A Non-Horror Fan Watches 'Halloween' And 'Suspiria' For The First Time In 2018

At some point in early October, I stopped by Facebook and the top post in my feed was from ScreenCrush's Matt Singer, wherein he asked what the reader's biggest cinematic blind spot was. My initial answer has been my go-to for a long time: Gone with the Wind. (I own a copy of the Blu-ray, and I still haven't seen it. I have no excuses.) But as I thought more, remembering what time of year it was, I realized that I had two other answers: Halloween and Suspiria.

A local colleague of mine had the same reaction as my wife regarding John Carpenter's seminal 1978 horror film: "How have you never seen Halloween?" (No one in my immediate circle gave me guff for Suspiria.) The film that introduced everyone to Michael Myers is one I thought I knew very well, primarily through cultural osmosis. Having seen Wes Craven's Scream, I understood the basics of the story, and I'd even seen a couple of brief clips from the film. (As I soon learned, those clips are from literally the last 5 minutes.) And having read the work of critics like Roger Ebert, I knew enough about Carpenter's many nods to a prototype of the slasher genre, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho.

I didn't actively avoid watching either of these films. I'm not a huge horror fan, in part because I don't enjoy the buckets-of-blood mentality evinced in many pinnacles of the genre. I can admire some horror films, but rarely consider them among my favorites. But something about the concept of slasher films is too gruesome to me to really enjoy. Even the 1960 one-two punch of Psycho and Michael Powell's unnerving British thriller Peeping Tom are films I admire and appreciate, without being films I want to revisit.

[This article contains major spoilers for Halloween, Halloween (2018), Suspiria, and Suspiria (2018).]

Heading to Haddonfield

But with the release of David Gordon Green's Halloween (2018), I realized I could only go into that film by watching at least the original. (I thank Green and fellow writer Danny McBride for ignoring the many sequels, which I have also not seen.) Now that I've seen the first Halloween — and if you, like me until recently, have not seen the 1978 original, please know that I'm about to spoil a 40-year old film, so strap in — my first takeaway is that I was being too skittish for too long when it comes to gore. Because there's barely any here.

If only I'd known! What struck me as I watched Halloween was that my perception of the series has been largely shaped by the original's climax, as well as the gore-fueled expansion of the slasher genre in the 1980s. There are a whopping five murders in Halloween, one of which happens entirely offscreen. The others are as bloody as the shower scene in Psycho; frankly, this is an overall less bloody film, because at least in Psycho, you see...well, you see chocolate syrup. But it's meant to be blood.

I won't go over the plot of the original film here — it's the ultimate version of "Masked man terrorizes an innocent young woman" subgenre of horror. What I do want to highlight, and what I had not expected, is how masterful Carpenter and his director of photography Dean Cundey are in depicting Michael Myers' stalker-y point of view. The film is only 91 minutes, and much of the first hour shows either Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) telling anyone who will listen that Michael Myers is a terror who must be stopped, or it shows Michael Myers watching his prey. The latter sequences take up the bulk of the movie, and are consistently very unnerving. Though none of the Halloween movies have massive budgets, the $300,000 John Carpenter had to make this film forced him to be creative in turning Michael into a figure of palpable evil.

Returning to the Scene of the Crime

When I sat down for the new Halloween a couple weeks ago at a pre-release screening, I wasn't exactly excited, but I wasn't dreading the film. What I began to be wary of was the reaction from the rest of the crowd. Pre-release screenings can be a mixed bag, if only because the crowd reaction can be alienating if they're into something you don't like, or vice versa. I was especially wary because most of the audience were clearly Halloween superfans, based on seeing T-shirts featuring Michael Myers and even the Silver Shamrock logo. (A Google search tells me this is in relation to Halloween 3: Season of the Witch, which doesn't feature Michael Myers.)

By the end, I was surprised that I responded more to the new Halloween than a lot of fans. On one hand, there was in-movie applause at various references or callbacks employed by Green and his co-writers. On the other, when the end credits began, there was a very palpable pause before some people began applauding. Walking out of the theater, I heard people saying "Yeah, I...was kind of let down!" Having only heard snippets, I can't say for sure how much of this was reflective of the entire crowd versus just a few dismayed viewers. (And the new movie's box office suggests enough people liked it.) But I walked out wondering how much of my appreciation of the new film was inspired by not being a superfan.

It helps that the script almost instantly emphasizes that within this film, only the 1978 original is canon. Not even the 1981 sequel Halloween II fits in, even though it begins directly after the 1978 original. When Allyson, Laurie Strode's granddaughter, is asked by a friend if Laurie and Michael are siblings, she quickly shoots it down as a "silly rumor". And Michael, we learn, has been incarcerated in Smith's Grove Penitentiary for 40 years, since being apprehended in 1978. In the 40 years between films, Michael hasn't changed much, as you might expect (or hope). Laurie, on the other hand, is profoundly affected by what happened in 1978, having shifted to the opposite extreme. She's essentially become a survivalist, with a house in the woods that doubles as a fortress for when — not if — Michael Myers comes calling once again. It's a choice that's alienated her family, but proves to be awfully savvy once the inevitable occurs.

