Monday, January 22, 2024

Suspiria (2018)

It feels like just about every classic horror film has been remade, usually for the worse. For every Fly, Thing, or Blob, you have absolute dreck, existing solely as cash grabs. The same was almost true for Suspiria, with talk of an American remake going on for years. Mercifully this all fell through, but a remake would soon be in the cards anyway, courtesy of recent talent Luca Guadagnino. Does it live up to the original, or is it just another bad copy?...

Young American Suzy Bannion has just arrived in Berlin, 1977, to join the prestigious Markos dance academy. She's allured by the city, and enigmatic instructor Madame Blanc. But strange things are afoot. The spectre of domestic unrest looms over all, one girl has gone missing, and a psychiatrist's investigations prove dangerous. It becomes apparent this school is led by a coven of witches, who have sinister plans for their students...

Suspiria 2018 is a film with a lot to admire and criticise, with my feelings skewing towards the latter. Firstly, this is a 2-and-a-half hour arthouse horror film. That alone should serve as a warning sign, but also show that Luca at least had the merit to try something new and unique, instead of just a safe lazy retread. It also helps that this technically isn't an American film.

As a remake this is...mixed. It makes a conscious effort to be different, which I applaud! It's not just a play-by-play of the original with updated effects. Instead it takes the base of the original to create something new. However, I felt it went a bit far in the opposite direction at times, having so little to do with the source material at times you wonder why they bothered. I also wish there were some recreations of familiar scenes, just to see Luca's version of the opening double murder!

Luca himself has distanced himself from calling his Suspiria a remake, preferring to call it a homage instead...A homage using the exact same name, plot, and characters as the original. Riiight. I get annoyed when people try and argue their film isn't a remake but a reimagining (same thing, assholes!), but this is really pushing it. Of course Suspiria is a remake of Suspiria. Luca should just own that (very obvious) fact, rather than hide it.

As its own film, I found Suspiria 2018 to be crushingly slow! It's far too long, and very little happens. It takes forever for anything of note to occur. For example, there's no opening murder, and the first death scene is 40 minutes in! That's almost half the original film! It doesn't even take advantage of this time and introduce us to anyone, or explore/expand the characters. We may not know a lot about the girls in the '77 version, but at least we know they are SSNNAKESSSS. Half an hour into this film I knew one girl (as to yet unseen) was named Olga, and another Sara, and I couldn't have told you a thing about them, even what they looked like.

The story here isn't particularly epic. Instead each scene feels like it goes on far too long, and many are unnecessary. There are also particularly unwelcome bits like seeing our heroine take a piss (without even taking off the leotard, ewww!). Like, I get why, they're witches, and collect stuff like that, but dialogue can do plenty! The dialogue also feels a little...gratuitous at times? I don't mind swearing period, but it feels like instead of saying something like a normal person, characters here say stuff like 'They're going to eat my cunt!'. It also feels like very modern swearing too, although that might be nothing.

The film is divided into chapters (as well as a prologue and epilogue), which can be obnoxious when done wrong. Nothing about Suspiria feels segmented, and the titles waver between pretentious and dull. Boring like 1977, or Borrowing, neat like The Palace of Tears, then the frankly obnoxious Inside the Mutterhaus (All the Floors are Darkness). None of these titles make much sense either.

Suspiria 2018 is rich in themes...allegedly. There's been a lot from the director and others about themes of motherhood, fascism, communism, terrorism, national guilt, and more. That all sounds a bit of a hodgepodge to me, and much of it is barely touched upon. It almost feels like it's just throwing ideas at the screen and inviting us to figure out. Which can work, but other times it just feels lazy, like an artist who couldn't be bothered finishing the job, and wants us to do all the hard work.

This leads into one of the film's biggest elements, bafflingly-Politics! Luca felt it was a missed opportunity that the original Suspiria took place in a turbulent period of Germany's history, and his film rectifies that by giving us constant history lessons about local politics before anything scary has even happened. Much of it amounts to basically namedropping. We hear chatter on the TV/radio, graffiti, characters talking about it. This never amounts to much but background window dressing, yet it dominates so much of the film, to the detriment of other things, like the story itself.

