Suspiria

November 8, 2018
Suspiria 2018.. This bit wasn't in the original film

Most remakes leave one pondering the wisdom of Oscar Wilde’s line: “each man kills the thing he loves.” If a filmmaker feels so attached to a movie that he or she wants to make it again, surely that remake should be an insightful re-imagining of the original.

I don’t need to stress how rarely this happens. The vast majority of remakes are tone deaf travesties made by soulless hacks. I never thought I’d see a worse remake than Len Wiseman’s version of Total Recall, but this year it was eclipsed by ‘Director X’ who gave us a new Superfly.

Nevertheless the prospect of Dario Argento’s 1977 horror classic, Suspiria, being remade by a director as distinguished as Luca Guadagnino, was tantalising to say the least. Argento is the acknowledged master of those violent B-films known as giallo – the term derives from a post-war series of pulp novels with yellow covers. Guadagnino has established himself as one the rising stars of Italian cinema with films such as I Am Love, A Bigger Splash and Call Me By Your Name.

Mario Bava may have pioneered the giallo films in the 1960s, but with Suspiria (AKA. Sighs), Argento brought a new artistry to the genre. The story may be told in one sentence: American girl, Suzy Bannion, comes to study at an exclusive dance academy in Freiburg, only to find it is run by a coven of murderous witches. The brilliance of the movie lies in its mise-en-scène – the way the story is told through visual and aural means.

The opening sequence in which Suzy arrives at Munich airport and makes her way to the Academy by taxi, in the pouring rain, is justly famous. The elaborate murders are theatrical masterpieces, while the extraordinary use of colour gives the production a nightmarish feeling. The visuals are offset by a pulsating soundtrack by prog rock band, Goblin.

Argento and cinematographer, Luciano Tovoli, worked to create a hallucinogenic atmosphere with no recourse to the dreary CGI indulgences that disfigure so many contemporary movies. In Suspiria the special effects – all smoke and mirrors – are uniformly breathtaking.

Suspiria is so unique it was intriguing to see how Guadagnino and scriptwriter, David Kajganich, would rework the most memorable scenes. In fact, the story has been so radically rearranged most of these scenes have disappeared. At 152 minutes the new Suspiria is 52 minutes longer than its precursor, but has lost many of the best bits. The action has been shifted from Freiburg to Berlin, 1977, when the wall was still standing, and a raft of new characters and subplots have appeared.

Although Argento’s story was set in a dance academy there was virtually no dancing. The new Suspiria has a lot more terpsichorean activity, as victims have their bones broken to a the rhythm of a dance. Towards the end, an avant-garde piece called Volk is performed in front of an audience.

Do the dances and new story-lines distinguish this film from the old one? Yes, in the worst possible sense. By transferring the action to Berlin the filmmakers have given themselves a licence for all kinds of indulgence. A large role is given to an elderly psychiatrist called Dr. Josef Klemperer, (played by Tilda Swinton in the most astounding make-up). Klemperer is analysing one of the student dancers, Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz), who has told him the Academy is full of witches. He doesn’t believe it, but feels sure the teachers are hiding something nasty.

Klemperer is not only concerned for Patricia, who is thought to have gone off and joined the Baader-Meinhof terrorists, but is stricken with feelings of guilt and loss over his wife, who disappeared into East Germany at the end of the war. Suddenly we find ourselves dealing with the terrorist movements of the 70s, the legacy of the Nazism and much else.

This material adds a full set of clichés in the guise of would-be profundities, and sows the seeds of confusion. Meanwhile back at the dance academy, something resembling the original plot is being played out, with Tilda Swinton as both the head teacher, Madame Blanc, and the supernatural presence of the school’s founder, Helena Markos.

The role of Suzy Bannion, originally played by round-faced Jessica Harper, falls to Dakota Johnson. This is an unhappy update as the original Suzy gave an impression of innocence and naivety, but proved to have nerves of steel. Johnson’s Suzy – who supposed hails from a puritanical Mennonite family – is far too worldly. In Argento’s film Suzy’s incredible survival skills are celebrated by the briefest of smiles as the credits roll. In Gaudagnino’s version the final scenes are a dramatic catastrophe – ridiculous rather than scary.

There are some vivid images and strong passages in the new Suspiria, notably the crazed, involuntary dancing that leads to grievous bodily harm, but there are also scenes where the action seems to collapse in on itself, inducing bewilderment and boredom.

Ultimately we’re left with the spectacle of a talented director failing badly as he tries too hard to avoid his predecessor’s influence – which leads to the obvious question: “Why bother?” What’s the point of remaking a classic only to turn it into a mess? If there was one feature that made the original Suspiria so revolutionary it was the expressionist use of colour, but Gaudagnino’s palette is predominantly cold and grey. The witches are still there, evil as ever, but the magic has gone.

Suspiria
Directed by Luca Guadagnino
Written by David Kajganich, after a screenplay by Dario Argento & Daria Nicolodi
Starring Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Chloë Grace Moretz, Mia Goth, Angela Winkler, Ingrid Caven, Alek Wek, Sylvie Testud, Renée Soutendijk, Elena Fokina
Italy/USA, rated MA 15+, 152 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 10 November, 2018