An Overly Ambitious Homage—Luca Guadagnino’s “Suspiria”
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Luca Guadagnino’s remake of the 1977 cult classic “Suspiria” is drastically different from the original—but in some ways, it fails to deliver.
Witches and murders might not seem like a likely inspiration for many, but for director Luca Guadagnino, they were the very muse for his film: a remake of the 1977 cult classic “Suspiria,” one that manages to be drastically different from the original. According to Guadagnino, the Italian horror movie has greatly influenced his filmmaking career since he first watched it at the tender age of 14. Yet his creation is far from a simple remake; the new “Suspiria” departs from the original and is refreshing in its creativity. However, Guadagnino’s sky-high ambitions ultimately result in a try-hard film that is at once pretentious and contrived.
Set in Cold War era Germany, an American girl Susie (Dakota Johnson) arrives in Berlin to study at the renowned Markos Dance Academy. Soon she finds out that the owners of the academy are affiliated with occult magic as several mysterious deaths occur. As the fates of the main characters gradually become interwoven, a dark secret surfaces. The plot line is extremely dreamlike, with a complex nonlinear narrative following several different characters: Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz), Dr. Klemperer (Tilda Swinton), and the Three Mothers (one of which is also played by Swinton, under heavy prosthetic makeup). The movie is filled with obscure symbolism, often referencing mythology, history, and broader themes such as femininity and melancholy.
The most obvious difference between the original and remake is the shift of focus from style to substance. Dario Argento’s 1977 film is more focused on visual storytelling: it is a bold symphony boasting expressionist sets and exploding with garish neon colors. It dazzles and shocks the viewers with creative usage of lighting juxtaposed with horrifying gore. Contrasting with that is Guadagnino’s take on the film—a mesmerizing fever dream that is much more ominous than shocking. Guadagnino abandons the pulp and glam aesthetic and creates a minimalist world with muted colors that is just as beautiful.
This ambiguity is echoed in the deliberate pace of the film as well. The plot is taken almost verbatim from the original “Suspiria.” Yet Guadagnino attempts to incorporate his take on relevant issues such as matriarchy, the cruelty of war, and strong bonds between women (although somewhat inelegantly). We get a sense of the historical context of the narrative through the constant radio announcements about Red Faction Army bombings and the traumatic experiences of Dr. Klemperer’s wife in a WWII prison camp. However, these details are contrived and forced, adding nothing to the important themes of the film. Things are left unexplained, never mentioned again in the plot. Instead, Guadagnino pays almost obsessive attention to verbose details, allusions, and seemingly unrelated exposition, leaving the entire film overstuffed yet fragmented—it is hard to understand what the director is trying to get at under multiple layers of pretentious references.
However, there are several things that stand out from the blandness of the movie. As “Suspiria” is a film about dance, the motif of the body in motion is emphasized. This is characteristic of the cinematographer, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, whom Guadagnino had worked with for his 2017 movie “Call Me By Your Name.” In one of the most memorable scenes, Susie first performs as the lead dancer in front of her instructors. Her jagged movements resemble those of the legendary modern dancer Pina Bausch—her limbs twisting into expressive knots as if in pain, her hair flying in all directions to rhythmic and explosive bolts of energy. This is juxtaposed with the image of another student of the dance academy dancing herself to death due to a spell cast by the witches. Here we finally see some pure body horror that did not appear in the first half of the movie: the student’s body is violently contorted and twisted into unnatural positions as she is thrown against walls during her dance, bodily fluids gush out from her orifices until she is reduced to a gut-wrenchingly unrecognizable mess—all the while Susie freely improvises in the dance studio.
Another highlight of the film is the soundtrack by Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke. The original “Suspiria” is scored by Italian progressive-rock band Goblin, featuring a rich mix of clashing styles that makes the film all the more unsettling. So it seems quite natural for Guadagnino to commission Thom Yorke for his entirely different cover version. Yorke’s angsty falsetto voice suits the cold and gloomy setting of the movie. The dissonance of “The Inevitable Pull” is hypnotic and ominous as it accompanies Susie’s painful dance about rebirths. Near the end of the movie, as Dr. Klemperer walks home after witnessing all the bloody horror, the evocative “Suspirium” theme starts playing, giving us a sense of resolution plus a hint of unsettled melancholy.
“Suspiria” takes on a formidable goal in trying to create a new interpretation from its original film, but in several ways, it fails to deliver. But despite it seeming somewhat forced, Guadagnino still manages to put some new magic into his contemporary reimagination of a classic.