A Review of Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria in six acts and a TL;DR
Act One: Old Habits
I find remakes to be a curious irony of capitalistic art. More often than not, the reason somebody remakes a movie is because the original is so good or notorious that its title alone creates a buzz around the movie; yet when somebody remakes a movie we’re expected to take that piece of art on its own merit and not compare it to the previous iterations that came before it. This obliteration of the past is entirely why I began Adventures in Remakes; ignoring the past creates a willful ignorance that allows the past to rise again.
In turn, 2018’s Suspiria is a politically charged film reworking an old nightmare to create a story of old nightmares resurfacing into new vessels. Dario Argento’s 1977 horror classic is most remembered for its grand guignol excess: color blocked sets flooded with the most lurid and saturated hues imaginable, large extended setpieces of suffering and gore, and a punishingly surreal soundtrack with deafening peaks mixed with quiet lulls. The plot is relatively throwaway – Suzy, an American girl, goes to Freiberg to attend a ballet school controlled by a coven of witches who enjoy killing their students in graphic and ornate methods – but Argento’s Suspiria lives and dies by its excessively lurid style.
Luca Guadagnino “enhances” the original plot by adding an hour of cerebral plot and political meaning so as to give Suspiria a form and substance it never needed. Just by moving the dance academy from Freiberg to West Berlin where the Berlin Wall and the German Autumn are literally the backdrop to Satan’s Dance School For Girls, Guadagnino is loudly broadcasting his themes of the resistance against the resurrection of fascism.
Act Two: History
In 1977, the combined “terrorist” activity of Germany’s far left socialist groups reached its peak with the Red Army Faction committing political murders, kidnapping ex-Nazis, and hijacking planes. It all started in the 1960s with the German Student Movement, a spasm of social protest against the conservative fascist changes that were happening when Germany fell into a recession. Student protests objected to the Vietnam War, right wing newspapers, globalist economics, and wanted Germany to reckon with its Nazi past.
Out of that wellspring of political action, a series of arsons and violent crimes were committed as protest actions against the then-rising conservatives, culminating in the 1970 formation of the Red Army Faction, led by Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof. They wanted to be class conscious revolutionaries who bombed the US Headquarters and kidnapped political prisoners. The RAF was so notorious that, following the 1975 arrest of several members, the government passed new laws restricting the participation of lawyers on the behalf of the defendants.
The RAF’s actions peaked in 1977 when they kidnapped and assassinated Jurgen Ponto, head of Dresdner Bank, and Hanns Martin Schleyer, an ex-SS Officer turned industrial lobbyist. They also hijacked a plane and took hostages while demanding $15m and the release of two Palestinian political prisoners held in Turkey. Overall, the RAF objected to the remnants of the Nazi Party regaining powerful political control a mere 30 years after the rise and fall of Hitler.
The actions of the RAF effectively ended on Death Night when many imprisoned high ranking members “committed suicide” in a “collective fit” under mysterious circumstances.
Act Three: Volk
As the German Autumn rage outside the walls of the Markos Academy of Dance, Mennonite Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) abandons her dying family in Bumfuck Ohio to join the famed touring dance group in West Berlin. Her arrival occurs just as the Academy is having to deal with the loss of their lead dancer Patricia Hingle, who arbuptly disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Facing the challenge of not having a star dancer, Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) gives Susie an audition to dance the lead of their classic famous dance number, Volk. Volk, which translates to people or race, was a term largely used in Nazi slogans as a dog whistle to signify the perfection of One Race perfection.
The turmoil caused by the draining of Patricia Hingle has created a political schism at Markos Academy among the witches. Their goal is to resurrect Mater Suspiriorum, the Mother of Sighs, one of a trio of old witches who control the world, and the vote is for who would be best suited for the job: Madame Blanc or Mother Helena Markos, an old, decrepit witch who needs a new body for her soul. As the dancers destroy their bodies and minds rehearsing the physically demanding dance, each repetition a new element of the ritual needed for the resurrection, Susie and Sara (Mia Goth), Susie’s transitional keeper, bond over the constant stress of performance. Nightmares invade their dreams as the pressures mount while other students investigate new areas of the dance academy and continue disappearing and dying at a slow and methodical pace.
Meanwhile, Patricia Hingle’s therapist, Mr. Klemperer (Tilda Swinton), found out about the Three Mothers through Patricia’s left-behind journal and fumbles around investigating her disappearance. For nearly the entire movie, Mr. Klemperer blindly looks around for evil until he is ensnared by his own guilty past. His story is about as useless as the story of Susie’s mom dying on a farm, and for one hot second, it almost appears as if Suspiria is making a commentary on ineffectual shitty men and the usefulness of the matriarchy…but it loses track and wants to get on with its commentary on modern times.
Act Four: These Times We Live In
Hey, did you happen to notice that the globe had a major recession about a decade ago? Did you happen to notice that it was largely caused by American and International Banks that were considered too big to fail, so nobody was punished? Did you happen to notice that neither of the American parties were particularly interested in economic reform or even corporate punishment in the wake of crashing our economy? Yeah, well, join the club. Everybody noticed this. Many Americans were sold a fake war with no retribution, then had the economy crash with no retribution, then had their well paying jobs replaced by minimum wage service jobs, then had no minimum wage increase, and they were told to vote for the same parties that had just fucked them over for 15 years straight.
