Suspiria Does Too Much
Luca Guadagnino's remake of the cult classic is being billed as a musical event. It shouldn’t be.
“This movie features my all-time favorite kill scene. You’re gonna love it!”
That’s how a friend introduced me to Dario Argento’s cult horror film Suspiria. When it was released in 1977, Suspiria was considered a bloody, unsettling work of camp that lacked narrative focus but was so visually stunning that narrative didn’t matter. The universe of Suspiria was designed explicitly to disorient the viewer; pulsing, vivid technicolor paired with many references to the work of M.C. Escher and Walt Disney’s Snow White gave the Tanz Dance Academy the atmosphere of a fun house. In order to elevate the nightmarish quality of his film, Argento enlisted the prog band Goblin to create the throbbing, psychedelic score, one that is so claustrophobic and unrelenting that it elevates the madness of this film to an entirely new plane of weird, one that is impossible to eclipse.
Director Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria, which features new music from Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, is not a remake as much as it is a companion piece. It’s nearly an hour longer than the original and it contradicts Argento’s over-the-top giallo flair. Visually, Guadagnino’s Suspiria owes more to Chantal Akerman or the German artist Anselm Kiefer than it does Argento, which is to say that the landscape evokes nothing but post-war misery. Guadagnino sets the film in the year that Suspiria was released. Rather than situate it in Munich, he and writer David Kajganich move the dance academy to a still-divided Berlin during a time of political unrest known as the German Autumn.
It’s during this tumultuous period that a naïve American Mennonite named Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) joins the prestigious Markos Dance Company, which she soon learns is run by a coven of witches. Susie possesses a dark, untapped power that reveals itself under the training of the school’s formidable choreographer Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). As tensions outside of the dance company walls peak, the coven faces its own reckoning. In one very Guadagnino shot, the camera idles on an assortment of criss-crossed telephone wires stark against a gray sky that mirrors a grotesque holding cell of sorts in the dance company’s basement, as if to suggest that the terror within the building parallels that of the outside world.
Like its predecessor, this new Suspiria is being billed as a musical event. It shouldn’t be. In Argento’s Suspiria, the score was its own character. In Guadagnino’s, it’s more of an appendage. “Suspiria” stands in for “Suspiria de profundis,” Latin for “sighs from the depths.” Goblin’s original score incorporates sighs and gasps and moans and far-off cries of “Witch!” And while there is plenty of sighing and gasping and moaning in this new film, Yorke’s score doesn’t come close to incorporating the film’s sound design as artfully as it could.
This is Yorke’s first time writing for a film. He did a serviceable job, but there are rarely moments when music brutalizes the viewer or does anything more than contribute a sense of sadness to a landscape that is already bleak as bleak can be. This film is less about rapturous communion with demonic forces and more about historical haunting, and while Yorke is tremendously good at communicating a sense of sorrow, his work in Suspiria excels during moments of extreme violence and dread. The problem is there aren’t nearly enough of them.
This is an unfortunate side effect of Guadagnino’s vision. He is obsessed with making Suspiria make sense, to its detriment. It’s almost as if he got so caught up in creating a believable universe for his characters to inhabit that he forgot he was making a supernatural horror film. (Had Guadagnino not said that he wanted to evoke “uncompromising darkness” with this work, my expectations to be genuinely disturbed wouldn’t have been so high.) Suspiria is overburdened with additional plotlines and characters that distract from its central message, and even the scenes that are supposed to read as freaky don’t always manage to do so. There is only one absolutely brutal kill in which a dancer’s body is flung around a mirrored rehearsal room and contorted beyond recognition, and it happens within the first 30 minutes of the film and is featured in the trailer — no great surprise.
Guadagnino is an enthusiastic fan of the original and wanted to honor some of its subtler themes, but still: There is a difference between homage and allegorical wormholes that leave little to the imagination. The original Suspiria is quietly haunted by Nazi Germany, but it is a central element to this new plot and manifests in a revamped version of the psychiatrist that guides Susie in the original film. Dr. Josef Klemperer (also Swinton) is a Holocaust survivor and Jungian psychiatrist who serves as a detective of sorts throughout Suspiria as he attempts to track down his missing client Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz) who might’ve become a terrorist or, more likely, was killed by the witches she babbles about in the opening scene.
In a film made up almost entirely of women that tries to be about women coming into their power (how timely!), Dr. Klemperer represents the patriarchy and failures of man. He’s also a rather pointless excuse for Swinton to wear a bunch of prosthetics and give the film an overwrought sentimentality that it does not need. His inclusion is clumsy and it adds to the already dragging run-time.
Klemperer aside, there are moments when historical markers elevate this film and give it the appropriate weight that the original lacked. One of those moments surfaces when the Markos dance company stages a production of their signature piece “Volk,” which was choreographed in the aftermath of World War II. Its name holds terrible significance in Germany, and the piece that accompanies the dance is an unsettling, seasick synth melody that carries the women of the company through a ritualistic choreography. They’re costumed in red rope, a nod to the bloodied dancer on the poster for the original film.
Guadagnino loves bodies — his last movie, the Oscar-winning Call Me By Your Name (2017), is replete with long, lingering shots of sweaty limbs — and he did well to center the violence of Suspiria on the dancefloor. Anyone who’s been a dancer or known a dancer or, I don’t know, seen Black Swan, will recognize the particular horror of watching a body slowly break in the name of art (or in the name of ceremonial summoning). Yorke’s lovely theme, “Suspirium,” connects the dots where we might not see them; it surfaces in the opening credits as we watch Susie’s cruel, sick mother slowly deteriorate, and it reappears later during a demanding rehearsal. “This is a waltz thinking about our bodies/ What they mean for our salvation,” Yorke sings.
There are plenty of small thematic threads like that one throughout this film, but Kajganich didn’t trust the audience to do the work, so he ties them all together in a way that is ultimately unsatisfying, and frankly, a little dumb. The horror genre is designed to leave a viewer uneasy. Suspiria is too self-serious and too busy to make a viewer feel anything but mild annoyance by the time it reaches a climax. When I left the screening, another critic looked at me and said: “What a fucking piece of crap.” While I don’t entirely disagree, I appreciate the ambition and loving care that was put into this film, so I’ll soften the language and leave it at: What a disappointment.