Luca should've realised this wasn't The Little Drummer Girl, and known what to leave out. This makes me admire the restraint of the original, which wasn't just set during a turbulent part of Germany's history, it was made during it, yet doesn't focus on any of this stuff. Because it simply has nothing to do with the story. And it goes to show how life goes on during such times, as well as how the troubles of the outside world doesn't penetrate the boundaries of the magical Black Forest.

I'm not saying having a political connection to the witchery is a bad idea, and it could've been interesting thematically. There's a single line from a skeptic about magic meaning to perpetuate chaos that could've been expanded on. Instead we just get constant reminders that German terrorists exist, Berlin has a wall, and that's it.

The characters here are pretty dull and one-note, and there are so many people here with so little to do. Suzy is a little passive. She has a decent Mennonite backstory, which plays well into her character. The film verges on overexplaining her desires. In the original she just wanted to study at a German academy because. Not everything needs a reason (although admittedly the one given here is a good one). She also didn't choose Berlin next to the Wall during terrorism season!

She quickly develops a connection with Madame Blanc, even having a confusing telepathic convo, with no real precedence before or after. Susie also seems to know things we haven't seen her learn.

As in the original film, it's Sara who investigates the academy's weirdness, reluctantly at first. She does ok, before her death. The other girls barely get any dialogue, even the few important ones.

Dr. Josef Klemperer is the other lead, and a good presence. And old man, and survivor of WWII, he tries to help, not believing in witches at first. But they believe in him, and he's smart enough not to keep doubting when they're rocking up on his doorstep. Given his age and frailty he's not much of an action protagonist, but more of a thematic one, carrying guilt for being unable to save or find his wife, or stop the nazis.

The instructors are ok. Madame Blanc gets the most depth, neither good or evil. Tanner is as unnecessary as she was in the old film, and I keep getting their names mixed up. The others are just there, with the odd crazy moment every now and then (like the police...encounter). We see too much of the coven, and it loses mystique. It also doesn't help that they rarely do any magic. Helena Markos only appears in the last act, and does next to nothing. Consistent with the old film, but we felt her presence more there, and there was a connection to the titular character this version lacks.

One area the film really lacks in is having anything to do with the Three Mothers! Beyond some brief lip service, hours apart, there's nothing to go on. I feel that separating Markos and Mater Suspiriorum was a mistake, as it means she wasn't orchestrating the whole film's events, and only has a presence in the last few minutes. Not enough is explained about the Three Mothers or why Suspiriorum was locked away. Was she even locked away? There's being mysterious and then there's genuinely having no idea what's going on. I do find it interesting though how benevolent she's presented! Makes me wonder how sequels would go.

An area the old Suspiria may have lacked in is dance. This update seeks to change that with a much bigger focus. I'd say a little too much, but I appreciate the thought. I wasn't much of a fan of the style. In the original they were just a normal dance academy, but here they're avant-garde weirdos! But then again this is Europe in the 70s. I can totally buy that. The dances themselves are surprisingly good. The big performance is a great setpiece, even if the make-up and nude red ribbon costumes are laughable.

I have to say, by the hour and 50 minute mark things finally start picking up a bit. I'm still not loving it, and this obviously doesn't make up for everything before, but it was nice to actually be entertained. This leads to the last act, which is where the movie goes all out in witchcraft and violence, and the plot finally become clear.

The final reveal, where there's more to Susie than meets the eye, comes a little out of nowhere. There's no explanation, but I think it's an interesting idea. The climax is a little basic. Mater Suspiriorum shows up, then kills everybody. Not the most dramatically satisfying on paper, but it's handled well onscreen though.

The ending is a grueling 10 minutes long. Klemperer and Susie have a nice exchange, as they discuss the final moments of his wife. It's sweet, despite the tragedy of the story. Although the scene is nullified when Susie immediately wipes his memory of everything. The film ends on a quiet note, then we get a post credits scene that doesn't add much, even as a sequel hook.

