*. Suspiria was a movie that deeply divided critics and audiences. Pete Travers in Rolling Stone thought polarizing “too tame a word” to describe the reactions to it. This was primarily, as far as I can determine, for two reasons: (1) its relationship to Dario Argento’s 1977 film, and (2) its 152-minute running time. So let’s start by taking a closer look at both these points of contention.
*. First there is Suspiria then and now. Justin Chang: “[Director Luca] Guadagnino, who has said he wanted to remake Suspiria since he first saw it more than 30 years ago, signals both his reverence and his seriousness by departing from it in every way imaginable — visually, sonically, dramatically, emotionally.”
*. I agree with Chang’s list of ways in which this film departs from the original, which raises the question of why, if Guadagnino was intent on changing the property so completely, he even wanted to do it. Why not just make something entirely new? Given how well Argento’s film has stood the test of time, there were many people who found this remake unnecessary, to say the least. So did I. But I also have to admit that I was really looking forward to it.
*. Well, on to the everything that has changed. Most obviously Argento’s use of Bava-esque colour has been dropped for a dreary grey that Guadagnino describes as “wintry.” I think it looks dull, though I guess it fits the period (Cold War Berlin) and the soundtrack, which is just as muted.
*. I’ve mentioned before how I tend to watch movies these days with subtitles. This isn’t so much because of hearing loss as it’s due to the horrible recording of dialogue, making most of it inaudible. Well, Suspiria is one of the worst offenders yet in this regard. I literally couldn’t make out anything the characters were saying, in English, German, or French. It didn’t even bother me that so much of the film was multilingual since I couldn’t hear a bit of it anyway.
*. What does the dialogue sound like? Like Thom Yorke moaning out his lyrics. We’re a long, long way from the clumsy-but-loveable (and at least intelligible) dubbing in Argento’s film, and the music of Goblin.
*. But are such comparisons fair? Or relevant? Some people think not, and insist that this Suspiria be judged on its own merits. So let’s move along to the question of the film’s length.
*. There aren’t many horror films that go on for two-and-a-half hours. Why is this one so long? The main culprit is the material relating to other events happening in Germany at the time, and in particular the terrorist attacks of the Baader-Meinhof group. Also the character of a psychiatrist who lost his wife in the Holocaust is introduced.
*. There is quite a lot of this stuff and it has almost nothing to do with the main plot. There’s some attempt at making a connection between the coven of witches at the dance school and the revolutionary movement going through its own crisis of leadership, as well as mention of the Nazi party and its cult-like attributes, but I think it would be charitable to call this flimsy. And even if more were done with it I can’t see how it was going anywhere. The terrorist angle is only a red herring which nobody is interested in anyway, while the Nazi stuff is raised only to be chucked into a memory hole at the end. Why even bother?
*. Another odd addition is all of Susie’s back story. Apparently she grew up in a Mennonite family in rural America and her mother died in a manner that associates her with Helena Markos. But so what?
*. That sense I had of missing the point stuck with me throughout most of the movie. Tilda Swinton may not be the hardest actress to make pass for a man, but her transformation into the old psychiatrist here is phenomenal. I honestly didn’t know it was her. But then I had to wonder: why bother? Again: so what? Is there any purpose served in having her play the two roles? Apparently because Guadagnino saw this as a movie centered around women, he thought it made sense that the only male character be played by a woman. Even a woman who was already playing two roles (Swinton also plays Helena Markos). Does that make sense to you?
*. Being such a long movie wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if it had a snappier pace. But as I remarked in my notes on A Bigger Splash, pacing is not one of Guadagnino’s strengths. Scrawled in my notes made while watching Suspiria I find this: “When is something going to happen?” Argento’s film (yes, I know, I’m comparing again) begins with a spectacular opening kill, while introducing us to Susie Bannion and some key plot points. This movie begins with pretty much nothing (the disappearance of one of the girls after she goes to see the psychiatrist), and we don’t get the first kill until nearly 40 minutes in. This, in turn, is the high point of the entire film. The blood bath at the end is just a performance piece shot (inexplicably) in red light and filled with CGI exploding heads.
*. A lighter touch might have helped, but for some reason Guadagnino is in full epic mode, wanting to bring in history and politics and mythology and everything else to weigh down what was originally a delightfully trashy idea. Just how pretentious it’s going to be is announced with the title card, telling us that this will be a film in six acts with an epilogue. The acts are then announced in intertitles like “Act Five: In the Mutterhaus (All the Floors are Darkness)” Is that a joke? Because if it isn’t a joke . . . please.
*. If pacing isn’t Guadagnino’s strength I don’t think he scores any better with suspense. But then he’s not a horror director. Aside from the one good scene I mentioned (the death of Olga by some kind of voodoo in the mirror room) he muffs every other shot at being scary. To take just two examples: Sarah’s descent into the basement and the abduction of the psychiatrist both had a lot of potential, even if only for jump scares. But they both fall flat.
*. Still, I was sticking with Suspiria until the end. It was, I figured, a slow burn. And there were nice touches along the way. I especially liked the idea of having the coven being a bunch of frowzy, middle-aged women who smoke like chimneys over their coffees in the morning, go out drinking together at night, and who get their kicks out of playing with drugged policemen’s dicks. A lot of fun could have been had with these gals. But instead we waste time with all the historical baggage.
*. And then there is the end. This movie has one of the worst climaxes of any major film I’ve seen in years. As I’ve already said, it’s basically just another performance dance piece shot through a red filter with some exploding heads, then a tacked-on epilogue that ties up the Holocaust story.
*. Malgosia Bela is apparently playing Death at the end. I had to look that up. I looked it up because (1) I didn’t know who it was supposed to be crawling out of the cellar (and what sort of character is “Death” anyway?); and (2) I thought it was probably just Javier Botet again, since I figured he had a trademark on these sorts of figures (that he played in Rec, The Mummy, and Insidious: The Last Key, among other films). Actually Bela also plays Susie’s mother. I’ll bet you didn’t make that connection the first time you saw the movie. I wouldn’t have unless I’d looked it up. Knowing the connection, I can’t say it tells me anything. Again: so what?
*. I wish I could say something nicer about this one. I really did have my hopes up, but came away disappointed. I can’t understand how anybody thought taking Argento’s story in all these new directions made any kind of sense. I could see how they might have thrown out some of the ideas developed at length here, maybe in a pre-production brainstorming session, but to have stuck with them all, at such cost, is baffling. I wonder what Guadagnino thought he was doing. Making a bloated, muted, dreary art-house homage to a psychedelic splatter flick from the 1970s? That would have been bad enough, but I don’t think he even got that much right.