Suspiria Poster

Theatrical release poster. Image: Wikipedia

“Truth’s a dog must to kennel.” So says the Fool in King Lear, after he’s threatened with a whipping for revealing bitter truths to his royal master. How many artists in their waking dreams have taken critics to task for their leveled judgments, if not necessarily imagining the offending scribe as a stand-in for Catherine Deneueve, bound to a tree and lashed in Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967), then perhaps endlessly re-enacting the William Tell routine—à la William Burroughs? Such ran my thoughts before I settled down to write a review of Suspiria (2018), directed by Luca Guadagnino and written by David Kajganich, a film I found hard to like, even if I did not experience one minute of boredom. 

As a primer on high style, Suspiria is a textbook extravaganza for any budding cinephile: the restless cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom dazzles, his reds so steep and sensuous that it’s a surprise the lips of the audience aren’t stained carmine after they breach the exits; and Thom Yorke’s eerie aural pyrotechnic scoring promotes percussions of the heart. But for those completists who seek the whole enchilada, where writing, directing, acting, cinematography, editing, sound, and production design labor in conjunction at the service of narrative (or theme, if plot is of secondary importance), in order to better weave the dream-spell, the magic, that can lull even the most jaded of viewers into its world while exploring innovations and expanding the possibilities of the filmmaking craft—that viewer will be hard put to find in Suspiria what is so readily found in a film like Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), where every frame matters.

True, there are gorgeous, art-directed-all-to-hell dream sequences that would have delighted David Lynch, and thrilling avant-garde dance performances that most certainly would have been used as fodder by the Cohen Brothers in The Big Lebowski (1998) had Suspiria been made sooner. But what does all this hard labor add up to in the end? The film itself struck me as more of a rummage store of borrowed motifs than a work of art— themes taken up second-hand, and vintage camerawork used to not-so-discernible effect.

Guadagnino strives to present the packed frame, strewing objets d’art for our delectation (a framed testimony to motherhood hung in a sneak corridor, the scribbled diary like an illuminated manuscript), and his early-aughts stint with Italian fashion house Fendi seems on par with his luxury-ad style of filmmaking. This is clear in I Am Love (2009) in particular, which was boutique cinema at its most cloying (that one, like Suspiria, starred the always compelling Tilda Swinton as an adulterous chef mired within a modern-day Italian aristocracy).

Guadagnino’s remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 giallo masterpiece is one apple that falls far short of the gothic tree. Where the original Suspiria maintained a streamlined story—ingénue Suzy Bannion (a breathless and dish-eyed Jessica Harper) finds herself in a dance academy in Munich (which Argento shot on sets built in Rome) operated by a coven of witches—in director Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganic’s hands, the school has been airlifted to West Berlin circa 1977. Though we still have the coven, the plot is threaded through with many creaking background occurrences, such as the color commentators on the television who give us play-by-play staccato information concerning the militant Red Army Faction and the hijacking of Lufthansa flight 181 by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine; add to that a baffling subplot concerning guilt and complicity revolving around the Holocaust and a psychotherapist by the name of Josef Klemperer (one of a trio of roles played by Tilda Swinton, essentially in old man disguise) whose wife, Anke, died in a concentration camp. And all this amid the cacophony of broken bones and claret fountains of gore. Mein Gott!

It’s difficult to make out what all this historical-political business has to do with what was originally a simple story about a young woman ultimately defeating evil to a prog-rock soundtrack compliment of The Goblins. If Guadagnino’s film sounds confusing, don’t blame me. Suspiria’s cloverleaf-highway-plotting ties the viewer’s brains up in knots. Not that Argento’s original is more masterfully plotted; but his film was such a neon blowout, filled with a sanguinary insouciance and a razor sense of 70s aesthetics, that the viewer falls for Argento’s dream logic. How did the remake go so horribly awry and essentially lose the very name of its action? The answer lies in its surfeit of ambitions.

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Image: IMDB

Suspiria is pretentiously divided into acts, perhaps pointing to the theatricality of the whole enterprise, but I suspect more so to provide a structure where there really is none. Ohio Menonnite Susie Bannion (fetchingly played by Dakota Johnson, star of the Fifty Shades franchise, and daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith,) stumbles into the famous Helena Markos Dance Company in West Berlin and, though a mere amateur, is lured into an audition. Where the original Suzy Bannion is generally swept into our purview by a howling storm seemingly summoned by Macbeth’s troika of riddling hags, the new Susie is ushered down the street by a small misery of mizzling rain. This eager young disciple of the famous choreographer Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), whose stargazing eyes maintain a magnetic force, rapidly proves herself a physical adept: her floorwork is flooring. Soon she is invited to live in the dormitory-style building with other female dancers who would not be out of place on the cover of Vogue, and is placed directly under the tutelage of Madame Blanc who, we rapidly learn, is really one of the head honchos in the coven. From there the story begins to unravel. There are hints of a tense rivalry between disciple and master that is quickly dropped; a mystery involving Patricia, the vanished former student of the academy played by Chloë Grace Moretz of Kick-Ass (2010), who appears in the office of Dr. Klemperer at the outset of the film and is as quickly forgotten as the unfortunate Anna in Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960); and the few gruesome scenes are devoted to the punishment of those members of the troupe who seek to flee from the fold. There’s some exposition concerning Three Mothers, powerful witches who should have dropped the black magic and taken up Christian rock instead. The worst of the bunch appears to be the undead Mother Markos (Tilda Swinton, once again), a creation seemingly excavated from the Olduvai Gorge. This mammiferous ghoul appears at the film’s black-mass climax, covered over in plagues and tumors and runny boils, and it is clear when her back is to the camera that she is in serious need of a Brazilian butt lift. Mother Markos is going to use Susie as a vessel in order to reenter the world of the slyly choreographed living, and perhaps nab herself a National Dance Award, in addition to a coveted slot in Art Cologne—or so I gathered. Who can truly tell? The filmmakers pursued a vague and uncertain policy of virtual wholesale destruction in the final scenes, which compounds the confusion. As one young woman after another falls with spilled intestines or spouting gore, the value of the film dropped in my estimation. Though there was enough mangled meat to supply a rendering plant—a feast, I suppose, for horror mavens—at first sight of the closing credits, I was relieved that I was finally going to make my way back home.

