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.

Halloween and Suspiria

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.

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