PLOT: A coven of witches in Berlin in 1977 run a modern dance troupe.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There’s only room for one Suspiria on the List. That doesn’t mean you want to pass on this very different, and slightly weird, remake, however, if for no other reason than to see the classic story reimagined in a dramatically different style.
COMMENTS: Suspiria (2018) keeps the title, the notion of a coven of dancing witches, and some of the character names from Dario Argento‘s Expressionist giallo classic—and really, that’s about it. Director Luca Guadagnino decided to spend his capital from the Oscar-nominated gay romance Call Me By Your Name on an unlikely remake of a 1970s cult Italian horror film. That was a strange enough choice, but then he promised to give us a Suspiria as it might have been made by German New-Wave director Rainer Fassbinder. (This odd choice prompted Owen Gliberman to snidely, but hilariously, wonder what’s next: “a remake of ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ done in the style of Chantal Akerman?”)
So, where the first film was an Expressionist fairy tale, Guadagnino makes the update into a realistic (if supernatural), character-driven drama. The innocent young ballet students of the original are now professional adult dancers. The main characters now have elaborate backstories: chief sacrificial victim Susie is a refugee from a repressive Mennonite upbringing, while the psychiatrist, the minor-est of characters in the original, is now is the secondary protagonist, an old man now haunted by his country’s Nazi past. The witches themselves are more detailed, with Tilda Swinton’s ghostly Madame Blanc a major presence, and the script even delves into internal coven politics. The story is now set in “a divided Berlin” in 1977 (the year of Suspiria‘s release), with the Cold War and the German Autumn terror playing in the background. And the implicitly feminist script even makes a shout out to the #metoo movement when the witches chastise the psychiatrist for “not believing” women.
If the original was a largely plotless, irrational spook show, then there is, if anything, too much plot and too much psychology at play in the remake. It’s not entirely clear how all of the themes, both personal and political, are intended to connect, but puzzling them out is one of the film’s pleasures. The many subplots make for a horror film that’s overlong at two-and-a-half hours, but when it’s at its best, it has moments of witchy intensity that match Argento. An early cringer sees a dancer mutilated in a mirrored room as she’s jerked about telekinetically like a marionette. The witches send genuinely spooky nightmares full of worms, organs and levitation to plague Susie. The performance of Madame Blanc’s postmodern “Volk,” with the dancers draped in blood-red ropes and a pentagram nonchalantly taped to the floor in plain view, captures your eyeballs. And the climax, when we finally see the ritual the witches have been building to all along, is full of spouting blood, nude contortionists, and diabolical betrayals, and is well worth the wait. This version likely won’t displace Argento’s masterpiece in horror fans’ hearts, but at least this arty take on Suspiria shows the proper way to do a remake—take general themes from the original and refashion them into something stylistically new.
I believe that this gynocentric film is one of those rare movies to meet the reverse-Bechdel test: there is no moment where two men have a conversation that is not about a woman.
The Jessica Harper cameo you assumed would be here is indeed here. Dakota Johnson, previously best known as the Shades of Grey chick, proves here that she can be a serious actress. Meanwhile, Tilda Swinton deserves some Best Supporting Actress chatter for her performance, but will not receive it. On a related note, Best Makeup seems like a better shot for a nom.