Luca Guadagnino’s ‘Suspiria’ is a Truly Baffling Remake

I have to admire the hutzpah of any filmmaker who dares remake Dario Argento’s “Suspiria.” The 1977 horror classic remains one of my favorite movies ever as well as one of the most beautiful films, let alone horror films, I have ever seen. Having just purchased and watched it on 4K Ultra HD, I love it even more as the lavish and exaggerated colors Argento utilized now feel more orgasmic than ever. Who would dare step into the shoes of Jessica Harper who portrayed Suzy Bannion? Is there an artist or a band that can create a music score as original and haunting as what Goblin gave us? Is there a cinematographer, other than Roger Deakins, who can match the incredible lighting design of Luciano Tovoli? And, most importantly, is there a filmmaker who take this material and make it their own?

David Gordon Green, who hit horror gold with his reboot of “Halloween,” was originally set to helm this version of “Suspiria,” but it ended up falling into the hands of “Call Me by Your Name” director Luca Guadagnino who was determined to make something which was more of an homage than a remake. It certainly has its own look, a terrific cast, an original and haunting score from Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, and Tilda Swinton among other things. But long before the end credits came up, this “Suspiria” became one of the most perplexing motion pictures I have sat through in a long time. And as this two hour and 32-minute horror film lurched its way to a rather baffling conclusion, I found myself impatiently waiting for Jessica Harper’s cameo to come up as I had given up trying to make sense of everything going on in the story.

This “Suspiria” takes us to 1977 Berlin which was at the height of German Autumn, and here we find Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) auditioning for the Markos Dance Academy. Unlike Harper’s Suzy from the original, this Susie proves to be far more confident in her dancing abilities as she wows the teachers almost immediately, especially Madame Blanc (Swinton). Meanwhile, another student, Patricia Hingle (an unrecognizable Chloe Grace Moretz) confesses to her psychotherapist, Dr. Josef Klemperer (I’ll let you figure out who plays him), that the academy is run by a coven of witches who worship the Three Mothers – a trio of witches who once roamed the Earth (Mother Tenebrarum, Mother Lachrymarum, and Mother Suspiriorum), and we all know this cannot be good. Once the main players have been established, we wait for hell to boil over and students to die the most painful of deaths because a story like this cannot have a happy ending. Or can it?

The first thing I should note about Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” is its visual style as he, along with cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, has gone out of his way to go in the polar opposite direction of the visual palate Argento gave us. Perhaps this is because it was the only real way for Guadagnino to make this film his own without it seeming like a copy. He uses little in the way of primary colors and instead opts for a winter-ish approach to highlight the bleakness of the setting and time period the story is situated in. But as unrelentingly bleak as this approach is, both Guadagnino and Mukdeeprom do give us some striking images as they delve deeper into the lives of the characters and the academy’s strange history. Still, I wonder if the cinematography was much bleaker than it ever needed to be.

The screenplay by David Kajganich delves into themes involving motherhood, the nature of evil and matriarchies, but neither he or the director ever seem clear about what they want to say precisely about them. A friend of mine attended a Q&A with Guadagnino, and he described the director as looking like a deer caught in the headlights when he asked questions about the themes. In retrospect, I wonder if everyone involved with this remake succeeded in making it so abstract to where even they could not describe what they intended.

There is also the inclusion of real-life events such as hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181, bombings, and numerous kidnappings perpetrated by the Red Army Faction, and they feel like unneeded distractions as they are brought up. The terror of real life doesn’t quite mesh with the terror at the dance academy, and it would have been better for the filmmakers to focus on the academy instead of adding historical elements which deserve their own movie.

It’s all a real shame because the cast of this remake makes many scenes worth watching. Dakota Johnson, completely unrecognizable from her role in those god-awful “Fifty Shades of Grey” movies, who gives everything she has physically and emotionally to her performance as Susie Bannion. I read she spent two years training in ballet in preparation for her role, and it shows from start to finish. Watching her enter the academy with such elegant confidence as she goes through a violent period of self-discovery is something I could never take my eyes off of.

The other cast members include Moretz, Mia Goth, Angela Winkler, Ingrid Caven, and Fabrizia Sacchi who succeed in throwing themselves completely into their characters with complete abandon. And then there is Tilda Swinton, one of the few actresses my dad would pay to read names from the phone book to him. She remains a stunning presence in each project she appears in, and this film is no exception.

And yes, the dancing, which played only a small part in the original, is brilliant in the way it is staged. Like I said, these actresses didn’t just inhabit these characters, they threw themselves into them both physically and emotionally. For what its worth, this remake does boast quite the ensemble.

Still, I have to be honest and say, despite its positives, this “Suspiria” proved to be a great disappointment. I did not go into it with a mission of comparing to Argento’s original as Guadagnino as made something which stands on its own, but none of it ever struck me as being the least bit scary. Sure, there are some shocking moments like when a young dancer finds her body forcibly contorted into excruciatingly painful positions Ronny Cox would never have been able to pull off in “Deliverance,” but one or two scenes does not a horror film make. Instead, this remake proves to be a meandering mess which never quite knows how to deal with its numerous themes in a satisfying or truly fulfilling way.

There is no doubt in my mind that Guadagnino and everyone else here will bounce right back from this misguided film, and I look forward to what he has in store for us next.

