Remakes tend to be emblematic of Hollywood’s general creative malaise. Some hot shot, studio hack director is brought in to regurgitate an old franchise you never much liked in the first place. That’s the pessimist’s view. But if you have a capacity for hope, you could view remakes as an opportunity for reinvention. Especially if they are filtered through the perspective of an exciting cinematic voice.
With that in mind, we come to director Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 Giallo horror, Suspiria. The original, and this new version, both tell the story of a young woman, Susie Bannion, who is accepted into a dance academy in West Berlin. A skilled dancer, she wins over the academy director, Madame Blanc, and is welcomed into a new, darkly seductive world. But there is danger lurking just beneath the surface at the academy, and a previous student, who has recently gone missing, had been raving about a dark conspiracy involving a coven of witches …
Argento’s original was notable for its distinctive visual flair, as well as its striking scenes of violence, and has been hailed as an influential film within the horror canon. But the original’s style is noticeably dated, and Guadignino, the director of this new iteration, is hot off a career-high success – his last film, Call Me by Your Name was nominated for four Academy Awards, winning one for best screenplay. So surely, this 2018 reimagining of Suspiria has the necessary ingredients to be the optimist’s idea of a remake.
Well, yes and no. As a director, Guadignino has recurring motifs that he likes to explore in his films, namely relationships, intimacy and the human body. These were explored in both Call Me by Your Name, and his previous effort, A Bigger Splash. And in his version of Suspiria, he stays true to form, for better or worse.
Suspiria’s effective moments come from scenes involving the human body in movement. There are some great, visually arresting scenes featuring the academy’s dancers at work. The camera and the sounds chop and snap with the dancer’s movements, vividly bringing the scenes to life. This visual flair is also present for the film’s supernatural violence. The gore isn’t constant in this version, but when it strikes, it strikes hard. One particular scene is so remorselessly bone twisting, it will have the most grizzled horror veteran wincing.
The film’s presentation is generally impeccable. There are some nightmare sequences dotted through the film, and they are perfect dread-inducing nightmare fuel. Even little touches like the film’s evolving act cards add to the film’s generally pristine visual quality. The performances – notably the film’s two main characters, played by previous Guadagnino collaborators Dakota Johnson and Tilda Swinton – are all excellent to a person.
But while the film has plenty of style and pedigree, it suffers from a general lack of focus. Unless you’re telling a sprawling story, horror should be lean and direct, and the scares and violence should serve a story. This version of Suspiria feels meandering. In fairness, that’s the director’s style; he likes his stories to have a naturalistic, freewheeling quality. But for horror, concision is key. The film also tries to add unnecessary subtext – detailing the wider situation in Germany at the time of the narrative – and a needless subplot involving a character’s tragic romantic past. A historical romance subplot, no matter how expertly crafted, just feels odd in a film like this. Add this to the inflated run time, and the overall experience suffers greatly.
Suspiria’s qualities, and its problems, seem like a byproduct of the director’s creative vision meshing with the content and style of the original film. In other words, Guadagnino’s eye for effective visuals and stirring moments are let down by his preoccupation with human relationships, worsened by lethargic and unfocused pacing. This creative disconnect weighs down an already bloated experience. And while there is a lot to like in this new take on Suspiria, it lacks the merciless bite of a truly great horror.