Luca Guadagnino returns to screens this week with his long-awaited take on giallo classic Suspiria – minus much of the giallo. While there are several overt nods to Dario Argento’s vibrantly hued horror, the Call Me By Your Name director has been bold in his revisions, offering up a far more sober tale of power plays and witchcraft behind the Berlin Wall.
What do we want from our big-screen remakes, if we even permit their very existence? In the case of Suspiria, should we really have expected – from an Oscar-nominated filmmaker – the same exact runtime, the same exact tone, and to have rehired the same exact actors playing the same exact roles but 40 years younger? From the very outset, Guadagnino simultaneously confirms and subverts our expectations, retaining the overall plot while inflecting it with an air of Baader-Meinhof-era paranoia.
We open as a startled, bedraggled Patricia Hingle (Chloë Grace Moretz) rambles on incoherently about the matriarchs of her dance academy to her ageing shrink, Dr. Klemperer (Lutz Ebersdorf) in his musty apartment. The camera pans wildly, Argento-esque, focussing on anything that may or may not shed light on this mysterious inception. We are then translocated to a woman’s deathbed: the Mennonite mother of the same academy’s brightest new protegé, Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), expelling her last breath as a Berlin tube train grumbles to a stop.
Even in its earliest stages, Guadagnino’s Suspiria courts the uncanny. The locales feel familiar but are also betrayed by the nicotine-stained, rain-soaked greys of Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s Berlin. Susie arrives at the Helena Markos Tanzgruppe where she learns of Patricia’s disappearance, an act which has obviously had a profound effect on student and teacher alike. Primary among the latter is Madame Blanc (Guadagnino regular Tilda Swinton), who immediately sees the potential in Susie – both physical and astral.
It is upon Blanc, rather than Susie, that the heft of this revisionist interpretation lies. We learn of the troupe-cum-coven’s tempestuous recent history, facing extermination by the Nazis before Blanc and co. rallied to preserve their way of life. This struggle is immortalised in the routine for Volk, for which Susie displays a speedy, supernatural affinity, drawing herself deeper and deeper into the Tanzgruppe’s matriarchal inner circle. One recently departed mother is replaced by three others – Tenebrarum, Lachrymarum, and Suspiriorum: darkness, tears, and sighs – each with their own designs on young Susie.
This time round it is in the company of the spiders – not the fly – that Guadagnino’s Suspiria (2018) truly soars, which makes the film’s regular asides with the investigating Klemperer at best distracting – and at worst plainly irritating. Klemperer’s own narrative arc feeds into the remake’s preoccupation with disintegrating familial units (he is himself grieving for his lost wife, Anke, played by original Susie Bannion Jessica Harper) but Blanc and her acolytes’ internal disagreements are so compelling that any time away feels like time misspent.
Fortunately, this is a rather minor, personal quibble. Thom Yorke’s heavily publicised original score flits between dread and the divine with a degree of elegance, while Mukdeeprom’s framing is as good as anything seen in Call Me By Your Name. The good news for those not enamoured with Suspiria (2018) is that they’ll always have the original. The even better news for those who do go with this daring, uncompromised reimagining of Argento’s occult opus is that it now has a sleek, satisfying sibling.