Cinema Dispatch: Suspiria

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Suspiria and all the images you see in this review are owned by Amazon Studios

Directed by Luca Guadagnino

Look if the choice is between an Argento film getting a remake or Argento making another movie, let’s just say I know better than to ask for the latter. Yes, in our never ending quest to make sure every movie gets remade every thirty years (*cough* Pet Sematary *cough*), the Dario Argento classic is getting its chance at nice and shiny new version that if nothing else seems to have some serious talent backing it; not just with actors Dakota Johnson and Tilda Swinton as the leads, but the guy who directed Call Me By Your Name (a film I still haven’t gotten around to seeing) heading up this reinterpretation. Will this be even HALF as scary as the original film’s trailer with that super creepy skull reveal, or will all the talent in the world fail to capture what Argento did all those years ago? Let’s find out!!

The movie for the most part follows Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) who is a rather gifted dancer from the far off lands of the US Midwest and has moved to the Markos Dance Academy in 1977 West Berlin. It was rather fortuitous by the way that there was even an opening for her because one of the other dancers (Chloë Grace Moretz) JUST SO HAPPENED to “leave” the school and has “gone back home” despite none of her friends having no idea that she was doing that or even getting a phone number to reach her at. Yeah, it doesn’t take long to realize that suspicious things are going on behind the scenes, and while the movie is coy with details and specifics it definitely seems to be a bunch of witches running this school; not figuratively even though some of them can be quite unbearable, but in a very literal sense. It seems that the coven is in need of… a sacrifice I think and that Susie might just be the one they’re looking for; assuming they can manage not to screw this whole scheme up before she’s ready. Easier said than done I’m afraid because despite the presumed head witch Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) knowing just what is at stake if they act recklessly, the rest of them seem to have their own agendas that might just conflict with Blanc’s as well as the secretive Miss Markos (Tilda Swinton again) who we hear is quite eager to get this sacrifice ready to go. None of this is helped by the missing girl’s therapist Dr. Josef Klemperer (wait, that’s Tilda Swinton too!?) who is looking into the school to see if any of the girl’s claims about secret cults and magic powers might prove to have at least a shred of truth to them and if there was some foul play involved with her disappearance. Will Susie uncover the horrifying plot against her and find a way to escape such an unfortunate fate? Just what are the witches hoping to achieve with her, and is it in all of their best interests to play along with the scheme? No seriously, that’s Tilda Swinton as the old guy!? Why didn’t anyone tell me before I saw the movie!?

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“Am I late for the Cloud Atlas audition?”

I don’t hate this movie and even saying that I dislike it all that much would be a stretch. It’s got some great ideas, solid performances, creative direction throughout, and it manages to be SO much better and infinitely more enjoyable as a psychological horror film than Hereditary (ugh…), but it’s also overlong, convoluted, and frankly a bit on the pretentious side. It’s certainly more ambitious than most horror remakes out there as most are either shameless rehashes of the previous films (*cough* Nightmare on Elm Street *cough*) or shameless rehashes of the previous films DONE WELL (*cough* Friday the 13th *cough*). This falls much more in the Rob Zombie’s Halloween camp (especially the second one) which I doubt is a comparison the filmmakers WANT to be made, but it very much applies here as both movies are on about the same level of… let’s say ARTISTIC EXCESS. If you’re looking for something that’s weird and silly while taking itself way too seriously then I can hardly think of a better example in the last few years than this film right here which flips almost hypnotically between unabashedly surrealistic comedy and tense psychological horror, and while it isn’t the most COHERENT film to sit through (especially at TWO AND A HALF HOURS) it at least it gives us something to talk about!

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Wait, so The Shining is LITERAL in this movie!?

I know I’ve seen the original movie but I remember next to nothing about it (dance studio, a pit of broken glass I think, a witch in a bed, and it ends with an explosion), so if anything I praise or deride the movie for was already there in the first one, well I’ll have to take your word for it as I haven’t had a chance to rewatch it yet. I will say this though! I feel rather confident in saying that the overarching narrative here is much more coherent because I actually know what the heck was going on; not that they make it TOO easy for you! There are so many characters in this, many of whom are talked about and have extensive backstories before they show up on screen, and the movie doesn’t do a great job of explaining a lot of the things that happen in it. There’s an early scene where all of the teachers, not all of whom have been properly introduced yet, are eating breakfast. Then you them start talking except you soon realize that the dialogue you hear is not being said in the breakfast scene you’re watching, so now we have characters on screen who we don’t really know yet being talked over by characters we ALSO don’t know yet (though it’s fairly clear that the voices overheard are that of the teachers) and what is being said is cryptic as heck! Oh, and a scene MUCH later in the movie confirms that this was ACTUALLY telekinetic communication which apparently witches can do. I was under the impression that we were just hearing about a previous conversation they had while watching them eat breakfast, but I guess establishing what characters can and can’t do TOO early would have ruined the “mystique” of it all! I mean look, I can go with mystical powers and dream logic in movies, but even if you don’t LITERALLY explain the mechanics you still need to get the audience on board with what’s going on. The Shining is a great contrast here as it does a great job of establishing Jamie’s powers early in the movie even if they don’t explain exactly how they work or why he has them. It feels like we’re being thrown into the deep end on EVERYTHING right off the bat, from the precarious state of the coven, to the girls who are training there, to even the political climate of Germany in the seventies which I’m sad to say is KIND of a blind spot for me! Hey, what do you expect? Blame the American education system. Now I eventually understood what was going on in the broad strokes of the story, but I had to write down names and character descriptions just to keep it all straight in my head (Miss Turner = bob cut) which to me seems like a flaw in the writing, though I guess not everyone is gonna have that problem when they watch this.

