Suspiria (2018) - Review

A flawed and tremendously entertaining remake of the horror classic.

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The original Suspiria casts a large shadow. Since its release, countless iconic horror films have threatened to overshadow the Italian slasher, but Dario Argento’s bombastic masterpiece has not lost a drip of its allure, especially in its new 4K restoration. The vivid colors pop and sizzle the same as in 1977, but there’s a definite old school quality to the film that stands out in 2018. The kills are subdued, focusing more on atmosphere and vivid emotional distress, and the climax feels like an easy victory for Susie Bannion. This isn’t to say the film hasn’t aged well; it has, but it’s not a film that would stand out today, at least not in the mainstream that Luca Guadagnino occupies. The Call Me By Your Name director has seen his reputation go from beloved indie auteur to major Oscar contender in just a few years, without having to sacrifice much of his talent. He simply accepted good projects, which makes the prospect of a Suspiria remake in his hands feel all but predestined. A successful and somewhat experimental Italian director takes an Italian classic with the intention of making something new, and new it is. In his hands, Suspiria is a fantastic horror film that stands out in one of the best years for horror in recent memory, and, a drama rooted in the more traditional aspects of filmmaking he has done so well to avoid.

This film does away with one of the most compelling aspects of the original: the mystery. In the first scene, we are introduced to Patricia, who tells all about the witches of the Markos Dance Company and their torture of her. In its place, Suspiria inserts more gore, more character development, and a lot more dancing. The dozens of conversational scenes straddle the line of necessity, and often drag the film to a crawl. Where the original made practically every scene stand out with neon lighting and wild camera angles, Suspiria sticks to filmmaking 101, when it wants to. If it’s not a two shot or a standard wide, it’s a montage of horrific images or grisly murders. This film takes the experimental roots of the original to a place leaning toward absurdism, as ghostly shadows dance across walls and a defective dancer is contorted to unimaginable degrees. That scene, in which Dakota Johnson’s Susie is given an opportunity to show her skills at the company, is the first great moment of the film. It takes a core aspect of Suspiria and marries it to one of the most disgusting types of horror there is, body horror. As Susie’s movements affect the helpless Olga downstairs, the viewing experience turns from curious to disheartened, to altogether repulsive. Dazzling moments are hard to come by in horror, and much like the beating scene in last year’s superb mother!, this one sticks out for its lack of restraint. When we realize that Susie is somewhat aware of the effect she is having on Olga, the film begins its trend toward a new, more sinister conclusion.

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The dynamic between the witches is central to the story of Suspiria, communicated through several creative dinner scenes that have the instructors speaking openly about who they will kill and who must be spared. The vote for a leader that opens their dialogue is an eerie foreshadow to the end of the film, when Madame Blanc is pushed to make an allegiance. Seeing part of the film from her perspective gives wonderful opportunity for Tilda Swinton to shine, in a role she elevates despite its difficult tone. Blanc is supportive and manipulative, collected and capable of unspeakable acts, and Swinton plays her with the same degree of quality we’ve come to expect. She’s a highlight of the film, and her various encounters with Susie make for some of the best (and corniest) moments of the film. On the other hand, there is Dakota Johnson. The original actress to play Susie, Jessica Harper, played her with a confidence that was uncharacteristic of slasher movies at the time. Her performance stands out today as a bold, unafraid young dancer who wants to do what’s best for the company and her friends. In this film, Susie is given much more to work with, wisely building on the confidence that makes her character so appealing. She is nervous to audition and perform in front of other students at first, but her ego is quick to swell at the slightest amount of praise. As the film progresses, Johnson is given more and more challenging lines and scenes (“It felt like what I think it must feel like to fuck”), but she is up for the challenge. The combination of her staunch demeanor and convincing red hair make her an obvious black sheep, and more sinister than I expected. I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say that it does not make itself in the image of its creator. The film feels less like a remake and more an homage to the characters and setting of the classic film, which is exactly what a remake should be. Rather than try to recapture the feeling of the original or tell a completely separate story, Suspiria honors the source material in choosing to tell a twisted version of it. This isn’t a film that fits the brand for modern horror, and in many ways feels like a cult classic already, but it is likely to draw negative attention for its excessive use of violence. The moments that use it were some of my favorites, partially because I was scared, but mostly because I felt untethered. The filmmakers go to places so shocking that I felt nothing was off limits, and that certainly holds true. Certain scenes can induce laughter for their over the top nature and effects, but in the same way that the original film’s soundtrack added an element of absurdity to the original, so do these graphic scenes.

Let’s talk about the music. Thom Yorke’s score is a far cry from the spooky synths and metal-influenced dirges of the original soundtrack; it instead relies upon the use of strings, piano, and simple melody. Yorke’s Radiohead connection blares loudest on songs like “Suspirium” and “Open Again”, while the quietly devastating “Volk” sounds more like a Selected Ambient Works Vol. 2 deep cut. Aside from a few songs that are used as mood pieces for the various dances the company performs, most of the soundtrack is string heavy, electronic tinged instrumentals that lean toward Yorke’s last solo album, 2014’s Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes. That album contained the exact type of sullen ballad (“Interference”, “The Mother Lode”) that Thom employs on “Suspirium”, the best and most critical song here. For a deeper analysis you can check out our track review, but in short, this is not only one of the best songs he’s composed, it also captures the film’s mood perfectly. Thom sounds stretched, especially on the longer cuts that require him to keep the song interesting without taking away too much tension from the scene with a beat drop or out of place synth, and he is better for it. Fourteen minute “A Choir of One” uses choral vocals and a synth, with some muffled sound effects at the end to soundtrack one of the most crushing scenes in the film. Thom’s ability to write something so complementary to the film is a major feat for a first time composer, and his songwriting is highlighted every chance the film gets.

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Suspiria is a film unlike any other this year. It is bloody, ritualistic, and awash in experimentalism pulled straight from the 70s, as well as a compelling retelling of the original. It is likely to rub many the wrong way with violence and a momentous climax, but the spell is strong. It is too long, borrows more often than it should, and is fraught with corny dialogue that threatens to pull the filmgoer out of the experience altogether, but without these things it would not be half the film it is. Being forced to sit so long lulls you into an expectation that things will turn out ok, or at least turn out, and the various elements it draws from the original give it a mirrored vision of the time. The story is dramatic and overly serious, but it more than justifies itself. It’s a flawed masterpiece, much like the original, and I wouldn’t want to see any other version of it.