No other movie is ever going to be Suspiria.
The 1977 original is something of a miracle film, and I’m not at all confident that anyone, even the people who made it, have any idea how or why it is what it is. It’s the film I always use as an example of a movie that would be worse if it was any better; a movie that transmutes, by some intangible magic, its own weaknesses into strengths.
To its credit, Luca Guadagnino’s remake never tries to be the original Suspiria. From the earliest scenes, we are told quite clearly that he is using the blueprint left behind by the original film to fashion a very new edifice. As I said right after seeing it, the differences between Argento’s film and Guadagnino’s are neatly summarized by the distinctions between the buildings in which the two films take place: The candy-colored art deco interiors and Haus zum Walfisch exterior of the ’77 version replaced with dimly-lit Brutalist architecture facing directly onto the Berlin Wall.
The 2018 Suspiria knows that we already know that there are witches in the walls, and so it doesn’t play coy, dumping us into the reality of the witchcraft early on, even if it still takes most of the film for anyone to react to it. Guadagnino also ties the witchcraft and the dancing much more closely together than Argento’s version ever did. In this Suspiria, dances are spells, and they have very real consequences. In one of the strongest (in most senses of the word) scenes in Guadagnino’s version, the effects of one such spell are graphically, grotesquely displayed in a bit of gruesome body horror that the film never really tops.
The academy in Guadagnino’s Suspiria is also a house divided. That view of the Berlin Wall is more than just a reminder of the times, or the different tones of the two movies. It serves as a metaphor for the divide among the witches themselves, with some wishing to continue following Mother Markos, while others want to throw their lot in behind Tilda Swinton’s Madame Blanc.
It is this division that drives most of the film to its climactic moments, where a plot twist that can be seen coming like a slow-moving freight train chugging down the tracks leads to an extremely bloody denouement, shot with music video artistic license, one presumes to cover up the fact that the CGI blood splatter effects which it leans on heavily are nowhere near ready for prime time.
Ultimately, Guadagnino’s film is a (sometimes) beautiful one and an ugly one; at times smart but never subtle; filled with horror touches that it doesn’t seem to know what to do with. There were audible gasps from the theatre I saw it in, hands covering eyes, shrinking back in seats, but the images on the screen were often more exploitative than scary. Gasps were more likely to be gasps of disgust than fear. While sitting in the theatre, I scribbled down comparisons to other things, including the video to “Invisible Light” and 120 Days of Sodom.
I will need time to sit with my feelings about this new Suspiria, and something tells me they won’t necessarily get better with distance. But whether the end result is good, bad, or indifferent, Guadagnino took this film’s relationship to the original and used it to forge something almost totally different using the same floor plan. That’s worth something, anyway, regardless of how the finished product may have turned out.