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.


Suspiria (1977)

... aka: Alarido
... aka: Chok House (Shock House)
... aka: Dario Argento's Suspiria
... aka: Flykten från helvetet (Escape from Hell)

Directed by:
Dario Argento

I've always had a love / like relationship with this film. Had you asked me a decade ago to list my favorite horror films of all time, Suspiria would quite likely get a quick mention. But then I went through a period where some of the film's flaws just kept jumping out at me and it went down a little in my estimation. Now I never outright disliked this film. On the contrary, I've enjoyed watching it occasionally ever since I was a kid. It was one of the first films I owned on video, one of the first films I bought on DVD and the film that helped get me into Argento films at a young age. I was so fond of it and Creepers that I was lured onto ebay back in the dial-up days and shelling out a lot of money trying to get my hands on any film Argento I could. You know, back when finding something like the heavily-cut copy of Tenebre called Unsane was the best one could hope for. But then we get a bit older and our tastes tend to change...

Over time and many viewings, I just got to the point where I wondered if Suspiria was truly worthy of the acclaim and a high placement on nearly every critic's top horror film lists. I mean, there's absolutely no denying its visual merits, but is it really so stylish that it manages to overcome its many narrative shortcomings? And the poor dubbing / dialogue? And some numbskull character actions? And the hokey stuffed bat attack? And that painfully bad scene where our heroine goes to a psychiatry convention to find out about witches and Udo Kier, bizarrely shot from the ground up, appears to be reading his lines off of cue cards? Now having taken a long hiatus and armed with a copy of the 40th Anniversary Synapse 4K restoration Blu-ray, I'm interested in seeing how I feel about this one now.

Upon receiving her acceptance letter, American ballerina Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) travels to Freiburg, Germany to start training at the esteemed and exclusive Tanz Akademie. It's late at night when she arrives and she's given a chilly reception right at the front door, with a frantic young woman muttering something inaudible before fleeing the building and another girl coming over the intercom telling her to "Go away!" And that she does, right to a hotel for the night. The fleeing girl - Pat (Eva Axén) - ends up at her friend Sonia's (Susanna Javicoli) apartment, but someone, or something, has followed her there. Whatever it is manages to float outside a third story window, busts its hand through the window and grabs her. Next thing we know she's being stabbed repeatedly. She's tied up, falls through a stained glass window and is hung by the rope, while Sonia gets impaled by the falling debris (glass and a metal pole).

The following day, Suzy returns to the academy to begin her training. She's introduced to vice directress Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett), once a very famous ballerina herself, and is shown around by the stern Miss Tanner (Alida Valli), who acts more like a prison warden than a teacher and constantly has a red face from screaming so much. Most of the dancers there prove to be immature, snobby and / or money-obsessed, though Suzy is befriended by fellow student Sarah (Stefania Casini), who doesn't quite fit in herself. And then Suzy begins picking up various signs that something sinister is afoot.

For starters, the staff can't seem to make up their mind about Suzy's accommodations. She's initially told that instead of boarding at the school, she's to live off campus in an apartment with third year student Olga (Barbara Magnolfi). But after she tells investigating detectives that she saw Pat on the night of her murder, they then try to coerce her into moving to the school... almost as if they want to keep a close eye on her. When she resists, she's briefly blinded by a crystal the cleaning lady shines at her and passes out. When she comes to, all of her belongings have been moved to the school; pretty much forcing her to stay there. A quack doctor puts her on a strange diet of bland food and thick red wine, even though Suzy's fainting spell seems to have been an isolated incident and she feels fine. But it does help her sleep well at night. Almost too well.

Suzy's first few days there, she's greeted by a maggot infestation (blamed on spoiled meat in the attic) and the death of blind pianist Daniel (Flavio Bucci), which occurs after his usually well-behaved seeing eye dog bites the cook's young son and, later, chews out his own throat. She learns a bit more about the strange occurrences at the academy from Sarah, who was Pat's friend and is in possession of some notes Pat was keeping that point in the direction that the school is run by a (gulp!) coven of actual witches. After relaying just a bit of information, Sarah promptly disappears and her room is completely cleaned out, with Miss Tanner claiming she must have run away in the night.

As for Tanner and the rest of the staff, they claim to live in town, but their footsteps late at night tell a different story; one where they're not even leaving the building at all. There's also the issue of the mysterious primary school director that no student has ever met and the staff keeps well hidden. She may be somehow linked to a Greek emigre named Helena Markos. Known as "The Black Queen," Markos had previously been expelled from several European countries for practicing witchcraft until she permanently found a home in Freiburg and established the Tanz Akademie. She supposedly died in a fire back in 1905. Supposedly.

Suspiria is quintessential "style over substance." While the screenplay (by Argento and his then-partner Daria Nicolodi) holds little of interest, the dialogue is often clunky and the post sync dub is sometimes distracting (though there's certainly a lot worse), the film is so visually captivating, imaginative, well-crafted and gorgeous to look at, that it frequently transcends the narrative altogether. Great care has gone into the look of virtually every shot. Giuseppe Bassan's production design, Luciano Tovoli's cinematography, the lighting and vibrant colors overlaid with a bombastic, chilling and unique score from prog rock group Goblin (with assist from Argento himself) all combine to create some of the most effective and mesmerizing sequences in horror film history. The opening ten minutes and Sarah's death scene are the standout set pieces here, but virtually every frame at least holds something of aesthetic interest. So, I'm happy to report that Suspiria has managed to cast its spell over me once again all these years later, perhaps most especially now that it's looking and sounding better than ever.

This is the first in the "Three Mothers" trilogy that also includes the New York City-set INFERNO (1980) and the Rome-set Mother of Tears (2007); all of which involve witches spreading evil from three distinct locations. Since the third entry took so long to make, Luigi Cozzi made his own unofficial pseudo sequel in the interim titled Il gatto nero / The Black Cat (1989). A remake, which uses the basic plot of the original but has a bunch of added subplots and a completely different visual style, was released in 2018. Directed by Luca Guadagnino, who'd previously made the popular (and Oscar nominated) gay coming of age film Call Me By Your Name (2017), the two-and-a-half hour film polarized both audiences and critics.

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