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“Do you have an update, Miss Huller?” … Wait, are you talking to me? I thought YOU were Miss Huller.” “No I’m not! Wait… am I?”

Once things start to settle in their places around the forty minute mark, the movie does hit its stride. It’s biggest strengths, even more so than its great visuals and exception cinematography, are its characters who for the most part are quite well fleshed out; particularly the therapist from the beginning of the movie who seemed to have been a throwaway character at first, but he brings a lot of the emotional weight to the movie. They kill two birds with one stone here by not only having him being interesting in his own right but his mere presence is a constant reminder of what The Witches have actually done and why we can never truly be on their side even if the movie does just as good a job of giving them personality and depth. That said, I think the cryptic nature of their actions butts up rather unfortunately with how much nuance they’re afforded because if you REALLY think about what they do throughout the movie for more than a minute, it starts to unravel very quickly. Okay, horror movies are BUILT on the idea of body counts, but in this movie that takes place over a rather long time (several months if I’m not mistaken) and focuses on characters trying to hide in plain sight, you can’t just do what they end up doing in here without raising more than a few alarm bells. It’s kind of a nitpick I guess, but with just how portentous and dragged out this movie is, it makes it that much harder to suspend your disbelief here the same way you would a Friday the 13th film. At least THOSE films take place over a single night of wanton destruction against a monster who is not an active participant in society! Jason don’t give a gosh-darn if the bodies are strewn about the floor, but these witches have to attract new customers, pay taxes, buy groceries, and all sorts of stuff that would involve them not only not making a scene but keeping rumors from flying around their dance academy!

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I’m sure it has PLENTY of practical applications!

That kind of disconnect runs throughout the whole movie and is frankly a good summary of my overall opinion of it. It’s brilliant in parts and I think the overall story and themes have a lot of power to them, but you keep getting pulled out of the movie with either an overly self-indulgent sequence that doesn’t advance anything and a plot that doesn’t seem to care if you’re following it or not. This is particularly an issue with () who starts out as the main character we follow but eventually kind of goes off on her own thing and makes choices that I simply couldn’t follow. Still, it manages to stay at least consistent with about an even number of brilliant moments to confusing or outright goofy ones. THEN WE GET TO THE ENDING! Oh boy, where to begin? Okay, so I’ll give them credit for the big finale looking quite beautiful and eerie in a way that captures the spirit of Argento’s work (at least his early stuff), and it’s not SO inexplicable as to completely lose me. That said, things go utterly bonkers in a way that HAS to be self-aware but the film is up this point has been so pompous that you kind of get the impression that MAYBE they didn’t realize how off the rails everything had gotten until it was too late. At that point I kind of rolled with what was going on and was able to construct some sort of understanding even if the movie makes it exceedingly difficult to do so. Really, the big problem here is that it’s a TOTAL Deus Ex Machina to almost a literal degree, and there’s just so much stuff happening all at once that it all becomes rather numbing which is NOT what you should be feeling when you’re seeing stuff this utterly ridiculous on screen.

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“Who’s ready to Jazzercise for Satan!?”

No wait, I can’t just end it there. I need to ACTUALLY go into positives instead of backhanded compliments and damming with faint praise because there is quite a bit to be praiseworthy here. The story is a bit of an incoherent mess, BUT it gets enough across so that it MOSTLY stays intriguing rather than frustrating; at least until the end. The movie doesn’t have much in terms of gore and straight up death which I believe is a pretty sizable departure from the original film, and I think that refocusing it less as a pseudo-haunted house movie and more of a multi-faceted character piece was the right move in distinguishing the film from its Argento inspired roots. In fact, there’s not REALLY that much in here which reminds me of Argento as the film has much more of a muted and dirty look to it than his garish and dream like atmosphere which is ALSO a good thing for the story they’re trying to tell. Admittedly I DO tend to prefer colors over grays, but it ends up accentuating the scenes that DO get brighter and more colorful which are pretty impressive overall. I feel like maybe the best version of either movie is trapped somewhere in the middle of this and that a solid editor with a few rewrites could have made a movie just as compelling (if not more so) in just under two hours, but enough of the more brilliant aspects of this interpretation of the story shine through that it still comes across as a solid movie in its own right rather than a total mess.

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“For my next performance, I will dance to the song of my people. YOU’VE GOT THE TOUCH!! BUM BUM!! YOU’VE GOT THE POW-EEERRRRR!!”

Does this movie need to be longer than two out of three Avengers films? I certainly don’t think so; especially with how drawn out a lot of the plot is in this movie, but if you can get past that hurdle (a tough one to overcome to be sure), I think it’s pros outweigh the cons making this one of the more interesting horror films in years if not the best by a long shot. Heck, Happy Death Day is more coherent, and tells a much more compelling story in an hour and a half than THIS film which in and of itself wouldn’t be a huge criticism considering how great that movie is, but this one is clearly aspiring for TRUE CINEMATIC EXCELLENCE which frankly it falls short of. A more modestly envisioned movie would have probably been a better one and the movie is almost a masterclass in how you can have too much of a good thing as well as the value of more strategic editing. You could probably do three different cuts of this movie and each would be pretty dang good, but what we have is still fun to experience that I feel is worth seeing. MAYBE not in theaters due to that running time issue, but I’m sure this will have a sizable following once it gets a home release and isn’t relegated to the FANCY theaters as this is yet another film I had to drive out of town to see. Heck, if you watch it at home you can take a nap in the middle and not feel like you wasted your hard earned money to sleep in someone else’s chair!

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