, Kemperer has been added as the only important male character in the story. He’s so important, in fact, that the film starts and ends with him. Guadagnino mentioned in several interviews that he chose to give this role to Tilda Swinton because, as the film is all about women, he wouldn’t let “male gaze” into it. So why not create a female character instead? Apparently because a woman in a story about witches could potentially have been seen as not enough of an outsider. You could argue that to create a male character designed to be an outsider in a story about women, only to give the role to a woman in order to avoid letting a man interfere with a film directed, written and produced by men could feel a bit twisted. But who are we to judge?

There is probably a reasonably good horror movie hidden behind this unnecessarily over sub-plotted two and a half hour film

So, is the new Suspiria a good film? To put it simply, in the original, we had little brat Dario Argento who, with all his imperfection created a subversive dark tale which merely aims to tell you a story and potentially give you nightmares. Whilst in 2018 we have little goody-two-shoes Guadagnino, who claims to have made a film about femininity and sensuality but ends up with a film full of hypocrisy. Sadly, it's rather telling of how the genre has evolved over the past forty years. There is probably a reasonably good horror movie hidden behind this unnecessarily over sub-plotted two-and-a-half-hour film that could have existed if the team behind it was concerned in creating a film for the horror genre. It’s visually beautiful and, even though way too long, it manages to keep you hooked until a relatively enjoyable Grand-Guignol finale, during which the film seems to suddenly remember what it’s actually about. But even this brief moment of satisfaction falls flat due to its peaceful-ish epilogue. If this is enough for you, you won’t feel like you’re wasting two-and-a-half hours of your life.  

When asked by Indiewire about the idea of a remake, Dario Argento answered, “The film has a specific mood. Either you do it exactly the same way — in which case, it’s not a remake, it’s a copy, which is pointless — or, you change things and make another movie. In that case, why call it “Suspiria?”  

And to be fair, I believe someone already followed this advice by making another movie whilst keeping this specific mood without calling it Suspiria. And that reminds me, I really do want to watch Rob Zombie’s Lords of Salem again. 

Did you know? Dakota Johnson completed two years of ballet training in preparation for her role

Suspiria is screening at Broadway Cinema until Thursday 29 November

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