IN SELECTED CINEMAS: NOW
RUNNING TIME: 152 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
West Berlin 1977. Patricia Hingle, a dancer at the Markos Dance Academy, hysterically tells her psychotherapist Josef Klemperer that the place is ran by witches, then mysteriously disappears. Susie Bannion arrives from Ohio and her audition impresses Madame Blanc, the lead choroegrapher, so much that she gets a place there, taking over Patricia’s room, and soon the lead role in the company’s most famous dance piece ‘Volk’. However, journals left by Patricia in Klemperer’s office tell him about The Three Mothers, a trio of witches who predate Christianity: Mater Suspiriorum, Mater Tenebrarum, and Mater Lachrymarum – and strange things are certainly beginning to happen in the place.…
So at last the new version of Dario Argento’s Suspiria is upon us in the UK, though with only fairly limited distribution, after getting a very mixed response from both critics and audiences in the USA. Like many others, I became angry when the project was announced, but also like many others eventually became intrigued. At least it wasn’t going to be the work of a hack, and director Luca Guadagnino said all the right things about loving the original [let’s ignore the thought I often have with remakes that if somebody loves a film then why on earth would he or she want to remake it in the first place?] but very much doing his own thing with the remake, his film seemingly one that would pay homage but also go down some different paths so it justified its existence. Unfortunately the result is something of a cinematic catastrophe, continually sunk by poor film making, poor story telling, and an astounding number of poor decisions that make me wonder if Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich were deliberately trying to sabotage their own film. It’s also a picture which seems to be ashamed of being a remake of a horror film from 1977, from the way it tries to sidetrack itself at every opportunity to the almost random pouring of themes onto it. I’m sorry Luca, but it seems to me that you don’t respect or like the original film much at all. I would say that Dario no doubt regrets being an associate producer on this thing, but actually considering the low quality of his recent output he probably doesn’t care.
The early scenes, in what is the first of six acts, introduce us to West Berlin in 1977 and initially an atmosphere reminiscent of the 1982 Possession [which I soon wished I was watching instead of this crap]. The place is in turmoil due to the political violence associated with the Baader-Meinhof Gang and the hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181, and every now and again we’re reminded of this stuff so that one has a right to expect it to eventually tie in to the main narrative – only that it never does – so why was it in the film? Even more pointless is one whole character, the elderly Josef Klemperer, a holocaust survivor who still yearns for his lost love. You could totally remove him with only very minor alteration of the script, because he has virtually nothing to do with the main story about these witches who live at a dance academy, and the film just bogs down [well, even more than it does anyway] whenever he’s onscreen. There’s nothing wrong with bringing in some new elements to an original premise, and to be fair Kajganich, looking forward a bit to Argento’s follow-up Inferno, does twist things with regard to the mythology of the Three Mothers in an interesting if not very coherent way, but for the most part it just seems that Guadagnino and Kajganich [we should worry that he’s scripting the new Pet Semetary] have little faith in the original material and seem to think they’re ‘above’ writing and directing a mere horror film, so they try to add all this irrelevant stuff to make it seem to like a loftier enterprise but can’t be bothered to actually mingle it in properly. Of course like every other film these days it seems director and writer have also seen fit to add a feminist subtext, while motherhood and losing oneself in dance also appear to be themes. And was it just me, or are there loads of vagina-shaped things in the film? Unfortunately, Guadagnino and Kajganich don’t seem to have anything to say about all the things they’ve thrown into their movie [another example, Susie’s Amish upbringing] and all we’re left with is a movie drowning under a lot of fake importance.
So our ‘heroine’ Susie becomes a student at the Markos Dance Academy and we’re informed almost right away that, yes, it contains a coven of witches, which totally ruins any sense of mystery. I guess that Guadagnino and Kajganich thought that there was little point in trying to be secretive here, but for god’s sake did they have to give us scene after scene of the witches sitting around telling us what they intend to do? Far from being made for intelligent, patient viewers who like to think [which is what defenders of the film would no doubt say and indeed probably what I’d be saying if I’d thought it was any good], at times it seems like this movie was made for complete idiots. There’s also a really stupid ‘dot joining’ moment, a dream scene that includes an image of a monstrous hand, which then cuts to another darn witch conversation scene that, right away, explains – yes – you’ve got it – said monstrous hand! I’m going to admit right now that I haven’t seen any of Guadagnino’s previous work, and I know Call Me By Your Name has been widely acclaimed, but with regard to Suspiria he doesn’t really know how to handle the material. Aside from the odd dream scene full of random one second edits of familiar horror imagery [a woman’s face covered in blood, a toilet full of hair etc.] to presumably tell us that Guadagnino does actually know what he’s doing, this film just plods along, sometimes showing interest in the story it’s telling, but sometimes not seeming to show much at all, as we’re waiting to see what the witches really want with Susie, whether her friend Sara will find out Too Much, and whether Klemperer may find out Too Much as well.