The acting here is a highlight! In a way. I wish everyone would speak up, but they otherwise deliver very good performances! Dakota Johnson is a strong lead, with a lowkey but effective performance, which really shines in the last act. Mia Goth is a nice presence. Elena Fokina doesn't have a huge part, but is a real trooper in the parts she does get! Chloe Grace Moretz is ok in a disappointingly small role.

While Tilda Swinton is her typical self, weird and ethereal, with a commanding tone. However in Suspiria she pulls triple duty, also playing Helena Markos, and Dr. Klemperer. Her turn as Markos is fun though nigh impossible to understand, and doesn't get enough time. And she also plays the male role of the Dr. under the pseudonym of Lutz Ebersdorf. She does well, and the illusion is mostly seamless, though there are times when you can tell. Not sure what prompted this idea beyond a general fancy, and it never plays into the story, but it's a good addition. Swinton's German has gotta be complimented too, although it's not surprising someone as artistic as she would fluent in continental tongues.

This is a very bilingual film, switching between English to German (and even a smattering of French) at random. Films like this can work, but here it just felt distracting. Nothing is accomplished beyond ultra realism, but there is a reason characters only ever speak one language in movies, despite the unreality. At several moments I was thinking "English, motherfucker! Pick a language and stick with it!". The subtitles are decent, and come with snazzy colours, as well as captions at times.

[The audio is a weak area in the film. I was having such a hard time hearing a lot of the dialogue! It got to the point where I heard what I thought was 'patrician', and I strained my ear to hear what I thought was a conversation about the ills of patriarchy...before realising they only said Patricia.

The direction in Suspiria is another high point. Luca has a great eye for visuals, with some abstract imagery too. The dances are captured well. The editing gets a bit too frenetic for my tastes at times, but the worst of it is in dream sequences that are meant to be chaotic.

Less stellar for me was the colour. While the original is renowned for its garish appearance, Luca wanted to distinguish his own version. A good call! He gives his Suspiria a more muted colour palette, intended to evoke a wintery feel. It's not bad, but my issue with it is the same issue I have with most films nowadays. There's no colour! It's like watching gray sludge. I wish he had've found a better middle ground than making the film look drab. The finale gets to stand out with some good red light, though it does make seeing who dies and how a little difficult once things kick off.

I really liked the end credits. I dig the colour of the background, which is cooler than just a routine black screen. The title font is neat, as are the skewed credits (even if it does make them a little hard to read). And I like what it credits too! Things like the artists for the portraits. Stuff that usually doesn't get specific credits.

The effects are a mix of practical and CGI. The big death scenes all look good. One gets pretty gnarly, though at a certain point it stops resembling something even human, and just an effect. But that could be a positive for some, so I won't nitpick. Some bits in the climax look a little fake, but there's some ok gore, and the 'chest opening' is a neat image! The prosthetics for old man Tilda are pretty convincing, and Markos is suitably grotesque.

The music here is...different! Composed by Thom Yorke of Radiohead, it's pretty lowkey and muted throughout the film, not going out of its way to be scary. Instead it builds more of a moody atmosphere, and includes actual songs performed by Yorke and his odd falsetto voice (he didn't used to sound like that, did he?). While your mileage may vary on his voice, and the style, I mooostly liked them. I wish he'd taken more pages out of, say, Goblin or Keith Emerson's book, but I admire the experimental touch.

While Suspiria acts as a standalone film, Luca did intend on crafting a sequel, and presumably a third entry to follow. This makes sense on paper, since he is adapting a pre-existing trilogy. But given his handling of Mater Suspiriorum I'm not sure how he'd even go about the other two Mothers. I'd be interested to see, and even if his version of Lachrymarum was on par with this effort, I can still say it'd be better than Mother of Tears! The film didn't do well enough at the box office for this to happen though. I totally get this, since a near-3 hour arthouse horror was never going to do gangbusters. I kinda wish Luca could've done this for a smaller budget, to make the possibility of a sequel easier. Although I'm kinda glad this exists on its own.

Suspiria 2018 is liked or loved by some, but not me, and I don't understand those who say it's better than the original. It did too much wrong for me to feel that. I admire it for a lot of things it is, or tries to do, but the execution and runtime just killed it for me. I barely enjoyed a second, and would've much rather watched the original or its sequel...

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