The clean, stripped-down quality of the first Halloween isn't present in the sequel, because how could it be? When you follow up a classic, you can't help but tread the ground it created, instead of breaking some ground of your own. Though I'm a neophyte viewer, seeing the first film only a couple days before the new one meant I instantly recognized some of the ways in which the new film inverts some memorable surprises. In the original, Laurie is in a high-school class listening about fate when she glances out the window and sees a car driven by Michael Myers (at that point, unknown to her), stalking her. In this one, Allyson's in class listening to a lecture on fate when she looks out the window and sees...Laurie. In the original, Michael Myers topples out a second-floor window only to mysteriously vanish into the night. This time, Michael sends Laurie out a second-floor window only to find that she's vanished.

There's not much more in terms of equating the two; instead, these moments feel like they're meant to grant Laurie power that she didn't have originally. It's...a bit of a stretch, less because Jamie Lee Curtis falters (she doesn't; she is predictably wonderful to watch), and more because the script doesn't dive deep into Laurie's mental shakiness. We sympathize with her, and root for her, without feeling like she's any more dimensionalized than she was in the original. It's a great performance in a good film that can't help but feel like a carbon copy. It's a good enough copy, but a copy nonetheless.

A Fairy-Tale Dreamscape

When I sat down to watch the original Halloween, I was surprised at how blood-free it was. When I sat down to watch Dario Argento's Suspiria, I was unsurprised to find the movie meeting my expectations of a gorefest. I knew less about Suspiria than Carpenter's Halloween. What I did know was that Argento's raison d'etre was Grand Guignol-style operatic horror. That's not my cup of tea — if it was, you can safely assume I'd have seen this before — but I at least prepared myself. The opening sequence, in which a terrified young ballet dancer in Germany flees to her apartment, only to be brutally stabbed and hung from the top of the building (her friend is murdered amid the glassy debris), does not want for operatic horror. Argento goes big, here and throughout. Why show one knife wound when you can show seven? Why show the girl's roommate screaming in terror and futilely banging on a neighbor's door once when she can do it a handful of times? And why have that roommate die by one piece of falling glass when you can have many, including one that splits her face in two?

If you, like me, are new to Suspiria, well...that's the movie in a microcosm: big, splashy, bloody. I also knew Argento's English-language films were dubbed over, so I wasn't surprised to hear that distancing audio effect throughout the film. In truth, the dubbing added to the most effective part of Suspiria: the sense that you're experiencing a feature-length nightmare. There's little to no logic in the story, and there's very clearly not meant to be any. Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) is an American ballet dancer who's come to study at a famed German academy that is secretly presided over by witches. She arrives on a rainy night, and has to repeat her location to the cabbie; she fails to gain entry to the academy on that night, while the young woman who's about to be hung escapes.

Suzy's dealings with the imperious women (portrayed by, among others, Joan Bennett and Alida Valli of The Third Man) who are witches is just a thin line on which Argento can hang all kinds of striking images. The use of color in the film is deliberately heightened and impressive, and is another way in which he calls to mind a film he mentioned as a touchstone: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. There aren't a ton of direct parallels, but the opening, where a young woman flees through a dark and scary-looking forest, coupled with Harper's large eyes, her innocent nature, and the concept of a kind and pure young woman coming up against a witch make the allusions noticeable.

The visual experience is what made Suspiria work for me, though I'd be lying if I said it got me on the same visceral level as Halloween. As mentioned above, Suspiria has much more blood, and many more inexplicable deaths — as when the ballet academy's blind pianist is stalked through the city at night before his own dog viciously rips out his throat. (Argento lingers on the image of the dog chewing what must have been red-colored beef jerky in ways that annoyed me, and may delight you. A real "your mileage may vary" moment.) While the overdubbing ties well into the notion of this being a dream from which Suzy is barely able to awake, it still did distance me. And unlike in Halloween, the scenes that serve as downtime between horror sequences didn't keep me as enthralled. I hesitate to suggest that I went into Luca Guadagnino's remake (or remix, or whatever he'd like to call it), thinking the new film could improve upon the original. But I was ready for something new.

The Blank-Check Remake of Suspiria

And boy, did I get something new. As I watched Suspiria (2018), I kept thinking of the concept of the blank-check movie (best described by the wonderfully funny Blank Check podcast). There are a lot of ways in which the 2018 film is light-years away from Argento's. This Suspiria is a remake of the source material the way that the 2016 Pete's Dragon was a remake of its source material: the title is the same, as is the bare-bones premise. And that's it. But one element Argento's film had in spades is here: excess. Luca Guadagnino spared no expense at capturing excess in theme, in tone, and in gore. How he was able to make this film utterly baffles me.

