There’s a certain unspoken rule to making a good remake: embrace the original, but do your own thing. Go too far astray, and you risk looking like you are just capitalizing on a familiar title; act too faithfully, and you are just lukewarm leftovers. The good news about Luca Guadagnino’s controversial redux of Dario Argento’s beloved SUSPIRIA is this: it does the remake thing in all the right ways.
SUSPIRIA is that rare breed of horror film: a movie so beloved that even the suggestion is some sort of supreme act of blasphemy. Argento’s dayglo fever dream is so iconic, so idiosyncratic, so alive with the vivid pulse of his style, that it’s damn nigh impossible to replicate. But no cow is too sacred to not be slaughtered, and there would eventually be a director with enough verve (or enough misguided chutzpah) to try and stake their own claim into this tale of witchcraft at a Berlin dance academy. Enter Luca Guadagnino.
Guadagnino is no slouch, but he’s also no Argento. The Italian filmmaker is the sensualist behind the Oscar nominated CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, but he’s by far an earthier director than Argento: lush and ripe, with dappled sunlight and lapping waves enveloping his characters, rather than the vibrant primary color psychedelia that was the maestro’s stock and trade. Guadagnino is a talented director, but he seems, at first glance, like a too inappropriate filmmaker to tackle something like SUSPIRIA: too earthbound, too respectable, too glass-of-wine-by-the-sea respectful to understand the throbbing undercurrent of madness percolating under that throbbing Goblin score.
So much for assumptions. Guadagnino may have proven himself even more of a devil-may-care artcore blood-slinger than Argento. With his version of SUSPIRIA, Guadagnino has made a film that, at first, looks like the kind of austere concrete urban drama that makes one think of filmmakers like Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Everything is shot in muted, neutral tone colors — all dingy grays, browns, beiges and blacks — rather than Argento’s color wheel hues, and he doesn’t start with the visceral bang that the original did. In fact, it begins with a quiet conversation between a troubled teenage girl, played by Chloe Grace Moretz with lank bangs obscuring her eyes and a twitchy paranoid worminess, visiting her psychiatrist, a haunted eyed old man who disbelieves her tales of witchcraft plaguing her life at a prestigious dance academy. Whereas Argento plunged you into his nightmare netherworld, Guadagnino opts to ease you in; you start to think that he’s turned the ornate insanity of the original into something staid, and maybe a little dull.
It doesn’t take long for Guadagnino to let loose. Guadagnino proves capable at building an atmosphere of suffocating dread as he eases us into the world of the Tanz ballet school, where wide-eyed American expat Suzy Bannion (Dakota Johnson, effectively exploiting her core of seemingly blank waifish innocence) has come to study under the tutelage of the legendary dancer and choreographer Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton, who undercuts the haughty superiority of her role with a surprising warmth.) Suzie is a natural talent, and within days of her intro audition, she’s being tasked with her worthiness as the lead protagonist of the school’s lead performance.
As Suzie throws herself into the performance, twisting, contorting, flinging her body about with fervent abandon, another student is lured into an empty classroom. There…well, let’s just say she meets her demise. Guadagnino and his screenwriter, Dave Kajganich, have devised a scene of such shuddering brutal intensity that its bound to make even the hardest core of splatter enthusiasts squirm in their seats. It’s no small thing to say that it might be one of the most vicious scenes of horror you’ll see all year.
It’s at this point that you know that Guadagnino is not fucking around. The filmmaker, it can be said, has unleashed his pent up madman id. He’s still an “art” director — I can see this being lumped into the same category “pretentious hipster hooey” as MOTHER! and HEREDITARY were — but here, completely rebuilding the original from the ground up — he’s an art director getting in touch with his gore-soaked wild child inner child. Guadagnino may have drained Argento’s palette of its color, but that doesn’t mean he’s rebuked anything approaching style. Guadagnino, in fact, goes practically giddy with the kind of Italo-schlock visual weirdness that permeated a certain type of Boot cinema, with whip pans, gliding camera dollies and enough speed zooms to make someone like Lucio Fulci drool with envy.
In many ways, Guadagnino has made the complimentary opposite of the original. Argento’s film is a radioactive-Crayola Art Deco nightmare, but Guadagnino has made a thematically dense adult splatter fairy tale. It’s not just in the visuals that the filmmaker has retooled Argento. It’s there in the script too. It’s no untruth to say that the script for Argento’s version is easily that films weakest link, a clothesline to hang his pure cinema setpieces on. Guadagnino And Kajganich’s version, however, last a full two and a half hours. Rather than lumber, however, the duo have filled the story out, restructuring things and giving the film a flavorful novelistic density that immerses in these characters, this school and the witchy mayhem going on. (It’s no spoiler to say that the teachers in this school are witches; the smartest thing the film does is to get that piece of business out of the way early on, allowing the filmmakers to build an entirely new — and more compelling mystery.)
SUSPIRIA might seem like such an impossible title to resurrect, to retrofit to one’s own tastes, yet Guadagnino has seemingly done the impossible. He hasn’t made SUSPIRIA his own. He’s taken the raw materials Argento provided and has built an unholy masterpiece of his own.