Although SUSPIRIA premiered at the Venice International Film Festival last September to an eight-minute standing ovation, its reception by film critics covering the festival was significantly less than enthusiastic. That dichotomy of reaction seems to have carried on as the film has entered general distribution. Audiences are liking this reboot of, or homage to, Italian director Dario Argento’s so-called classic horror film from 1977 more than critics are but not much more. For many people, Argento and his work are untouchable.
In Luca Guadagnino’s (CALL ME BY YOUR NAME) incarnation, which is sufficiently different from the original story, the location is still in Germany but the action has moved north from the Black Forest town of Freiburg to West Berlin. The time is still 1977 when the Wall separates families and when the Baader-Meinhof Group is in the news every day. All these factors come into play as American Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson, BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE) arrives at the Markos Tanz Company’s dance academy. Unlike the original Susie (who went by the very ’70s-spelled “Suzy”), we come to learn quite a bit about this young dancer. She grew up in a Mennonite household in Ohio and her mother was certain from early on that Susie was different from the other children. We also learn that she’s been a fan of the legendary dancer Helena Markos for ages and she arrives at the school already knowing the choreography for their big number even though she hasn’t had any professional training. At her audition for the company head, Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL), Susie proves her worth and she becomes Blanc’s protégé. Later, when fellow dancer Olga disappears, Susie is elevated to lead the troupe and she passes with flying colours. However, while the women are dancing upstairs, Olga is trapped in a fully mirrored room directly under them and every exacting motion of Susie’s arms inflicts serious disfigurement on Olga’s body. The academy, it turns out, is a front for a coven of witches run by the matrons.
Having seen Argento’s version, I’m at a loss to understand why it’s so celebrated. The acting is awful, there is no character development, the dialogue is stilted and the production values are poor. Fans of the film will no doubt mention its score by Goblin (sorry, it’s overbaked and overplayed) and Argento’s use of primary colours (wow, he knows how to bathe a set in red light). I’ll concede that this version of SUSPIRIA is bloated (152 minutes vs. 98 for the original) and, in Guadagnino’s attempt to paint an abstract picture of the time, much of the social context that is added into the story really should have ended up on the cutting room floor. On the other hand, the dance scenes – particularly the one involving Susie and the ill-fated Olga – are fantastic, the film editing is superb, the music by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke is evocative, and the director’s use of colour, or the lack thereof, is masterful. As much as I preferred this version though, I was disappointed that it wasn’t nightmarishly crazy. Yes, some scenes can be disturbing but there’s very little that will keep you up at night.
Had this film been less artistic and more bonkers, it would have been amazing. As it is, it’s just pretty good. If you’re up for a challenge, I heartily recommend it.
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