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Awesome: 7.14%
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2 reviews, 2 user ratings

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Suspiria (2018)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Dance Girl Dance"
4 stars

Even at a time when it seems as if every horror movie with an even vaguely recognizable name has either gone through the remake process or has one waiting in the wings, the announcement that Dario Argento’s 1977 masterpiece “Suspiria” was going to be getting one was so wildly absurd on every possible level that the news raised more eyebrows than ire among genre buffs. More of a cinematic fever dream than a coherent narrative, the film had a basic story idea—an American ballet student travels off to study at a remote dance academy in Germany that turns out to be the cover for a coven of witches—that it used as a simple laundry line from which to dangle a number of elaborately staged and extravagantly gory set pieces in which unspeakable things happen to the characters. The genius of the film—and I do not use the word “genius” lightly in this context—is that, with its lurid visual style, the throbbing musical score by Goblin and grisly tableaus that suggested the works of Thomas de Quincey as adapted by Sam Peckinpah, Argento created a fever dream of a film that was impossible to watch passively—you truly felt all of the shocks along with the characters and when it was all over, you probably could not explain most of what you had just seen (such as why a ballet school would have a room filled with nothing but barbed wire) but you knew that you had just gone through a true cinematic experience that you would be hard-pressed to forget anytime soon.

Because “Suspiria” has become such a touchstone among horror fans and filmmakers alike, the notion of someone wanting to do a new version of it was probably inevitable but how to go about doing such a thing? One could not simply go out and try to replicate the original—the story was little more than the barest of frames, Argento’s baroque visual style was truly one-of-a-kind and it would be impossible to up the gore quotient any further without transplanting the entire story to take place in the final chutes of a busy meat-packing plant. No, the only possible way to approach a “Suspiria” remake in a way that didn’t lead to instant disaster was perhaps the most impractical one imaginable—find a filmmaker just as distinct and unique as Argento, give them the basic premise of a dance academy filled with witches and then sit back and let them have at it, whatever the results might be. Amazingly enough, that is just what transpired here. For a while, there was talk that David Gordon Green was going to take on the task of reviving “Suspiria” until that version eventually fell apart—at one point, I would have loved to see what it might have looked like through his singular cinematic sensibility but having just seen the utter botch that was his “Halloween,” I’m not so sure. It finally landed into the hands of Luca Guadagnino, who is best known to most moviegoers for last year’s Oscar-winning art house hit “Call Me By Your Name.” Although I confess to not being quite as sold on Guadagnino’s filmography as many of my colleagues—while I liked “Call Me By Your Name,” I found such earlier efforts as “I Am Love” and “A Bigger Splash” to be mostly overheated hooey—he nevertheless possesses the kind of swing-for-the-fences approach that could help make a project like this actually work. Neither a masterpiece nor a disaster, his take on “Suspiria” is one weird ride of a movie—at times freaky, foolish, creepy, laughable, ambitious, pretentious, proudly feminist, borderline misogynist, overblown, undercooked, slyly amusing, brutally pretentious and generally compelling to watch despite a hundred or so dull spots to be found throughout.

Set in 1977, Dakota Johnson stars as Susie Bannion, a sweet-natured lass with dreams of being a top dancer who has traveled from her home in a Mennonite community in Ohio to Berlin in the hopes of auditioning for a spot in a world-renowned dance troupe led by legendary choreographer Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton, embodying a mad cross of Pina Bausch, Bob Fosse and practically every other character that Swinton has played on screen to date). Although she is warned that auditioning this late is highly unusual, a spot has just opened up and she will be allowed to try out, though Madame Blanc will obviously pass off the duties of observing the audition to her underlings. As it turns out, not only does Madame Blanc turn up to watch Susie’s largely improvised and inevitably brilliant audition, she give her a place in the troupe on the spot. It could not come at a better time, you see, because it seems as if that missing student, Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz), has gotten enmeshed with young radicals and her disappearance appears to be permanent. Thrilled, Susie moves in, makes an instant friend in fellow dancer Sara (Mia Goth) and prepares to work her way into the group.

Of course, we already know that there is a little more to Patricia’s disappearance than Madame Blanc and the other teachers at the school are letting on. In the very first scene, we see a panicked Patricia visiting her elderly psychiatrist, Dr. Josef Klemperer (Lutz Ebersdorf, an allegedly unknown actor who, as most everyone knows by now, is actually Swinton underneath layers of makeup) and rambling at length in an increasingly agitated manner about a secret conspiracy at the school involving witches and the hideous things that they would do to her if they discovered that she talked to anyone. Once Patricia vanishes, Dr. Klemperer, who is still grieving the loss of his beloved wife, an apparent victim of the Holocaust, is determined to track her down and begins a slow and methodical investigation that eventually takes him to the school. Of course, Patrica’s rantings prove to be true—the school is run by a coven of powerful witches with a distressingly high number of rituals requiring the use of multiple meat hooks—and as Susie rises through the ranks with insane speed, landing the lead role in a staging of the group’s signature piece, “Volk,” after being a member for only a day or two, it remains to be discovered what the witches have planned and what part Susie is ultimately going to play.

