Dario Argento’s Suspiria came out 40 years ago this year and is still one of the boldest displays of cinematic style from practically any work within the Horror genre; even amongst Expressionist films like Murnau’s Nosferatu and Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which not only clearly influenced Argento’s original vision but whose visual tropes laid the foundations from which the genre was built. Suspiria’s original story is scarce to say the least but the enigma lies in Argento’s entrancing direction; the all-enveloping, vibrantly saturated colours and piercing score. Taking this into account, the idea of remaking Argento’s classic is certainly questionable (up there with Gus van Sant’s decision to remake Psycho) but then again, Werner Herzog remade Nosferatu into a film that managed to pay homage whilst also remaining inventive so who knows?
The premise of Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria, for the most part, resembles that of the original. This time we’re cast into a fractured Berlin in 1977 with Dakota Johnson as Susie Bannion, a young American who has travelled from Ohio to become part of the Helena Markos Dance Company; a prestigious dance academy led by Tilda Swinton’s rather ghostly teacher.
It immediately becomes clear that Guadagnino hasn’t simply tried to imitate his predecessor. Instead the gloomier colours, Thom Yorke’s mellow score and the steady pace create a sense of melancholy that’s entirely distinct from Argento’s lush, frightened glamour. This could be a point of praise for Guadagnino but that seems a little bit patronising for a director who’s gifted us such sensual and essentially human films as I am Love and Call Me by Your Name.
Ultimately, the film is a disappointment. Guadagnino decides to include us in the behind-the-scenes goings on at the academy, removing us from the immersive sense of mystery inherent in the original. We know what the witches are up to and with the rather overt suggestions to the darkness bubbling up within Susie we can foresee the direction in which the story will head.
The sub-plots only serve to distract us from its main events; they’re threaded conspicuously throughout but ultimately don’t lead anywhere. Instead of getting lost in an all-encompassing sense of suspense and horror, we’re lost within boring scenes of clumsy expository dialogue. Upon reaching an important scene, any interest has vanished and what should be grand and cinematic is fundamentally unimpressive. Guadagnino makes scarce gestures towards themes of motherhood and repressed childhood trauma but they are only trivial and could have been explored much further. The film’s length and slow pace needn’t have posed a problem but ultimately this just gives us time to realise its shortcomings.
Despite this, the (virtually all female) cast is stellar – Tilda Swinton is appropriately disturbing but Dakota Johnson and Mia Goth are the standout performers. With what they had to work with they achieved an emotional range and intensity that permeates throughout and doesn’t at any point subside.
Unfortunately, Suspiria is underwhelming – a hollow counterpart to a majestic contribution to the visual arts.