We do soon get what is already quite an infamous scene, in which Susie dances while her movements contort and mutilate Olga, another dancer who during a rehearsal has a go at Madame Blanc and then storms out to wnder about for a bit [the film almost, but not quite, becomes a little frightening here] eventually finding herself in a room full of mirrors. While Susie dances, her movements magically contort and twist Olga like she’s the world’s most flexible voodoo doll. It’s truly nasty, and it’s followed by several of the academy’s matrons dragging Olga’s mangled body away with large hooks, but the scene is also ‘off’ in a big way. The movements don’t match, the editing is sloppy, and it ends up looking like two unrelated happenings taking place. For a start, surely it would have been far better if both girls had been performing more similar movements? I suppose one can partly forgive Guadagnino’s inexperience in staging and filming this kind of thing, but surely he must have realised that his climax doesn’t work at all, with its red filter, blurry slow motion, reams of horrid CGI blood, and jarring choice of song placed over it all conspiring to reduce what should have been horrifying into something which instead is initially annoying and then turns into unintentional hilarity, the people in it left looking silly by the way they’re filmed. And aside from a rather sudden suicide, that’s pretty much it in this two and a half hour film in terms of moments of horror, while Guadagnino seems to have no interest whatsoever in providing any suspense either. At least some story developments towards the end do surprise, though there’s much that doesn’t make sense. I know that not everything has to in a film like this, but considering the acres of filler in the movie one might have a right to expect, for example, an answer as to why the witches collect hair or urine.
The cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom is odd: almost amateurish in some cases with some irritating sudden zooms, very impressive in others including some lovely long takes like the one that introduces all the witches, us being taken all around the dining room and the kitchen. It actually seems like two different people photographed this film. Meanwhile the decision to try not to match the original Suspiria’s saturated look was perhaps wise, but instead we mostly just get drabness. The colors are ugly, the production design is lazy, and the costumes are dull, while Thom Yorke’s score does have the odd nice string or piano piece but nothing of any resonance. Dakota Johnson, with red hair that’s probably intended to remind us of The Red Shoes [though it just made me wish I was watching that instead – is this the second time during this review I’ve said something like this?], seems to be getting continually weaker as an actress and she plays the role of Susie in a boringly one-note fashion even when her character changes in the final act. I kept wishing that she and Mia Goth, who plays Sara, had swapped roles, as Goth is a far more interesting performer and your eyes will probably be on her when she’s acting beside Johnson. As for Tilda Swinton – well let’s face it she tends to just play Tilda Swinton these days so one shouldn’t be disappointed when that’s all she really does here, at least as Madame Blanc. She also plays two other roles you may or may not know about. Her makeup in one case is excellent and if you’re not ‘in the know’ then you may be fooled. Jessica Harper’s cameo is a touching moment though in the end rather pointless like so much else.
While I do adore the original Suspiria, I’m not blinkered enough not to admit that it has a few flaws [the final quarter not matching the magnificent of the first three, the witch being killed too easily, some plot discrepancies], though I do feel that the overpowering style of the piece more than atones for them. But this new version is just a disaster. I do feel a bit sad at having to criticise so much a film where its creators seem to have been left alone to do whatever they wanted with no interference – but the result actually makes a good argument for studio meddling, which is something I never thought I’d say. Something else I never thought I’d say is this – David Gordon Green was originally going to make this and, despite me probably liking his Halloween least out of all of us on HCF, it would have been better if he had. At least the result would have shown some respect for the original, lots of respect for its genre and even a bit more respect for its audience. “It’s all a mess” says Susie at the end of the film. She’s totally right.