The ailment that infects many horror remakes these days is a lack of nerve. Often there is a commercial mandate to stick as closely as possible to what worked the first time while doing a little “smoke and mirrors” shuffling of style and surface story elements to give the illusion of a conceptual re-think. It’s rare that the rights-holders bring in a filmmaker willing to roll their sleeves up and take some risks that have the potential to alienate an existing fan base.
That said, you do get the occasional conceptual daredevil in the sequel sweepstakes and the gutsiest of the bunch is the new version of Suspiria, which is more rethink than remake. The result is already one of the most controversial horror releases of the year and also one of the genre’s most bold, ambitious releases in recent memory.
Writer David Kajganich and director Luca Guadagnino retain the basic elements of the Dario Argento’s horror classic: young student Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) travels to the prestigious Tanz Akademie in Berlin, only to discover that supernatural goings-on threaten doom for her and the other students. That is where the similarities between the two films begin and end.
The new film’s creative team takes those raw elements in a completely different direction. You learn this in the opening minutes when the key plot twist from the finale of the original film is dispensed with in a quick line of dialogue. The horror elements of the story are woven into a bigger, more complex framework about the complexities of relationships between women and the interaction between the ancient evils that have always troubled the world and the comparatively mundane but no less dangerous evils that come from the human mind.
At this point, it is best to stop discussing the plot and allow interested viewers to discover the film’s surprises on their own. However, there is one topic left to be touched on in the story: the way Guadagnino and Kajganich deal with horror. The new Suspiria dispenses with the grandiose, operatic style of the Argento film in favor of something more austere where there are periodic shocks but a greater feeling of dread.
It’s definitely an arthouse approach but the film does boast at least three setpieces that deliver visceral shocks: two focus on the frailties of the human body in a way that Argento might approve of and the third is a finale that takes the Grand Guignol in a psychedelic direction that is more Jodorowsky-esque than Italian.
The new Suspiria also demands patience and close attention from the viewer. Instead of bowling you over like the original did, it unfurls at a leisurely yet methodical pace. It has a busier plot that takes pains to couch the film in the real world of 1977 Berlin, complete with references to Baader-Meinhof and the legacy of the Nazi regime. This approach will not be for all tastes but the patient viewer might appreciate the rigor and craft-conscious approach of Guadagnino: it’s hypnotic in its own quiet way. A taut, minimalist piano-driven score from Thom Yorke and the earthy visuals of cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom play a big role in helping the director create his own unique atmosphere for horror.
The cast is also quite impressive. Johnson offers an intriguingly enigmatic variation on the wide-eyed naif that Susie represents in the story but the film really belongs to Tilda Swinton in a unique dual role: she plays the film’s alternately domineering and nurturing head teacher and also an elderly male psychiatrist (in heavy makeup) who becomes drawn into the school’s web of mystery and danger. Elsewhere, there is strong support from arthouse vets like Angela Winkler and Renee Soutendijk as school instructors, Mia Goth and Chloe Moretz as fellow students and former Suspiria heroine Jessica Harper in a brief but important role that is best left for the viewer to discover.
Whether or not the new Suspiria‘s approach works for the viewer is a matter of taste and expectations but no one can deny its courage. Guadagnino and Kajganich really dug in here, creating a true alternative experience that defiantly stands apart as its own unique beast. More horror remakes today could use this kind of fearless ambition.