Saturday, March 2, 2019

Suspiria (2018)

Directed by:
Luca Guadagnino

Dario Argento's original is one of those genre classics that also happens to be really imperfect. Those who love it don't love it because of the uneven acting, poor dubbing, frequently terrible dialogue and minimalist plot, they love it for the garish visual / audio presentation. The barrage of beautiful, bold, saturated colors, interesting art direction and strange / inventive camerawork mixed with a truly evil-sounding Goblin score all combined forces in an attempt to bypass conventional storytelling altogether; entirely through sight and sound. While the movie works brilliantly for some viewers, it leaves others feeling a bit cold and wanting a more substantive narrative to go along with the visuals.

This remake takes the bare bones of the original's plot (an American dancer goes to Germany and joins an exclusive ballet studio run by sinister witches) and tries to do something else entirely with it, which is just as well since the original's story was its weakest point. Right out of the gate, this feels completely different. Gone are the bold colors. Gone is the crazy camerawork. Gone is the loud, scary, attention-demanding music score. Gone is the vibrant, otherworldly art direction. In its place? Well, let's just say about the exact opposite on all fronts. As for those who find it unfair to compare a remake to the original, I can only say this: If you don't want comparisons, make your own damn movie from scratch and then you won't have to worry about any of that.

Guadagnino seems so dead set on thwarting accusations of being a copycat that he goes in the polar opposite direction of Argento. The look of the entire film is rainy, ugly and muted; stone, brick and steel. Earth tones are prominent. Everything is grey. The vividness of primary colors is intentionally downplayed at every turn. It doesn't matter if it's inside or outside, it's always a miserable day. This is undoubtedly my biggest disappointment with the film. Even though it's technically well-shot by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom and some of the camerawork is good, aesthetically it looks like every other contemporary genre movie that's been released the past twenty or so years. These films ALL have this same dreary, drab, overcast aesthetic, so to suddenly praise this film for same is bullocks. By contrast, the original looked and sounded like nothing else when it debuted. Hell, there is still nothing else that looks quite like it. A little bit of basic red lighting is thrown in at the climax, but it feels like a throwaway merely to finally appease fans of the original.

Goblin's noisy, in-your-face score with the memorable, sinister shouts of "Witch!" has been replaced by strings, piano, blips and the sullen, emotional warbling of Thom Yorke. I'm a huge Radiohead fan and the fact Yorke did the score (his very first) is one of the main reasons I decided to watch this. However, as much as I like it, the soundtrack applied to the film itself wasn't all that memorable for me and the sublime, subdued music is certainly nowhere near as inventive as the first film's audacious score. While Goblin's music took center stage and was one of the most pronounced aspects of the original film, Yorke's contributions are usually more of a soft underscore and thus have a tendency to fade into the background.

David Kajganich's screenplay is a lot more ambitious than the original's but a mixed bag of politics, history, femme-centric issues (namely motherhood) and empty pretense; none of which is really thought through or adequately tied together into a cohesive whole. In fact, much of it seems like a calculated attempt to pander to critics. A major subplot has been grafted on that centers around an elderly doctor haunted by the uncertainty of his wife's disappearance during WWII. Did she survive and merely move on with her life? Was she killed by Nazis? The movie spends what feels like an eternity showing him walking around and doing mundane things to function as a meditation on emptiness, misery and human suffering. The problem is, we get it. We got it three scenes earlier. He's tied to the dance academy plot only by the fact one of the students (played by Chloë Grace Moretz) is / was a patient of his. After she vanishes, he becomes obsessed with finding out what happened, clearly as a cathartic maneuver seeing what became of his wife.

The setting is Berlin, West Germany in 1977 so then-current events, from the hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181 to the Red Army Faction militant organization to (of course) the Berlin Wall / "post WWII demons / guilt still haunting Germany" subtext, weave in and out of the main story line as if thrown in to snag some respectability from the sidelines. Though including this content doesn't amount to much thematically, it does provide us with a host of hilarious critical reviews from writers seemingly trying to match the pretentiousness of the film itself.

