Movie Review: Horror/Thriller – Suspiria (1977)
Directed by Dario Argento
Starring Jessica Harper, Joan Bennett, Stefania Casini, and Barbara Magnolfi

 

Movie Review: Horror/Thriller – Suspiria (2018)
Directed by Luca Guadagnino
Starring Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth, and Chloë Grace Moretz

Black and White in Color

Extremes in color and production design, Harper (2nd from top) in Dario Argento’s original Suspiria (1977)

*Spoilers*

Italian filmmaker Dario Argento’s horror thriller Suspiria received mixed reviews upon its initial 1977 release. A hit with US audiences, the film is now widely regarded as an influential classic of the horror genre. It tells the story of Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), a young American dancer who has come to Germany to study with the Academy of Freiburg, a prestigious school of dance. Arriving after dark during a furious thunderstorm, she encounters a distraught and mumbling student fleeing the building into the rain-swept night. Denied entry, she returns her bags to her taxi and as it drives away, witnesses the student fleeing frantically through the forest. The next morning, she returns to the academy to learn the girl has been brutally murdered along with another woman inside the beautiful mansion to which she has fled for help.

A standard-bearer for movie gore at the time, the film holds nothing back as we see the woman stabbed multiple times by the arm of an unseen man. Her chest is gouged open and we witness, in tight closeup, the knife plunging into her still-beating heart. Finally with noose around her neck, she’s thrown through an elaborate stained-glass ceiling, her suspended body drenched in blood. The camera moves slowly from her dripping body to the floor where we see the other woman, having been rained upon by the shattered glass, impaled and imbedded with the broken shards. Despite the over four decades of escalating movie bloodshed since the film’s release, the scene still shocks. Nothing that follows matches its grisly intensity, but it casts a jittery pall over the remainder of the film. Soon, others are murdered or go missing and eventually we learn why. The school’s matrons, led by Madame Blanc (Dark Shadows’ Joan Bennett in her final film), are really a coven of witches and they have an insidious plan for one of the girls.

Argento wrote the original screenplay with his then partner Daria Nicolodi. (They are the parents of actress and controversial #metoo activist, Asia Argento). Their script keeps things simple, avoiding complex themes and meaning and instead focusing on bright visuals and creepy scares. It offers little information about its witches and only hints of the coven’s mythology that Argento would later develop in its two sequels, Inferno and The Mother of Tears.

The film is perhaps most notable for its sparkling production design, rich in extravagant architecture (Many of the films sets were reproductions of actual German buildings), its exquisite interiors and its use of vivid neon primary colors. Argento and his cinematographer Luciano Tovoli, often bleach the screen with one or two saturated hues, that mimic the dramatic contrasts of black and white cinematography without sacrificing the emotional resonance of color. Imagine the spooky black and white of Fritz Lang’s M in bright reds and yellows. And it’s all backed by a chilling, largely electronic, score by an Italian rock group appropriately named Goblin, who collaborated with the director himself to create a pulsating dissonant soundtrack layered with shrieks, moans, and assorted beastly grunts and howls, that imparts a nightmarish sense of foreboding to even the films tamest scenes.

Filmed with an international cast, the film is marred by the cheesy dubbing of its non-English speaking cast members and flat acting from some of the younger stars. But the two old veterans in the cast, Bennett and the joyously sinister Alida Valli, provide the film with a welcome gravitas. The lack of well-developed characters, or anything resembling depth, limits the film’s scope, but emotional and intellectual depth is not the goal here. Argento wants simply to scare us and on that level, he succeeds exceedingly well. Moving along briskly for most of its 138 minutes, It’s a tidily effective little thriller.

 

Luca’s Brainy Bloodbath

Witches Feast. Johnson and the witches in Guadagnino’s remake of Suspiria.

*Mild Spoilers*

Luca Guadagnino’s new remake of the Argento film, is a different kind of beast altogether. Guadagnino, who directed one of last year’s best and most affecting films, the idyllic gay romance, Call Me by Your Name, is an Italian director known mostly for his passionate and cerebral dramas. With Suspiria, he takes a full-on stab at horror and he’s unwilling to take prisoners. His movie is insanely over-the-top, overstuffed and slightly overlong, yet intense, imaginative, intellectual, brutally bizarre and wildly entertaining. I left the theater shaken, exhilarated, and eager to see it again.