Oh, and just one more thing: I just love how these movies involving dancers always have teachers who smoke an endless number of cigarettes. Here they are mentoring these passionate students to keep their bodies at their peak and make sure they remain healthy throughout their training, and yet they do nothing to hide their intense nicotine addiction. I have seen this in so many movies to where I wonder if being a dancer or a dance instructor is as stressful as it looks. The drinking I get, but the smoking? Hopefully someone will be able to explain this to me someday.

* * out of * * * *

‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ Features Tilda Swinton at Her Most Devastating

We Need to Talk Kevin poster 4

I think “We Need to Talk About Kevin” would make an interesting double feature with “Rosemary’s Baby” as both prove to be cautionary tales for prospective parents. But unlike Polanski’s classic film which dealt with the occult and supernatural, the horrors of “We Need to Talk About Kevin” are rooted in real life. Stories of kids going on murderous rampages at their schools have gotten far more media coverage than they deserve, but Lynne Ramsay’s film is not out to exploit this subject but to explore what could have triggered such a massacre.

Acting goddess Tilda Swinton plays Eva Khatchadourian (good luck trying to pronounce that last name), a successful travel writer who is picking up the pieces of her life after a tragic event people have come to blame her for. The movie shifts back and forth in time as we see Eva finding happiness with her husband Franklin (the always great John C. Reilly) to becoming pregnant with her first child, and then back to present day where she tries to make sense of the crimes her son committed. We see her as a pariah of the community, and everyone constantly stares at her as if to say, “How do you live with yourself?”

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a character look less forward to motherhood in a movie before this one. Eva’s face of happiness is wiped away almost permanently by her new role in life, and while her husband is thrilled at being a parent, she just looks on despondently as if her life just came to a shocking end. Without words, you immediately get the impression she has no interest in being a parent, and she never really forms an affectionate bond with Kevin. Eventually, Eva sees the parts of herself she doesn’t like in Kevin’s cold, dark eyes as he glares at her as if to say she resembles everything wrong in the world.

Swinton has never been an actress content to fall victim to overly emotive acting or chewing the scenery for an Oscar moment. She inhabits her characters more than plays them, and her performance as Eva ranks among the very best of her career. She creates such an unforgettably human portrait of a mother whose superficial behavior towards her son isn’t fooling anyone, especially him. But at the same time, Swinton makes you feel deeply for Eva as she forces you to confront what you would do if you were in this unimaginable situation.

While we see Eva losing her temper at Kevin when he does bad things, we also see she’s the only person who realizes something is seriously wrong with him. Franklin, on the other hand, is either completely oblivious to his son’s nastiness or just doesn’t want to see the truth of how troubled he is. To everyone else, Kevin is just a boy doing boyish things, and this leaves Eva feeling even more isolated as she feels completely helpless in her attempts to repair the fractured relationship she has with him.

Kevin is played by three actors at different parts of his life: Rocky Duer, Jasper Newell and Ezra Miller. All do great work in making Kevin the kind of child none of us ever hope to have, and each manages to perfect the wicked glare Kevin gives off to where you would think they were auditioning for a Stanley Kubrick movie, hoping to outdo Vincent D’Onofrio’s piercing glare in “Full Metal Jacket.” But of those three actors, the one who deserves the most praise is Miller as he makes Kevin into one of the scariest sociopaths I have ever seen in a movie. Damien from “The Omen” has got nothing on this guy, and it’s tempting to think he could give Alex from “A Clockwork Orange” a run for his money. Miller never portrays Kevin as a simple one-dimensional villain, but as one whose meaning in life has been corrupted to where he doesn’t see much good in anything.

Director Ramsay previously made “Ratcatcher” and “Morvern Callar,” and her work behind the camera has been justly acclaimed. With “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” she shares in Swinton’s fearlessness in delving into subject matter many would choose to avoid if they could. Not once does she judge the characters here, and she leaves their actions up for us to judge. She is not out to provide answers to a situation like this because none are ever easy to come by.

The movie’s opening shot has Eva participating with dozens of people in some Italian tomato festival to where it looks like they are all bathing in blood, and it symbolizes what will eventually become of her life. Ramsay makes great use of the color red throughout as it acts as a stain on Eva’s conscience which cannot be washed away. The movie is beautifully shot to where the sterile setting Eva and her family lives in is just asking to be forever dirtied, and the film score by Jonny Greenwood, who composed the score for “There Will Be Blood,” illustrates the violence just underneath the surface that will eventually explode for all to see.

“We Need to Talk About Kevin” could easily have been an exploitive feature, but it never falls victim to that. There’s actually very little violence shown as Ramsay is far more interested in the aftermath of what has happened, and the movie ends on a surprising note of possible redemption for some of the main characters. Having seen it, I can now safely say Tilda Swinton was most definitely robbed of an Oscar nomination for her performance here. What she does is truly astounding as well as completely brave. Not many actors would easily venture into a topic which hits too close to home, but Swinton is never one to back down from a challenge.

Coming out of this bruising film experience, I kept thinking about this line of dialogue said by Augustus Hill on the HBO series “OZ:”

“One of the last things Jesus did on Earth was to invite a prisoner to join him in heaven. He loved that criminal. I say he loved that criminal as much as he loved anyone. Jesus knew in his heart it takes a lot to love a sinner. But the sinner, he needs it all the more…”

* * * * out of * * * *