@Filmhouse from Fri 30 Nov 2018

It’s hard to think of how to describe Suspiria‘s relationship with Dario Argento‘s celebrated 1977 film of the same name, as director Luca Guadagnino has rejected the word “remake”. He has stated he objects to the implicit suggestion that his film tries to “erase” the original, insisting “the opposite is what we tried to do”. This is just as well, because for all his changes of direction and overbearing rejection of Argento’s aesthetic, not to mention the extra full 90 minutes of material, Guadagnino’s version really relies very heavily on the original in order to breathe. “When you dance the dance of another, you make yourself in the image of its creator,” says one character in the film – Guadagnino would have done well to take his own advice.

Set in the year of the Argento film’s release, Suspiria follows Susan Bannion (Dakota Johnson), an apparently naïve young American, as she joins the prestigious Markos Dance Academy in Berlin, presided over by the enigmatic and inscrutable Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). Chloe-Grace Moretz plays Patricia, a former student at the academy whose behaviour has become disturbingly erratic, and we see her confide in her psychiatrist that she believes the dance school is a cover for a coven of witches.

Johnson received ballet training for two years in preparation for the role, and her physical performance is suitably impressive. The focus on physicality in the film is a strength – the visual motif of sinewy body contortion and jagged, violent elbow-jolting movements in the dance sequences reflect the body shock element of the horror. Indeed, the gore aspect of the Argento oeuvre is one that Guadagnino has managed to rejuvenate and modernise in an effective way.

The muted, wintry colour aesthetic is an obvious, almost laboured removal from Argento’s famous use of saturated primary colours. The subdued palette fits with the more understated, creeping horror and claustrophobia of the first half of the film, but is significantly less satisfying than the original’s bewitching, dream-like visuals. Attempts to bring the political subtext to the fore, through the explicit references to the Baader-Meinhof group and the long shadow cast by Berlin’s Nazi past, also fit with the more realist vibe, but serve to contribute to an uneasy feeling that the material is being intellectualised to the point of pretentiousness. This is further accentuated by the occasional veering into arthouse territory, and the overall impression of a film that takes itself a bit too seriously. Without Argento’s unapologetic, swaggering fabulosity, the self-indulgence and arrogance of the film falls a little flat.

Similarly, the theme of motherhood and female power in the post-#MeToo era is presented and heavy-handedly underlined by Tilda Swinton’s double-casting as the only male main character, but something about this element fails to ring entirely true. Perhaps it’s the fact that Argento’s tendency towards catering to the male gaze is still present, more disguised than eradicated. Argento himself, not famed for a particularly feminist stance, would probably approve of the constant cackling of the witches, and their harpy-like mocking of a man’s penis.

While the film is unwieldy, overly long, and a little problematic in places, it is still enjoyable. All of the leading cast members do their best with a script appropriately trite for a genre piece, and the sequences which give themselves over fully to the garish, almost silly horror the audience might be expecting are among the most engaging. The film is granted atmosphere by the 70s period elements, and by the low-key, Krautrock-inspired soundtrack provided by Thom Yorke (even if it doesn’t quite match up to the power of the Goblin soundtrack in the original). Guadagnino’s effort is certainly worthy, and not just in a euphemistic sense. The very niche audience demographic of die-hard Argento fans who happen to be looking out for references to Lacan will adore this film, while the rest of us enjoy it, perhaps raising a critical eyebrow now and then, as if recalling a flawed, sort of irritating, but very dear friend we haven’t heard from since 1977.