Film Review: “Suspiria” Is a Bloody Mess

Film poster: “Suspiria”

Suspiria (Luca Guadagnino, 2018) 1½ out of 4 stars.

I am not generally a fan of horror films, though those of the psychological and haunted variety appeal to me far more than do slashers. Given that caveat, it is perhaps no surprise that I am no great admirer of Dario Argento’s original 1977 Suspiria, which traffics in the usual flesh-cutting and blood-spurting that turn my stomach rather than intrigue my mind. Give me the 1942 Cat People or the 2001 The Others any day over the sanguinary excess of cinematic dismemberment.

I had never watched Argento’s film, however, until a week after seeing its 2018 remake – a better term would be “reimagining” – by the director’s fellow Italian, Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name), a movie that, itself, left me unimpressed and annoyed. Interestingly, seeing Argento’s film second made me appreciate Guadagnino’s a little more, earning it an extra half-star in my rating, since the first one is far more narratively incoherent than its successor. They nevertheless each offer a few unique pleasures of their own, even to a genre detractor like me: Argento is a master of architecture and light, choosing locations and color with a precision that fascinates; Guadagnino is not as good with space, but creates brilliantly choreographed dance sequences that dazzle.

Both movies tell the tale of Susie Bannion (Suzy in the original), an American ballet dancer who travels to Germany to join a prestigious dance company. Once there, she discovers that something sinister, and possibly supernatural, lurks (literally) below the surface of the seemingly normal training and performances of the academy. Are these women witches, part of a secret coven bent on death and destruction? Indeed, it seems like it, and the major weakness of the story, irrespective of director, is how the obvious is, in fact, the real. At least Guadagnino offers a nice, truly unexpected twist at the end of his film.

Dakota Johnson in SUSPIRIA ©Amazon Studios

Dakota Johnson (Fifty Shades of Grey) plays Susie, and thank God (excuse me, for this movie it should be “thank Satan!”) for her and Tilda Swinton (Okja), as Madame Blanc, the head of the company. They are both magnetic performers. The rest of the cast is alternately unmemorable and/or just adequate, but Johnson (who looks, here, like she can really dance) and Swinton deliver contrasting compelling performances – the former naturalistic, the latter mannered and quirky – that make them worthy antagonists. It’s too bad the surrounding narrative is tedious (the new film is almost an hour longer than Argento’s), violent and scattered (even if more engaging than the first movie).

Some of Guadagnino’s touches that initially seem to add new points of interest center around his decision to set his movie in 1977, when the first film was made, placing us squarely in the middle of Germany’s final confrontation with the Baader-Meinhof terrorist group. The director also inserts a psychiatrist whose Jewish wife disappeared, most likely in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, during World War II. If only these elements actually elevated the story. They do not. We are still, at the end, left with a bloody mess, emphasis on guts. No thank you.

Dakota Johnson leads a coven-in-training in cool dance moves in SUSPIRIA ©Amazon Studios

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; a regular film critic here at filmfestivaltoday.com; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice." In addition, he is one of three co-creators, along with Summre Garber of Slamdance and Bart Weiss of Dallas VideoFest, of "The Fog of Truth" (fogoftruth.com) – available on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher – a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.
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