"...it's a unique and petrifying cinematic experience that will crawl into your soul and lodge there," claims Jack Blackwell. "A sustained death rattle in dread-inducing cinematic form," says Dustin Puttnam. "You will be left rendered questioning [huh?] and shivering, kneeling before Guadagnino's Suspiria," says Ben Rolph. Do these people actually review movies or try to come up with the most ridiculously hyperbolic blurbs possible in hopes their name will one day end up on a DVD case? If you ever catch me talking like that, please punch me in the face. Funniest of all is Victoria Alexander, who attempts to prop this up by taking a dig at "the seldom-seen, poorly-reviewed original." I'd let that slide except for the fact the original is one of the most famous Italian horror films of all time and is currently rated nearly 30 points higher on Rotten Tomatoes than this remake. Well, look at me. Getting completely off track here. Just call me Luca!

Overall, the acting here is superior to the original. Tilda Swinton gets the showiest part(s) by far, playing three characters (two under heavy make-up) and doing typically solid work in her primary role as Madame Blanc. However, her two other characters are a bit harder to swallow. Instead of being a wide-eyed innocent, this time Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) is fleeing some family trauma-drama she suffered in Ohio at the hands of her strict religious parents. This is the first time I've seen Johnson in a starring role as I'm not the least bit interested in watching the S&M-and-glory-holes-for-bored-housewives nonsense she usually appears in. She made neither a bad nor an overwhelmingly positive impression on me. It was nice seeing Dutch actress Renée Soutendijk again and original Suspiria star Jessica Harper is given a small role that, for a change, isn't a complete throwaway. The cast also includes Mia Goth (A Cure for Wellness) as Sara, Angela Winkler as Miss Tanner and Ingrid Caven (TENDERNESS OF THE WOLVES). Pretty much everyone does fine with what they're given to work with.

While I really missed the visual style, and a lot of this was bland and needlessly dragged out, here's some credit where credit is due: Giulia Piersanti's costume design is excellent, the production is an effective evocation of time and place and there are three or four showstopper sequences in here that make the whole thing worth slogging through. Two of these are dance sequences. One that pantomimes / causes a woman to contort into some rather unusual shapes is a fantastic, brilliantly edited little set piece. In between the great bits, the director flails around with useless subplots and flashy but empty "surreal" dream scenes; sadly showcasing his complete inability to utilize slow motion effectively on more than one occasion. And I still can't figure out if the finale was supposed to be funny or not (I'm guessing NOT due to the "weight" of the Holocaust subplot) but I was nearly rolling on the floor laughing watching Swinton strut around in sunglasses and a rotten latex body suit with saggy tits and four stomachs, nude women writhing and thrusting their way through some silly choreographed interpretive witch dance and select cast members suddenly erupting into CGI blood geysers.

Filmed on a healthy 20 million dollar budget (Amazon was one of the production companies), this grossed just 7.5 million worldwide. It's not difficult to see why, and it's not because people are stupid, uncultured or impatient as some critics have suggested. It's because when faced with a 2 1/2 hour hodgepodge of "Let's throw everything against the wall and see what sticks" viewers aren't obligated to find someone's disorganized, needlessly-cluttered, self-indulgent upchuck compelling, emotionally affecting or even the least bit interesting, let alone entertaining. I found both stuff to love and stuff to hate here. I'm not even sure how to rate it. I was alternately intrigued and amused, and bored silly and irritated, at various stages in the film.



Nick Schwab said...

Great review! Probably the best written one I have seen from you on here. I hope in the future you will get just as specific with your prose and evidence!

The Bloody Pit of Horror said...

Not having to rehash the plot a second time probably helped me concentrate on other stuff!

Nick Schwab said...

I forgot to mention that I love your blog! I go here and to your IMDB page almost-daily! While I don't always agree with you (and how could I with so-very many reviews,) I always enjoy reading and seeing what film you discovered for me!

I appreciate you taking the time to manage it. Keep it up!

While I don't have a blog or website myself... if you are on MUBI.com... add me here:


The Bloody Pit of Horror said...

Thank you! I appreciate that.

I've actually never used Mubi before but I'll have to check it out. I stopped using IMDb so much since they got rid of their message boards and now mostly just review here and do the occasional review over on Letterboxd.

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