Apr 8, 2019


Film fans, especially those of the horror genre, tend to take it personally when some of their favorite titles, or those that have achieved classic status, hit the remake block, and I can understand why. To remake a film is to suggest that the source material is flawed in some way, or needs a modern update to connect with new audiences. While films have benefited from a remake, most don’t. (To remind the fettered of the most obvious comfort: remaking a film does not erase your beloved original from existence, although it does make Google image searching just a bit more irritating.)

The Suspiria remake machine has been gunning since at least 2007, with Halloween ‘18 director David Gordon Green amping up to take the reins alongside producer and would-be star Natalie Portman (who had yet to star in another horror-ballet juggernaut, Black Swan). As tends to happen, the project did not materialize and those involved left to pursue other things. But since you can’t keep a good unremade horror title down, the remake refused to die and eventually came to fruition under the tutelage of another unexpected filmmaker: Call Me By Your Name director’s Luca Guadagnino. From the start, Guadagnino was eager to quell fanboy fears by talking up how much different it would be from the original, considering it more of a companion piece than a straight-up retelling.

Forty years after the debut of the original, which split critics right down the middle thanks to its garishly beautiful images, its shocking violence, and its carefree storytelling, the remake was released to nearly the same kind of reaction. And despite Guadagnino’s intent on telling a different kind of story, there are enough similarities within to comfortably label it a remake — along with an additional hour of running time; the remake clocks in at a whopping 152 minutes.

In the press, Guadagnino was quick to bestow his love for Dario Argento’s original, and that love is definitely showcased in his directorial techniques. During the first act, Guadagnino relies heavily on camera movements popularized by the ‘60s and ‘70s era of European filmmaking — the sweeping shots, the quick-zooms — in an effort to coast on the audience’s familiarity with Suspiria ‘77. All the updated characters share the same names of their original’s counterparts, and once again, it’s about an American ballet student studying dance in Berlin and slowly realizing she’s in the company of a coven of witches. But where Guadagnino’s redux begins to drift off into its own identity is with its very muted and institutional colors, its low-key musical score, and its heavy emphasis on the political unrest ongoing in Berlin in 1977 (when the film takes place), even finding a way to include allusions to Nazi Germany and the separation of families (sadly topical, but also almost too “mature” considering the A story).

Guadagnino muse Tilda Swinton takes on three different roles, one of whom is an elderly man (credited to “Lutz Ebersdorf”), and though I’ve done no digging as to why this choice, I’m assuming that Guadagnino looked at Suspiria as a female-driven story and hence wanted a female cast to do all the heavy lifting. (Men take on bit parts where their biggest contribution is to appear utterly helpless and even spiritually castrated by members of the coven.) Guadagnino, too, recognizes that music was a driving part of the original, and tries to convey the same emphasis, only instead of energetic and pounding prog rock, he enlists the help of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, who falls back on typically somber ballads and more esoteric instrumentals, as essayed by bandmate Jonny Greenwood for his multiple collaborations with filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson.

Guadagnino’s redux isn’t without scenes that safely label it a horror film — if you’ve been reading reviews for this title at all, you’ve likely heard by now of the danced-to-death sequence, which is an excruciating moment that’s legitimately disturbing, but also a little undone by the use of obvious CGI. The dungeon, too, which houses the “heart” of the coven’s evil, feels like a nightmare, and is the sequence where the film comes the closest to feeling like traditional horror.

There’s a lot to respect in Guadagnino’s version, and the filmmaker is clearly respectful of the source material as well as passionate about his take on it (and the cameo from the original’s Jessica Harper is beautifully done, appropriately using her for the film’s most emotional moment). Fearlessly, he’s striving to make a unique, brave, and unrepentant horror film in the same way Argento did, but as time goes on, and like a lot of the horror remakes to have been unleashed over the last two decades, it’s likely that this Suspiria will fade from memories, leaving room only for the bright, colorful, violent, and nightmarish assault on the senses that is Dario Argento’s original masterpiece.

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