Although this version of “Suspiria” sort of follows the broad outlines of its predecessor, Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kaiganich have not simply taken the easy way out by making a mere carbon copy, an approach that will be obvious right from the get-go. Those who have seen the original will recall that it kicks off with one of the wildest scenes in Argento’s entire oeuvre—a gruesome double murder filled with luridly saturated colors, exquisite choreography and even a grisly closeup of a knife plunging into a still-beating heart—and may go into the film wondering how it could possibly top that sequence. It seems to be building to it with Patricia’s rant to Dr. Klemperer but then. . . nothing. Instead, the film instead takes the time to establish that it will be a very different kettle of fish by adding in a more overtly political subtext—while the original took place in 1977 because that was when it was made, this one is set in 1977 for very specific reasons dealing with the unrest in Berlin at the time, both from the present day in the form of the activities of the Red Army Faction (whose hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181 unfolds in the background) and from the past in the form of still-lingering emotional wounds involving World War II—and a slower and more meditative pace to the proceedings that will put most viewers—at least those with a background in Seventies arthouse cinema—more in the mind of Rainier Werner Fassbender (right down to the casting of Ingrid Cavem who was Fassbender’s wife and appeared in several of his films, as one of the teachers) than in the nightmarishGrand Guignol fantasies of Argento and his ilk.

One of the greatest benefits of this particular approach is that while horror fans may be primed for the shocks to start right at the beginning, the slower and more methodical opening means that even those waiting most intently for the blood to begin to flow will find themselves calming down and getting engrossed in the story and it is maybe 25 minutes or so, by which time even the most primed-for-gore viewers will have calmed down and presumably gotten caught up in the story, before the first big horror set piece arrives. It comes just as Susie volunteers to dance the lead part in a piece being rehearsed when the original lead, a suspicious friend of Patricia’s who is sure that something weird is up, tells off Madame Blanc and the others before storming off, presumably for good. That unfortunate dancer ends up locked in a remote mirrored room and as Susie stuns the others with her almost otherworldly moves, the other dancer finds herself being put through an ordeal that leaves her little more than a twisted mass of broken bones and brutalized flesh that is covered in a variety of unfortunate bodily fluids and is still somehow, horribly, alive. It is a truly bravura moment of horror filmmaking—a sequence rivaling the ones that Argento produced in his version—and if the film never quite hits that high of a point again in regards to the more horrific stuff (though not for a lack of trying), he does show a heretofore unsuspected facility for such material.

“Suspiria” is an undeniably ambitious effort and it is in its greatest ambitions that it tends to trip itself up. I understand what Guadagnino and Kaiganich were striving for in building their story upon a more overtly political and reality-based foundation than Argento, who was essentially making an adult-sized fairy tale. That said, I am not really sure that this is the best vehicle to examine Germany’s radical political strife and pos-war guilt and even if it was, I am not certain that it needed so much of it—while the film as a whole is often mesmerizing, there are plenty of moments that make you painfully and acutely aware of just how long it is. I also wish that, since the fact that the academy is the front for a coven is revealed to us early on, the film had given us a little more detail about the inner workings of the place—there are a couple of tantalizing glimpses (a vote to decide on the leadership of the coven and a meeting that comes to a quick and gruesome end) but it could have spared a little more information without spoiling the mystery. I also frankly wish that the visual scheme had been a little brighter and gaudier than as presented here. The cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom is impressive, to be sure, but the highly desaturated color scheme feels like a mistake—you keep wanting to grab your remote and adjust the picture to something brighter. I am also not entirely sure about the conceit of having Tilda Swinton playing multiple roles (she also plays a third part, of which I will say nothing more)—she is very good as the oddly poised Madame Blanc but her turn as Klemperer too often feels like a stunt meant to juice up what is ultimately the least urgent and necessary character in the story.

At the same time, for every misstep on display here, there are moments of glory as well. The performance by Dakota Johnson, for one, is especially convincing and compelling, especially as the story progresses and we get to know her better—those ready to dismiss her on the basis of her appearances in the “Fifty Shades” films run the same risk as the characters here who constantly underestimate Susie at their increasingly peril. I also liked the performances from most of the supporting cast as well, especially Mia Goth as the oddball and ultimately doomed pal and original “Suspiria” star Jessica Harper, who turns up in a brief part that serves both as a shoutout to fans of the original as well as a subtle reminder of the dark side of overly venerating the past, a fairly nervy conceit to establish in the context of a remake of a classic movie. Although the film never tops that first moment of carnage, it does come up with some unique images of horror that evoke the weirdness of the stuff from the original without copying them specifically—the finale is especially a tour de force of batshit crazy cinema that will knock most viewers for a loop. Best of all, especially considering that this is a remake, I enjoyed the fact that at a certain point, I had no real idea of what could possibly happen next at any given point—the same kind of delicious feeling I had when I first saw the original “Suspiria” all those years ago.

Most of all, I think that I just like the fact that a film as strange as this actually exists. People who are just hoping to see lots of blood and guts are liable to be bored with all the talking, political subtext and extensive subtitles, who are mostly interested in seeing what the creator of something as self-consciously lush and important as “Call Me Be Your Name” has come up with for his latest work are likely to be perplexed and eventually grossed out by what he is presenting here and those who simply want to revisit the original “Suspiria” are going to be mystified. And yet, for all of its flaws, I found myself more or less enjoying it throughout. It isn’t a patch on the original “Suspiria”—few horror movies are—but it has the good taste to be a remake that is not totally beholden to its progenitor and which goes off in its own freaky direction instead. It may not be something great, in other words, but it is certainly [i]something[/i].

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=32287&reviewer=389
originally posted: 10/31/18 14:16:18
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User Comments

11/09/18 Bob Dog A stylish mystery which leans too much on obfuscation. 3 stars
10/26/18 Louise A stunning masterwork, quite astonishing and infinitely better than the original. 5 stars
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