Monday, October 26, 2020

31 Days of Horror: Suspiria (2018)

Directed by Luca Guadagnino.
2018. Rated R, 153 minutes.
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Chloe Grace Moretz, Mia Goth, Angela Winkler, Alex Wek, Ingrid Caven, Sylvie Testud, Renee Soutendijk, Jessica Harper.  

    In 1977 Berlin, we meet Patricia (Moretz) in the middle of a full-blown paranoid fit. She is at the home/office of her psychiatrist Dr. Josef Klemperer. She's telling him about the strange goings on at the Markos Dance Academy as coherently as she can muster, which isn't very. The short of it is she thinks the place is a front for a cult run by a coven of witches. Klemperer seems concerned, but when her time is up, she leaves. We soon find out that she's gone missing. On the flip side, Susie (Johnson) shows up at the school, seemingly of her own initiative, talks her way into an audition, and floors everyone. Welcome to Markos, Susie!

    Almost immediately, we find out that Markos really is run by a coven of witches. They worship Mother Tenebrarum, Mother Lachrymarum, and Mother Suspiriorum, collectively known as The Three Mothers. We also learn that they are looking for a new girl to groom for...something. That job is left to Madame Blanc (Swinton). At the moment, the coven has set their sights on Susie. Dr. Klemperer starts sniffing around in an effort to find out what happened to Patricia. And away we go.

    In case you're somehow unaware, this is a remake of 1977's cult classic Suspiria, directed by Dario Argento. Honestly, I don't like that film. Find out why, here. I went into this with an open mind because every film deserves the chance to stand on its own. To its credit, this film takes that to heart. Though it retains the overarching plot, its approach is its own. We're less in the dark this time as the film lays its cards on the table early and often. This works in the film's favor and its detriment. It's one of those films where there is simultaneously too much and not enough going on. The 'too much' comes in the form of all the various subplots. Though Susie is closest to getting the screen time of a protagonist, whatever reasons she has for being at Markos are treated as a side story. The film also plays up the conflict going on in Berlin at the time, the German Autumn, as if it matters to the story. It doesn't, best I can tell. The real plot has to do with the power struggle between the witches. Then there's Patricia's story. And Olga's story. And Sara's. It's definitely enough to keep you off-balance. Then again, I suppose that's at least part of the point. The film seems to go out of its way to bemuse. The issue is that those intentions are transparent. It seems to be purposely taking the most labyrinthine path to its destination. Suspiria manages to pick up all the pieces, organize them, and make the puzzle fit together neatly. Some might say a little too neatly given all the audience is put through and the oddball stylings of the original film. 

    The real issue, though, is that lack of a strong protagonist. Dakota Johnson does fine in the role of Susie with what she's given to do. Well, except the dancing. I thought she was horrible at that aspect, but whatever. Unfortunately, she's not given as much to do. What little is required of her is far less interesting than most of the other characters. We care more about Patricia, Dr. Klemperer, Madame Blanc, and several others who have things going on. We come to  Most of Susie's role would remain largely unchanged if they whittled all of her dialogue down to just saying yes or no in replying to the various questions and demands of her. For that ending to really work, to be as unnerving as it thinks it is, we have to develop real empathy for Susie. However, she's too much of a blank slate for us to get emotionally involved with. By contrast, we are fully invested in the life of Dani, the main character of Midsommar, which I watched a day or two prior. The two characters suffer similar fates, but to far different effect. With Dani, we're tied in knots anguishing over her for every minute of that film's two-and-a-half hour runtime. In a similar amount of time, Suspiria, makes it clear that the powers that be are doting on Susie, but never make it clear why. She's only special because the movie says so, not because it shows us anything special. Here is where people who have seen it might say, but when she does this, that happens. I'd say it does, but we're not even sure if that was of her doing or someone else's. She certainly seems to have no knowledge of what happened, and then we just move on to something else. To be clear, I am in no way saying this movie needs to be Midsommar. What I am saying is Susie needs to be better developed.

    All that's happening around Susie is the film's saving grace. The rest of the cast is pretty amazing. Tilda Swinton does Tilda Swinton things and handles three roles. I've only mentioned Madame Blanc. I'm asking you not to look up who else she plays (if you don't already know) and see if you can pick her out. Even if you can, though, she's perfection in all three. As a sidenote, her Madame Blanc gets the best visual effect in the movie, but we'll talk about visuals later. In a rather short amount of time, Chloe Grace Moretz gets us firmly on her side with some gut-wrenching work. Several of the witches and students all do well. One of them, Alex Wek as Miss Millius, stands out more than most through her sheer physicality. In a movie with a number of professional models, including her, she towers over the rest, and has such a striking look you can't take your eyes off her. Her actual acting is not bad, but certainly helped along by her presence. 

    Now, let's talk about those visuals. This movie differentiates itself from the original in several ways. The easiest to spot is its choice of color palette. 1977's Suspiria is all bright, vivid colors. The very appearance of certain colors and/or switching between them serves as storytelling. Here, it's all muted, earthy tones with a few deliberate exceptions. Even the bloodsoaked finale is made to fit this aesthetic as much as possible. It's brighter than the rest of the film, but nowhere near what Dario Argento was doing. This grounds the film in a reality not attainable by the original. It does add to the overall creepiness of what's going on. While the dazzling hues of the original makes it a surreal experience, this trades that for as much verisimilitude as possible. The idea being we're more likely to be bothered by what seems like it could really happen than by some fever dream, possibly born of mind-altering substances. Still, there is no shortage of interesting and cringe-worthy imagery throughout the film. Flesh and bones are treated harshly. This allows for untold levels of contortion by the human body. This induced more than a few audible groans from me. That's a good thing, by the way.

    In the end, this version of Suspiria mostly achieves its goals. It is a twisted tale, filled with unsightly instances in a world hiding within our own. At once, it's far too coherent for those looking for a straightforward remake of the original, but possibly not coherent enough for those who haven't seen its predecessor. To that end, the film would be well-served to strip away the forced setting. There is no reason this movie takes place in 1977, aside from that is when the original was made. Setting it present day would remove the conflict outside school walls and allow more time for us to spend with Susie. Finally, the movie falls short in giving us that definitive mind-blowing moment that haunts us. Every movie doesn't need this, but Suspiria wants one badly, but can't quite pull it off. I do like this movie a lot better than the original. Blasphemy, I know. However, it's still missing that little bit of umph.


  1. Sorry you didn't like the original but at least appreciated this one. While I admit that I prefer the original film by Dario Argento, Luca Guadagnino does manage to create a version of the film that is quite scary and intense as I also applaud him for taking some major risks as I enjoyed this version of the story as well.

    1. I know everyone loves the original, but it just didn't work for me. I said I wouldn't watch it again, but I've changed my mind on that. I will give it another go. Mainly because I own a copy. Who knows, it may grow on me. Guadagnino indeed took some chances. Most of them were to my liking.