Working from a script by American screenwriter David Kajganich, who penned the director’s 2015 drama, A Bigger Splash, the story borrows only the basic elements of the original and the rest is all Kajganich and Guadagnino. Most of the major characters from the original film remain. It’s still set in a German dance studio, although it’s now called the Markos Dance Studio and its German setting has moved from Freiburg to West Berlin. And it’s still run by witches, but that’s where the similarities end. The film fleshes out the original’s thinly developed characters and unlike that film, delves deep into the world of dance, its energy, its danger, and its psychological burden on the dancer (see Darren Aronovsky’s Black Swan), repeatedly drawing parallels between dance and devilry (the Volk performance, the witches’ sabbath, etc.). In one particularly gruesome scene, a disruptive dancer’s body is violently wrenched and mutilated by Suzy’s seemingly possessed dancing.

Our new Suzy (Dakota Johnson in an engrossing performance), is no longer mousy and timid. She’s empowered and confident. In the new film we get to know considerably more about the witches. We see them commune both as friends and evildoers, partying at bars together, committing often humorous acts of mischief and planning their nefarious plots and schemes. The choreographer witch, Madame Blanc (The masterful Tilda Swinton), immediately takes a liking to the strong-willed Suzy and the two grow close, even as Blanc tortures the young dancer in her dreams and seems to be preparing her for some sinister purpose. Blanc becomes a mother figure for Suzy and motherhood is a major theme of the film, expanding on Argento’s Three Mothers mythology. The relationships between mother and daughter, are explored simultaneously with themes of good and evil, as a conflict within the coven leads to a deliriously bloody and disturbingly violent climax, that’s shocking not only for its excess of blood, but a stunning twist that wreaks havoc on audience expectations.

Kajganich also adds a major and ultimately touching subplot about an elderly Jewish psychiatrist, Dr. Josef Klemperer, a holocaust survivor riddled with guilt over his lost wife (played by the original Suzy, Jessica Harper). Klemperer is portrayed by Oscar winner Tilda Swinton (again), in a performance that’s as dazzling as her compelling version of Madame Blanc. She’s utterly believable as a man, and utterly unrecognizable as either Tilda Swinton or a woman. She also plays a third character, thoroughly disguised in a monstrous body suit. Swinton, who played a different kind of witch in the Chronicles of Narnia films, is a frequent Guadagnino collaborator. She already has one Oscar (for the George Clooney thriller, Michael Clayton) and deserves another for this film. Despite her elfish appearance, she’s fiercely inhabited an astonishing range of characters throughout her career. You have to wonder if there’s anything she can’t do.

Suspiria, like other Guadagnino’s films, is profoundly connected to the political milieu of its setting. (Even the dreamy Call Me by Your Name couldn’t resist political commentary with its references to former Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi.) The remake is set in 1977, the year the original was made, against the backdrop of the infamous German Autumn, in which the far-left terrorist organization The RAF (Red Army Faction), also known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang, hijacked a Lufthansa jet full of passengers and demanded the release of 11 government held prisoners. Shown in news clips scattered throughout the film, these clips and the Dr. Klemperer storyline offer clues to Guadagnino’s real interests. Swinton’s sad doctor functions as a stand-in for post-World War II German guilt. His heart, like Germany’s, is broken and filled with shame. The RAF clips portray a still divided post-war Germany. (it would be another 13 years before the fall of the Iron Curtain and the crumbling of the Berlin Wall). These conflicts for control of Germany’s destiny and its shattered post-war identity, are mirrored by the conflict within the coven and the eventual insurrection within its ranks.

Cinematically, the film is pure Guadagnino. Gone are Argento’s psychedelic colors, now replaced with a more somber palette that’s closer to Call Me by Your Name’s Italian villa than Argento’s chic mansions. Guadignino loves to linger on his shots, a technique that has served him well in the past and does so for most of this film as well. But in the film’s two goriest scenes, the lingering becomes somewhat overbearing. At some point you just want to yell out “Okay, we get it, move on.” And the movie’s deliriously decadent and violent climax is somewhat flatly staged given Guadagnino’s usual genius at such things. But the pure horror of these scenes is not significantly damaged. They are as chilling and deeply disturbing as anything I’ve ever seen on film.

Suspiria, like it’s forbearer, is a ground breaker for the genre. It stands with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist and Robin Hardy‘s The Wicker Man as one of a small number of great intellectual horror films. And while it’s slow buildup, cerebral nature and outrageous moments of horror may turn off some horror fans who prefer the jump-in-your-seat scares of most contemporary thrillers, Suspiria is worth the challenge. It’s a gloriously twisted, perversely thought-provoking, grandly entertaining film that brings fresh air and new ideas to the horror genre. It’s been four days since my first viewing and I still can’t shake it. That’s what great horror movies do. They get under your skin, infest your brain, and fuck you the hell up.

Ratings:

Suspiria 1977: 83/100
Suspiria 2018: 90/100

 

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