Suspiria 1977 movie poster.

This is not to say that the film does not have bursts of brilliance. One particularly effective sequence has Susie, under a spell cast by Madame Blanc, punishing a dissenting student named Olga (Elena Fokina) in a supernatural fashion. Corporal damage is inflicted upon a poor, blinded Olga in a mirrored room, while in the adjoining main floor separated by thick walls, Susie engages in a brutal dance of death. Her body becomes a weapon: when her arms whirl and flash like knives, Olga’s limbs bend and challenge gravity, producing torments of protuberant bone. When Susie pounds the floor abruptly, Olga flings thuddingly into the mirrored wall, a surefire victim of subdural hematoma. “All’s well that ends well” could have been applied as the situation’s motto had there been any Endswell in sight (this is a miniature flatiron that boxing trainers pressed against the battered faces of fighters in order to reduce swelling), but there was to be no such reprieve for Olga. Poor Olga, knotted into an abstraction of flesh after Susie’s terrifying performance, is later carried off by the witches, sickles puncturing all four corners of her misshapen body (this is 1977 Berlin after all, so there isn’t a chainsaw or power morcellator in sight). This extended sequence put me in mind of a powerful scene in The Square (2017), in which a performance artist (menacingly played by animal actor Terry Notary) imitates an ape and terrorizes a banquet hall full of art-world swells. In both scenes one could feel the audience in the vise of the filmmakers, and each excruciating turn of the lever increased the sweating tension; one could swear that teeth popped within clenched jaws. But a few thrilling scenes do not make for great films.

There are stabs at thematic consistency: there’s mention of a Hester, presumably a nod to Hester Prynne, Hawthorne’s protagonist who was famously condemned to wear the scarlet letter by her Puritan kinsmen (and the Puritans, as we know, were notorious for burning so-called witches); there’s an allusion to The Blair Witch Project, in a scene in which two Berlin policemen are spelled into immobility by a gaggle of witches while their pants are at their ankles, and one’s leech-like penis is ridiculed and threatened with the point of a sickle; and a sign in the Berlin U-Bahn antiseptically points to destination SUSPIRIA; the original film was actually based on Thomas De Quincy’s collection of essays Suspiria de profundis—“Sighs from the depths”—and it’s apt that Argento took up this opium-addicted Romantic writer’s work, since Argento’s surrealistico films with their lurid colors are truly Munch-like anxieties brought to screaming life.

So what, exactly, is Guadagnino’s film trying to say? Is Suspiria an exploration of the sociobiology of motherhood? A commentary on the male’s innate fear of powerful women? A feminist film with Freudian implications? I’ve puzzled over this for some days and I still can’t say for sure. It is no secret that strong women have long been a threat to ambitious men. If we can’t judge by Donald Trump’s infamous lurking behind Hilary Clinton during the 2016 presidential debates, where he sought to assert authority by using his bearlike body, along with his “nasty woman” remark, then we can cast back further to the 16th century and look to Sir John Perrot’s crude description of Queen Elizabeth I of England: “a base bastard piss-kitchen woman.” Men have degraded women for centuries, and have sought to deprive or push them from the corridors of power. But in what is generally a woman-dominated film such as Suspiria, what do we make of a line of dialogue such as this one from the beleaguered, soon-to-be-vanished Patricia? “They’ll hollow me out and put my cunt on a plate.” And, when we try to square the references to the history of a divided Berlin alongside the expressions of raw female power within the precincts of modern dance, nothing gels. Ich bin ein Berliner? No way, Jose.

None of these “ideas” fit snugly within the horror genre’s conventions (and this is a horror film, after all)—thus the inflated running time of two hours and thirty-two minutes. No tailor, no matter how masterful, could let out these constraining garments enough in order to contain all that crammed and unnecessary weight. In the end, this film about monstrous mother-witches lacks mother wit. The characters, for the most part, are undercooked, half-baked, parboiled; they leave neither taste nor tincture; and the savory experience one demands from a scare film generally jumps the pot altogether. The shock theatrics that occasionally peep through Suspiria are simply not enough to rattle your bones. Like the priest said, when asked what he thought of Scorcese’s Taxi Driver (1976): “Too much Good Friday, not enough Easter Sunday.”

Edwin Rivera is a Writing Instructor at SVA and Editor of The Match Factory. He is the author of a full-length play, IN THE PALACE OF THE PLANET KING, which has been selected as part of the 2019 Downtown Urban Arts Festival in New York City.