But then, so does the film itself. Elements of this movie are superlative, to be clear. The roving camerawork is remarkable. Frankly, the technical aspects of this film are second to none. In that respect, at least, this Suspiria outclasses the original. It looks great, it sounds great, and it often is able to achieve a sense of confusion and dread. The ways in which Guadagnino and his team can craft scenes of visceral violence that depict the cruelty women inflict upon each other and themselves is top-notch. Lead actress Dakota Johnson (playing the new Suzie) is appropriately enigmatic, and Tilda Swinton delivers three memorable performances.

And there begins the rub. Yes, Tilda Swinton plays three characters in this film. (Spoilers ahoy.) First, there's the mysterious Madame Blanc, who oversees the Markos Ballet Academy in Berlin. It's the academy where the film properly begins — Suzie has arrived from a Mennonite community in Ohio, with no formal training or references, but her cold-call for an audition was inexplicably accepted. Even more inexplicably, Suzie's improvisational dancing is just the right kind of something for Madame Blanc, who is one of several witches in this academy/coven, looking for the right vessel in which to embody the rarely-seen Helena Markos (also Swinton). Meanwhile, the disappearance of one of the academy's fellow dancers, Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz), has led her therapist, Dr. Josef Klemperer (also also Swinton), to investigate where she went.

It was utter nonsense for the studio and filmmakers to pretend that "Lutz Ebersdorf" portrayed the elderly therapist; the prosthetics are convincing, but Swinton's distinctively shaped face and higher-pitched voice are both very recognizable. The excess of the film can be typified by two things: where the original is just 98 minutes, this film is 152 minutes; and Dr. Josef Klemperer is in a lot of this movie. You could cut out all the good doctor's scenes, and there would be a much leaner, meaner film in its place. The fact that the story begins and ends with Dr. Klemperer suggests this film's wider scope, even if that scope should have been more focused.

Like the original, this takes place in Germany circa 1977. Unlike the original, Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich attempts to wrestle with what it meant to live in Germany, circa 1977, depicting the frenzied state of affairs in East and West Germany, the dominance of the Berlin Wall, the presence of the ultra-left-wing Red Army Faction and its terroristic actions, and the still-present guilt of living in the country that perpetrated the Holocaust. I admire the ambition of this film, while feeling like it's biting off far more than it can chew. There are worse things than a film with a lot on its mind. But the fact that Suspiria has a lot of ambition does not make that ambition a success.

Dr. Klemperer essentially ends up taking the place of the Nancy Drew-esque sleuthing that Suzie and Sara get up to in the original Suspiria. Here, Suzie is as mysterious as Madame Blanc. The flashbacks we get to her life on a Mennonite farm where she grew up suggest that anything would be better than that rough lifestyle, but also hint at a darkness that the end of the film leans very hard into. Before the final half-hour, Suspiria has some truly gruesome violence, but it's not exactly drowning in gore.

Ah, but then that last half-hour. As in the original Suspiria, Suzie is the coven's chosen vessel for Helena Markos, the so-called Mother Suspiriorum. This time, though, we learn that Markos isn't that powerful: Suzy is Mother Suspiriorum, and Markos is just a witch who makes the apparition in Room 237 of The Shining look like the picture of perfect health. Suspiriorum has inhabited Suzie for a while, and chooses now to destroy all the witches who dared to support Markos...by making their heads explode in a veritable flood of gore. I hesitate to say that Dario Argento would be very pleased by this sequence, but if you love blood, the last 30 minutes will be your jam.

It was, however, not mine. Suspiria made me think a lot of Darren Aronofsky's mother! (Talk about a blank-check movie.) It's a remarkable technical accomplishment bolstered by fiercely committed performances that felt overlong and hammered home its points far too much. So too was the case with the last 30 minutes of Suspiria. One frantically dancing naked witch getting a bloody stump where her head once was will not do, so let's go for ten of them, and let's make it slow-motion, too. The technical feats are impressive — this is a film with a reported $20 million budget, and it looks even better than that — but y'know...I get it.

There's been some division on both the new Halloween and the new Suspiria. Certainly, the latter film seems designed to inspire plenty of arguments. You could probably argue that one of the great problems of the new Halloween is that its creators love the original too much. While Guadagnino has professed his love for Dario Argento's 1977 giallo, Kajganich has said he's never been a fan, which is hard to shake. Now that I've seen both originals and remakes, I'm glad to have removed those blind spots. But I'm not likely to return to these worlds. I admire their design and creation. But with horror films like these, good or bad, once is enough.