Remakes. Remakes are tricky. We live in a risk averse world of franchise filmmaking, of reboots and remakes, of sequels and prequels. There’s nothing the Dream Factory likes better than a known quantity, a sure thing. Let’s face it, if Alfred Hitchcock could thrill audiences with The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1934 it’s a safe bet he could do it again in 1956 with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day. And if the rags to riches tale of a gangster ultimately undone by hubris and an incestuous desire to boff his sister worked for Howard Hawks back in 1932’s Scarface, why wouldn’t it work again in 1983 for De Palma, Pacino and a truckload of Peruvian Marching Powder? Why even try to come up with a fresh, original story when you can just remake Godzilla again?

But for every success there’s half a dozen failures. For every The Thing (1982), there’s a Rollerball (2002), for every Ocean’s Eleven (2001), there’s The Wicker Man (2006). For every A Star Is Born (1954) there’s A Star Is Born (1976). Sometimes, remakes just suck! And audiences hate subtitles, don’t they? Why watch Seven Samurai when there’s Battle Beyond The Stars? Why bother with Wim Wenders’ German classic Wings Of Desire when you can watch Nicolas Cage moon over Meg Ryan in the risible City Of Angels? You know, the one with that one half-decent Goo Goo Dolls song everyone sorta remembers?   

And over the years we’ve had some terrible, terrible remakes of classic horror movies. Rob Zombie’s Halloween was just…shit. I mean, who really cares if little Mike Myers had a rotten childhood in the asylum? But at least it was successful, spawning its own terrible sequel. As beloved and influential as they may be, the Friday The 13th films were never really that good to begin with; campy celebrations of tits and gore, the indestructible, monolithic Jason slicing and dicing his way through any teenagers stupid enough to have sex, even getting his murder on IN SPACE! No one in their right mind thought: “What we really need is a po-faced reboot that really sucks the fun out of chopping up scantily clad teenagers!” And pity poor Freddy Krueger. Practically James Bond with a skin condition in Robert Englund’s hands, creatively dispatching victims with a merry quip, the remake took the iconic villain and gave us, well, just a kiddie fiddling school janitor with a grudge from beyond the grave.

Which brings us in an ungainly shamble to Luca Guadagino’s Suspiria, a reimagining of Italian horror maestro Dario Argento’s universally acknowledged masterpiece, 1977’s Suspiria (it’s not, that distinction goes to 1975’s Profondo Rosso. Come at me bitches, I will fight you!). Part giallo, part surrealistic fever dream, Suspiria’s lurid fever dream seems an odd candidate for a remake. Sure, it’s as vacuous as a Lagrange point, but it’s Nancy Drew-lite tale of a naïve student investigating a coven of murderous witches infesting her dance academy is a visually sumptuous collision of primary colours and sharp edges, a phantasmagoric Grimm fairytale that’s both a feast and an assault to the senses, a baroque nightmare of excess by way of Cocteau and Bluebeard that’s eyepopping visuals simply can’t make up for its threadbare script and laughably stilted, overblown performances. Like most of Argento’s work, Suspiria is a film that’s better remembered than viewed. But still, why on Earth would you want to remake it? And what on Earth would possess you to allow the bloke whose last film featured a teenager shagging a peach, to direct it?

Well, for starters, Guadagnino’s Suspiria is less a remake of Argento’s original than it is a homage, a remix. The DNA is still the same; ingenue student Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) still travels to Germany and encounters a coven of witches at her dance academy, but Guadagnino’s Suspiria is a very different beast to Argento’s. While Argento’s Suspiria was breathlessly unrestrained and outrageously garish, Guadagnino’s is tightly controlled and muted, suffused by melancholy. His West Berlin is under siege, haunted by the ghosts of Nazism and the Holocaust, oppressed, suffocated by Cold War tensions, the anarchy of punk and the Baader-Meinhoff Gang bubbling under the surface, threatening to explode into violence at any moment.

Quiet and tranquil, the academy seems almost a haven from the civil unrest and chaos outside but again, beneath the surface, dark secrets fester. Star pupil Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz) has mysteriously disappeared, leaving a vacant spot for Susie who catches the nurturing eye of the academy’s Artistic Director and Acting Head, the steely Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) who grooms Susie, shaping her raw talent and passion in her own image.

But Patricia’s elderly psychiatrist Dr Josef Klemperer (a liver-spotted Tilda Swinton again, this time in convincing old man make-up), tormented by wartime guilt and regret, troubled by Patricia’s paranoid rantings of the academy being a front for a coven of evil witches grooming the students for their pagan rituals, decides to investigate her disappearance, enlisting the aid of her friend and Susie’s new confidante Sara (Mia Goth).

As Sara and Klemperer get closer to the truth and Susie rises through the school’s ranks, a dark destiny awaits them all…

Swapping Goblin’s nerve-jangling soundtrack for a more emo-flavoured, krautrock-inspired score composed by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, Guadagnino’s ambitious vision is both grandiose and subtle, eschewing the original’s melodramatic excesses and artfully nasty, misogynistic kills in favour of a brooding meditation on motherhood and maternal abuse, grounding Agrento’s tale of witchcraft and age-old evil in a turbulent real world still reeling from the very real horrors of the Second World War, it’s legacy a divided Germany’s collective guilt and a fracturing society, the passionate youth facing the older generation across murky battle lines, a situation reflected by the internal politics and factionalism of the academy’s teachers/witches.

As the school’s cool matron Swinton is a wonderfully ambiguous presence, her fascination and affection for Susie hinting at a longed-for intimacy, her maternal feelings undercut by an elegant malevolence. Equally good as the haunted Klemperer in what could have easily been an exercise in stunt casting, Swinton brings a laser precise commitment to the role, embuing the doctor with a tortured vulnerability, the sins and guilt of a nation weighing heavily on his stooped shoulders. There’s strong support too from Chloë Grace Moretz and Mia Goth as the young dancers caught in the spider’s web of the coven’s schemes. The film belongs though to Dakota Johnson, subtly riffing on her naïve innocent from Fifty Shades Of Grey, essaying both wide-eyed submissive and world weary goddess, her scenes with Swinton bristling with a breathlessly Sapphic erotic tension and a queasy mother/daughter sublimation.

Lacking the aggressive, masturbatory violation of young women that marks Argento’s work, Guadagnino’s Suspiria doesn’t shrink from violence however, the director unafraid to splash blood and gore around liberally, one bravura early scene illustrating the film’s commitment to the ferocity of female emancipation and power as Johnson’s Susie, enthralled by Swinton’s Madame Blanc, dances the company’s signature role, her every movement exacting a heavy price on a fellow student/competitor, psychically throwing the girl around a mirrored rehearsal studio, splintering glass and bone, rending flesh, twisting her like a pretzel, leaving her barely alive in a pool of her own blood and urine, art literally freeing one woman and allowing her to soar even as it leaves the other a broken mess. Tightly controlled and somber, Guadagnino submerges us in a world of sighs and whispers, of half-glimpsed horrors and cloying, suffocating dread, his pacing measured, hypnotic until it erupts in its final third into an ecstatic, blood-splattered, batshit crazy orgy of blood and sacrifice, his Pina Bausch-inspired choreography devolving into a Hieronymus Bosch vision of Hell and retribution.

Smarter and more satisfying than its sensationalist source material, Suspiria is a bold, beautiful, transgressive meditation on motherhood, abuse, guilt, regret and female power that once it has it’s hooks in you will haunt your dreams.

Movie Review: Suspiria
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