Suspiria (2018) Blu-ray Review: Wildly Reinvented, Massively Flawed

This remake of the 1977 horror classic completely reinvents the story, rarely for the better, and is very, very long.
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Suspiria is a strange film to remake, because most of what makes it an effective movie has nothing to do with the stuff that can be readily borrowed for a remake. The characters are mostly functional; the story is an excuse to string together episodes of suspense or horror. Everything good about the 1977 original comes from director Dario Argento's style, his mastery of tone. The lighting and the soundtrack are more central to its power than its story. So for a remake of Suspiria to be worth anyone's time, it would have to run in a very different direction than the original. Luca Guadagnino, who wrote and directed this 2018 remake of Suspiria, completely shifts the direction of the film...but in so doing turns a creepy but beautiful cult horror movie into a long slog through intentional obscurity, tedium, and ultimately a tone that exudes neither weirdness nor horror.

The basic bones of the plot are largely the same - an American girl comes to a European dance studio, where things are very strange and she comes to discover that it is in fact a front for deep, dark sinister forces. In nearly every particular, though, this new Suspiria diverges from the original. The most immediately obvious changes are a shift in setting, and the addition of a character who essentially becomes the major protagonist of the film. The new setting is 1977 Berlin, where Communist terrorist groups were highly active. Patricia, the star dancer of the company, quits to join "the revolution", but is paranoid that the studio will be able to hunt her back down. This she tells to the major added character, Dr. Klemperer, her psychiatrist. Klemperer takes pity on the girl, and when she disappears, he tries to find out more about the dance studio, and what could have happened to Patricia.

The troupe's new American dancer, Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), ran away from her Ohio Mennonite family who believed she was wicked. How she, with no dance training and no portfolio, got into this exclusive Berlin dance troupe is a mystery (and one that is never really addressed). But she immediately gets the attention of the primary choreographer, Madame Blanc.

Madame Blanc is played by Tilda Swinton, who also plays two other parts in the film including the aforementioned Dr. Klemperer. Why the filmmakers felt the need to slather Tilda Swinton with old-age makeup and have her play a septuagenarian man is beyond me. It's an interesting performance, and I did not recognize Swinton for the first couple of scenes, but eventually it became obvious, and then completely distracting. Her performance as Madame Blanc is focused, though her dialogue tends toward the platitudinous.

Despite being set in a dance studio, the original Suspiria was not particularly interested in dancing - we see one rehearsal, where that film's Susie collapses, and that's it for dancing for the rest of the film. Luca's remake is all about dancing - there's a lot of it. I cannot tell if it was any good, since it is of the modern variety which tends to strike me as more acrobatic and impressive than beautiful. There is a lot of dance rehearsal, and training, and it is in these sessions that Madame Blanc and Susie Bannion size each other up. Susie is unnaturally confident, both in her dancing and in expressing herself, and is ready to contradict the choreographer if she thinks she knows better. I found the character off-putting, though by the finale of the film she is made to make sense - at the time, I could only think no dance instructor in the world would let this kid get away with the crap, even if she was the best dancer on the planet.

Suspiria is a mysterious horror story, and while there are horrific things in the film, there is oddly very little sense of mystery to the proceedings. While it contains plenty of obscurity, it's also very clear right from the beginning the nature of the evil things that go on in the dance studio. It's practically right out in the open, so for the audience there's no sense of discovery.

Argento's film was beautiful - scenes lit in deep, hardly realistic colored lighting, with meticulous composition. Guadagnino's visual style in this remake is completely different, and unfortunately almost universally ugly. There's an emphasis on gray, blocky, modernist and post-modern architecture, with lots of hideous concrete everywhere. The dance studio itself has, of course, several mirrored rooms but it never develops a sense of space. Like most of the characters on screen, the setting of the film does not engage.

All these issues, along with the cyclopean length of the film (more than 2 and a half hours) could have maybe been forgiven if Suspiria was at least scary. Or weird enough to excite the imagination. But by the time the grotesque bloody climax comes along (a climax, I hasten to add, which is followed by 20 minutes of dragging epilogue), I didn't find it horrifying. Or cool, or interesting, or anything but just a bunch of stuff up on the screen. The tone had not been established. You can't be horrified for characters as cold and distant as these. With a pace as uneven as this, with such a mixture of understated and broad performances as there are in this film. At Suspiria's climax, there were completely naked women dancing around, blood splashing everywhere, grotesque monsters, and all I could feel while watching it was a little testy that it was taking so damn long.

Suspiria is released today on Blu-ray and Digital by Lions Gate. The Blu-ray contains three short EPK-style featurettes: "The Making of Suspiria", "The Secret Language of Dance", and "The Transformations of Suspiria". Each are three to five minutes long.

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