Old blood has arisen out of new wounds. Nationalism, racism, tribalism, sexism, and just plain selfishness has come out of the woodwork to retaliate against a system that does nobody right. This added fuel to previously dormant movements like skinheads reimagined as Proud Boys, right wing politicians, and even affluenza. This isn’t just happening in America. The spasm of reactionary nationalism included Russia (Putin) and spread to Britain (Brexit), and Brazil (Bolsonaro).
In 2016, the old order went up against a new order and lost. We’re in a pattern of rebirth similar to the re-ascendancy of the Nazis into the German government. Similar to a new dance segment that Madame Blanc adds to Volk, and similar to any spasms of conservative fear that lean into old tendencies.
Act Five: The Service of Style
Luca Guadagnino’s films drown in the adult contemporary stylings of Merchant-Ivory. They are art directed within an inch of their life, suffocated by the naturalistic artifice and heightened state of perfection. Suspiria is no exception. Take, for example, the meat hook in the above screencap. It’s a glorious prop designed by famous New York jeweler Ted Muehling with a never-ending curve whose beauty overtakes its menace. Yet, the hook is missing two elements needed for a meat hook to be effective: a handle and a point. The tip is barely sharp enough to penetrate flesh with any real efficiency and there is no real handle on these hooks, rendering them less than ideal for their intended purpose of dragging dead bodies around on the ground.
Even when Suspiria is getting down to its dirty work of witchy brutality, it rarely elevates into fear or tension. Susie’s first audition for the lead dancer of Volk is a glorious piece of brutality where her every thrust and jump tears apart a Russian dissenter in a different room. It’s an early climax for a movie that frequently confuses style and substance with tension and raw emotion. As Get Out, mother!, and The Neon Demon demonstrated, you can construct gorgeous films that engage in a dialogue with real world metaphors without taking away from the emotional thrill ride that is horror. Suspiria frequently devolves into literal discussions of politics and factions that are about as frightening as anything in Call Me By Your Name.
The least frightening aspect of Guadagnino’s Suspiria is his move from neo-giallo modern art to Fassbinder-esque Kitchen Sink realism. Like The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, every frame is a painting filled with beauty and meaning, but rarely infused with a sense of terror, tension or fear. Kubrick’s kitchen-sink The Shining had more tension in its art direction. Guadagnino further hobbles his movie with judicious patient editing and a Thom Yorke score that whines and pleads for you to feel more than it punches you in the gut.
Worst of all, Guadagnino’s Suspiria is tasteful. More than that, Guadagnino fears making a horror movie that could be seen as distasteful. This fear of being distasteful permeates every decision, from the infusion of political meaning to not showing us the meat hook actually penetrating flesh to the climax of the film.
Act Six: Spoilers
Which brings us to the final act. By the end of the movie, the matrons of Markos Academy have voted out Madame Blanc and killed her by breaking her neck and severing the spinal cord. The red lit cave, which looks more like a cheap goth bar than an actual underground lair, provides the proper womb-light features to birth Mother Suspiriorum into the body of Susie Bannion. Unfortunately for Mother Markos, she had, by this point, already been claiming herself as the actual Mother Suspiriorum. And so, old evils are resurrected in new vessels. As Thom Yorke’s whines over the soundtrack, a black figure floats around the air exploding the heads of the dissenters who voted for Mother Markos. Blood fountains ensue.
Guadagnino takes no joy in this scene, nor does he fear it. He’s more interested in the witches who pose as twinkling theater-fairy-like refractions. Here, he soaks the film in the deep red filter accomplished by leaching out the other colors, turning down the brightness and upping the contrast. He films the scene from an arm’s length, always keeping the camera 30 feet from anything actually horrific happening. And the Thom Yorke song is one of the worst songs imaginable. It neither contrasts nor reflects. It’s kind of there.
Rather than fearing the actions, Guadagnino fears the idea. He thinks that by drawing the parallels to Nazis and Trump, he has done the work for you. You should be scared by the resurrection of old evils. This metaphor, which he painstakingly drew out, is all that the viewer should need to fear what’s happening. But, it isn’t even close to enough if you’ve been paying attention.
TL;DR: Suspiria is lame
Luca Guadagnino turned Suspiria from a 97-minute feast of the senses to a 150-minute thought exercise. Sure, there’s beauty…but to what end? There’s no surprise. There’s no passion. There’s hardly any fear. For all of its cold dark beauty, Suspiria never really grabbed me by the balls. I was never afraid that witches would rip out my heart and feed it through a barbed wire room. This is a tasteful, restrained horror movie that will appeal to fans of overlong restrained horror movies with shitty soundtracks. Here’s my recommendation: if you were crying on Election Night 2016, you listen to Sufjan Stevens, and you thought mother! and The Neon Demon were too aggressive and thorny, you will love Guadagnino’s Suspiria. If you’re looking for a truly jaw-dropping experience from which you may never recover, might I suggest the original?