Guadagnino experiments with the grotesque in his revival of supernatural horror Suspiria
Released this autumn, Luca Guadagnino’s reimagined Suspiria takes the skeleton of the 1977 original and gives it some meat.
Interfering with a classic is bound to be contentious, and though director Guadagnino has refused to call the film a remake, it’s nonetheless tempting to compare the two. Though hammy acting and outdated effects are arguably part of its charm, the Italian horror was perhaps overdue a revival.
Set in a prestigious dance academy in 1977 Berlin, Suspiria (2018) centres around the seemingly naive Susie (Dakota Johnson), an aspiring American dancer who has pursued her idol Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) to Markos Dance Academy. As Susie is pulled deeper into the intense, insular world of the academy, the elderly psychotherapist Josef Klemperer (Tilda Swinton – yes, that’s right) investigates the disappearance of his young patient, who vanished from the academy after claiming it was run by a coven of witches.
As the film progresses, it becomes increasingly difficult to reconcile these two strands of plot with one another. The entire premise of Klemperer’s plotline can be traced back to about one minute of screen time in the original: suffice to say, it’s entirely unnecessary. The only real objective appears to be testing Swinton’s acting chops, and the result is a bloated two and a half hour runtime, with an unnecessarily sentimental subplot that seems better suited to Bridge of Spies and other Oscar-bait fodder.
Though the subplot is by no means uncompelling, I can’t help but feel that the story would have been so much more effective if confined entirely within the claustrophobic walls of the academy. Every time the scene cuts to Swinton’s endearing portrayal of old Klemperer, it feels as though they’ve turned on the lights in a haunted house. The aim of a horror film surely should be to keep us in the dark and let us grope our way out – if you’re going to turn the lights on, there should at least be something scary to look at.
That being said, the horror – when it comes – is worth the slow build. Relentless and sickening, the film’s strength lies in the artistry with which it uses horror to elevate the narrative. While mainstream horror has a tendency to rely on shock tactics to the detriment of plot, it takes both these elements working in concert to create something truly disturbing. If the film weren’t dragging Klemperer’s plot like an unwilling dance partner, it would triumph in this respect.
Speaking of unwilling dance partners, the film’s biggest letdown is star Dakota Johnson, whose demure, sotto-voiced performance might as well have been lifted from the cutting room floor of Fifty Shades of Grey. The only time Johnson comes alive is when contorting herself in the animalistic dance sequences choreographed by Damien Jalet; it’s a shame that none of this raw energy makes it into her performance, especially with Swinton acting circles around her.
One of the biggest risks a remake runs – it’s not a remake Guadagnino reminds me – is losing the messy, urgent quality of the original. Though the new instalment is painstakingly put together, and the effects incomparable with its predecessor, it avoids the trap of appearing too perfect to get its hooks into audiences. Gone is the grungy, unreal gore that Argento does best, and in its place is something new. Perhaps Suspiria is too ambitious in this respect: for all the effort it expends in attempting to intertwine Susie and Klemperer’s narratives, audiences will likely come away feeling confused – if a little traumatised.