Focus on the filth and forgo the faux-art.
Probably the worst thing about Luca Guadanino’s Suspiria remake is how it tries to mean more than its bawdy, orgiastic ultra-violence suggests. Where Dario Argento’s 1977 original was a straight-up witch slasher movie with a radioactive colour palette, Guadanino’s is an ambitious exercise in High Art Horror. A tricky, usually insufferable genre, High Art Horror takes the grime of horror movies (fetishistic murder, psychopathic killers) and disinfects it until you don’t recognise what you’re looking at anymore. Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015) made a valiant attempt at this, while the profoundly average Netflix series Haunting of Hill House has it in spades. High Art Horror is like Kanye West with an honorary doctorate—calling 2018’s Suspiria a horror movie feels about as ridiculous as calling Kanye West ‘Dr West’.
That’s not to say Guadanino’s movie doesn’t revel in some of the joys of horror. There are genuinely ghoulish moments that offer solid entertainment. It just always feels like the director is standing behind you making sure that, you know, you get that its more than just that, right? At the beginning, ex-dance student Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz) is in a delirious panic, begging her therapist, Dr Josef Klemperer (Tilda Swinton) to delay his session and come speak with her. Moretz, an energetic performer, does a good job suggesting the horror within the walls of the dance school Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) is about to attend.
Susie arrives in the rain in bleak, 1970s Berlin. The East and the West are split and the dreaded, grey winter is here. Get used to that colour-drained pallette, because Guadanino and his cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom have sapped nearly every scene of any hint of colour, as if they sealed a bit of black cellophane over the camera lens. Even when things get demonic, there’s a surprising lack of vibrance, as if audiences need constantly feel Berlin’s oppressive season even when they’re in the centre of an indulgent bloodbath.
Dance instructor Madame Blanc (also Tilda Swinton), peeks in at Susie’s first dance in front of Miss Millius (Alek Wek) and Miss Tanner (Angela Winkler). The dance sequence is set to no music, causing discomfort for Susie and making for a compelling scene. There are a couple of dance numbers without music and they never fail to compel. Johnson has a strength and grace in her movements that suggest both the desperation of a young, ambitious dance student and the talent of a prodigy-to-be. It’s too bad then, that when the dancing stops, so too does the charisma. Where Johnson had swagger and a wild glint in her eye in Bad Times at the El Royale (2018), here she’s just bland and timid. Susie undergoes a transformation towards the end of the film that has to be spelt out for the audience—you wouldn’t know it to look at her.
Things begin to go awry during Susie’s first attempt a dancing the lead part of the Volk dance, because another dancer, Olga (Elena Fokina), breaks down and flees in a panic over the disappearance of Patricia. In the most enthrallingly macabre sequence of the movie, Olga finds herself locked in a long, mirrored room, alone. As Susie dances the movements of the Volk dance, choreographed by Damien Jalet, Olga’s body is twisted and contorted as a kind of mirror image of her movements, synced up all wrong, as her jaw snaps out of place, her arms snap back, her skin splits.
2018’s Suspiria is finest when it forgoes its needlessly convoluted story and strained dialogue. Thom Yorke’s music is an echoey, creeping mix of classical and electronic instruments which, with the film’s overall atmosphere, is as claustrophobic as it is intriguing. There’s so much about this remake that works, but the gargantuan runtime makes it clear that so much else could’ve been left out. Everything in between the dance sequences and the violence is a drag. I defy anyone to connect with the characters, who are stripped of personality in the service of the film’s cultish trio of teachers, but even they seem unwilling to take the audience with them. Tilda Swinton relishes her three roles, but aside from the gimmicky gender adoption and some breathtaking prosthetics, there’s not a memorable thing about them.
Later this year Gaspar Noe’s Climax will be released, a film that splits itself into three parts: getting to know the characters, a lengthy dance sequence and, towards the end, the horror. Its simplistic structure demonstrates how Noe knows what his audience is here for. Guadanino seems too desperate to show that, even though he’s making a horror movie, he’s still an artist. We know, dude. We just don’t care.