More than a remake, a rebirth for the iconic horror film
Remake. There’s few words like it to instill fear and strong reactions among film lovers. Despite the original always being preserved, any re-imagining of a cherished film seems to draw plenty of reactions, and some over-reactions (to put it mildly). Some of it is understandable, remakes often diluting down so much of what made the original so special, or losing some of the factors that sparked together to make it so memorable, such as the cast and era. But there are those that do impress, think The Fly, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dawn of the Dead. Even if they don’t top the original, they bring something fresh to the mix to differentiate themselves. Not a retelling, but a reinterpretation, or a rebirth, as is the case with the 2018 Suspiria. Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name) and screenwriter David Kajganich, inspired by the giallo master Dario Argento’s original, deliver a film that dances to its own beat.
Dakota Johnson plays Susie Bannion, an untrained but naturally gifted dancer who leaves behind her devout family in rural Ohio to seek training under Madam Blanc (Tilda Swinton), a famous performer she saw at a young age, who is now running the renowned Helena Markos Dance Company in Berlin. Susie impresses in her initial interview, her presence drawing a keen interest from Madam Blanc and the other women running the school. She is granted a position, filling the recently vacated spot of another dancer, Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz), who had absconded several days earlier — a fact that seems to bother no one save her therapist, one Dr. Klemperer, who begins to investigate her disappearance. He finds that her escalating delusions (that the dance school is in fact concealing a coven of witches) may not be as crazy as he first suspected. As he gets closer to the truth, Susie’s talents grow, and the reasons for her growing bond with the coven becomes horrifyingly clear.
Guadagnino and David Kajganich keep the bones of the original, but the flesh is starker — there is more connective tissue. The motives of this coven and even their existence is more explicit. A group in decay, they must attempt a ritual to save an elder of their order while also contending with an internal power struggle, both critical to the survival of them all. Susie being the spark that may rekindle their power and life. But first Blanc must cultivate her talents, extending effort to nurture her like her mother never did, supplanting an upbringing that repressed Susie for so long. She responds by casting it off, embracing the ecstasy of the dance, and everything else that comes with it.
The lurid, pulsating colors of the original are gone, replaced by stark architecture and a dowdy palette, reflective of the new location of 1977 Berlin and an aesthetic that would do Rainer Werner Fassbinder proud. Instead of the emotional madness of Argento, we have restraint and structure, an aspect first alluded to with a title card introducing “six acts and an epilogue set in divided Berlin.” A discordant Goblin score is replaced by an all together more haunting composition, along with original songs by Thom Yorke. Even simple movements and gestures convey far more about the abilities and intent of these women than anything in the original, as well as how Susie’s burgeoning talents connect them all.
With the more subdued aesthetic comes a shift in tone. A scene early in the film connects the medium of dance to the occult in horrific fashion. In doing so, every jump, twist, or twirl comes with a level of menace. While the dance sequences are breathtaking, the choreography is imbued with menace. Dread infuses the film. Guadagnino toys with unsettling imagery including flashes, visions in nightmares, and snappy camera movements that harken back to the original. It’s all capped off by a final act that delivers a spectacular bloody vibrancy that makes the rest of the film look all the more anemic. Dakota Johnson is captivating from the start. Her movement and body language is mesmerizing, her arc one of a timid repressed soul that undergoes transformation, as Blanc begins to unlock her talents — a process bordering on the erotic for the pupil. Susie’s story is fleshed out more than the original, bringing a conflicting Amish/Mennonite upbringing into the mix. Guadagnino once again draws on one of his most trusted collaborators in Swinton (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash) who as you’d expect delivers on every conceivable level. In fact the only real quibble with the film is they leave you wanting more, with a final act getting less focus and attention than other aspects of the film, looking to shift the dynamic between teacher and pupil. Both leads are supported by an admirable cast of female actors, including an excellent Mia Goth. Notably, the only real men in the film are a pair of hapless detectives and Dr. Jozef Klemperer (who is actually portrayed by Swinton herself). It’s another aspect of the film to ruminate upon — a feminist slant that reinforces the ideals of the coven and redirects focus onto women.
While failing to set the box office alight, the response to the film was certainly polarized, with even Argento wading in recently to offer his views. It’s certainly his prerogative to offer up his views on the film, but frankly the world is big enough for the two visions. Much of the negative commentary stem from aspects of the film that seemingly detract from the central narrative, specifically Klemperer and his investigation, and the era in which the film is set , specifically the turmoil of 1977 Berlin as the protesting Red Army Faction pushed back against the fascist German government. After repeat viewings I feel these aspects fit in and complement the whole more-so than on initial viewing. Violence to cast off the shackles of male rule and oppression, and the importance of sisterhood. Also the folly of adhering to tradition when there is a need to adapt to the changing times. Suspiria 2018 sparks conversation and warrants analysis, delivering rebirth from revolution, and an experience that gets more rewarding with each viewing.
The lush, psychedelic colors and ornate visuals of Argento’s original are replaced by the more muted palette of 70s Berlin. Browns and greys dominate, with stylistic flourishes throughout, courtesy of cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom. It’s no technicolor nightmare like the original, but it’s hauntingly beautiful and impressively intricate in its own way. The Blu-ray shows the composition off well, detail and texture impress, as do contrast, natural color palettes, and deep blacks.
Extra features are very lackluster. With such an array of talent working on the film and such richness on display, a likely treasure trove of material is absent. There’s not even a featurette touching on the recruitment of Thom Yorke for the score, the return of one of the stars of the original, nor any kind of discussion/comparison between the two films and the differing approach of the writers/directors. Suspiria 2018 is a film that invites discussion and analysis, this is not a release that reflects that sadly.
- The Making of Suspiria: Just 4 minutes in length, it’s a superficial look at the film that references the original, and the changes to the narrative for this version
- The Secret Language of Dance: Again barely lasting longer than the first featurette, it’s a look at the use of dance in the film, with a profile of choreographer Damien Jalet. This artistic component is so vital to the film, in terms of aesthetic and narrative, and deserving of attention.
- The Transformations of Suspiria: A similar length for this final featurette which delves into some of the makeup, prosthetic, and other special effects
- Digital download code:
The Bottom Line
Despite a very underwhelming set of extra features, Suspiria is a film I simply have to recommend on Blu-ray as in my mind it’s one of, if not the best film of 2018. It’s full of richness and depth, in terms of production, narrative, and performances, qualities that ensure repeat viewings will be rewarded. The vivid ecstasy of Argento’s original is replaced by a vision that is far more stark and unnerving, one that dances its way under your skin. We live in a world where there are now two glorious movies called Suspiria. Thank mother and rejoice in them both.
Suspiria is available on Blu-ray from January 29th