NOVEMBER 8, 2018
INTRODUCING HIS 2007 REMAKE of the beloved Herschell Gordon Lewis oddity The Wizard of Gore, director Jeremy Kasten said he admired the original film, made in 1970, but that there was room for improvement. “Herschell wasn’t much of a storyteller,” he said to the packed house at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, before playing us his psychedelic makeover. Nor, he might have added, did people come to H. G. Lewis movies to be so entertained. Lewis was a ferocious marketing executive by trade, and his movies had the same blunt effectiveness of a personalized mailer or a cold call. He knew audiences were there to see blood and guts and he delivered in spades. His film Color Me Blood Red (1965) uses the blood of a serial killer’s victims as paint on a canvas. When a shock of that degree is in the offing, the narrative is simply a buttress, no more functionally important to Lewis’s methodology than synch sound or a tripod. There was room for Kasten to turn such a flimsy framework into something with personality without ruffling anyone’s feathers.
Which brings us to Suspiria, Dario Argento’s 1977 horror classic newly remade by Luca Guadagnino. By the time Argento directed his symphony of torment, the film for which he’ll always be remembered, censorship of violent content in European and American film had been functionally defeated. Movies like The Wizard of Gore were no longer necessary as the doors they knocked down with bad taste, sex, and violence stayed broken. Argento’s films flaunted that freedom by painting the screen with blood in a more productive and elegant way than Lewis, though no less flagrantly. Argento was free to craft something uniquely his in viscera and neon gels. It didn’t take him long to outstrip much of his competition and become as well known in the United States as in Italy for his symphonic horror tales.
Argento’s Suspiria begins with a still unnerving double homicide. Not 10 minutes into the film, a phantom muscular arm comes crashing through an apartment window and drags a woman kicking and screaming onto the building’s roof. Once there, she has her chest cut open and her visible, still-beating heart stabbed multiple times by the faceless killer before her body is shoved through a pane of stained glass. The falling shards land on and kill another innocent woman frantically trying to scare up some help down below. The bulk of the film is in this register. Agitated characters are sent through mysterious yonic hallways or unnerving womb-like spaces, and then they’re murdered in abstruse displays of malevolent creativity. Argento’s fascination with, and ingrown fear of, women would yield some of the most unforgettably delightful nonsense of the century (Inferno, The Stendhal Syndrome, The Cat o’ Nine Tails). His women were often killers, and he felt no compunction killing them. He killed his own wife and frequent co-writer, Daria Nicolodi, on screen a marriage-ending three times.
Argento didn’t have time for plot — it handcuffed him to dialogue and linearity, and anyway he liked it when the endings cheated logic. The killer was supposed to be impossible to guess: what more effective way of making his audience feel that they were trapped in an honest-to-god nightmare? Argento’s compositions, his psychedelic color schemes, his jazzy editing, and his snake charmer’s musicality all spoke louder than story. His strongest work might still be the drummer’s odyssey Four Flies on Grey Velvet where a progressive rock session musician chases a killer. The movie alternately snaps taut like a drum and shakes and crackles slowly like a beat cymbal coming to a rest. Music and image dance with one another in his films so much so that if one falls behind, the movie stops working. Suspiria is beloved not because its tale of witches preying on ballerinas in Germany comes to a satisfying conclusion, but because the music swells sweetly and the colors flash and the movie casts a spell that bypasses your rational understanding of the way narrative cinema behaves. You never want the ecstatic dread to end.
Guadagnino probably looked, on paper, like a fine candidate for updating Suspiria — just look at his 2009 jaunty and sensual daydream I Am Love. That film opens with loving shots of stunning and stern architecture in winter, while the dripping, driving woodwinds of John Adams’s “The Chairman Dances” fall like snow on the soundtrack. It’s a perfect marriage of image and sound (even the font selected for the opening credits has a simpatico elegant detachment), a sense of the perfection of things untouchable. The music alternates between a stabbing punctuation and an ethereal, nagging echo — forward and back, close, faraway — the film’s intimate understanding of its subjects is similarly flirtatious. We’re drawn ever nearer to the shape of lovers and buildings and then the camera retreats to show them as part of a broader landscape. The snow and mist in the air further distance us from the buildings. Slowly, we get closer and closer to the film’s subjects, penetrating spaces, moving in on the hands and faces of its characters. Love scenes are impressionistic smatterings of limbs, torsos, and faces, before we finally enter the body itself via a portentous soup recipe. It’s by taste that a son will divine his mother’s betrayal. The film, having gotten as close as it can to its subject (bringing to mind the cliché about the quickest way to a man’s heart), ends on an image of lovers in a cave, the camera far away once more, implicitly observing their love as if it were a perfect object. Call Me By Your Name, Guadagnino’s Oscar-winning 2017 romance, attempts much the same thing, trading sculpture for architecture and John Adams for Sufjan Stevens.
The most curious thing about Guadagnino’s Suspiria is how little resemblance it bears to his other movies in all but its study of impenetrable surfaces. Guadagnino appears to have let the pressure of adapting a classic get to his head and empty his bag of tricks. The film has almost none of the hallmarks of Italian horror, nor of his own past work. Gone is the confident, urbane romanticism of Call Me By Your Name, the reverent tableaux of I Am Love, the lusty paranoia of A Bigger Splash, another remake of an arthouse classic, 1969’s The Swimming Pool. Somehow he grew afraid of the project, not daring to take anything but the framework, the blueprints of its story, for his own.
The action is once again set in Berlin, but Guadagnino has decided that that must mean something, and so the Baader-Meinhof Group are scribbled into the margins and the Holocaust is brought up early and often. The tenuous association between the differing forms of terror speaks to a troubling facileness inherent in the aspirationally socio-political horror — a genre that includes recent works like Hereditary or It Comes at Night, films that presume to be above the mere act of scaring an audience. As if it were easy. Once Guadagnino’s film starts broadcasting the crimes of the Red Army Faction, it also accidentally admits that it won’t be doing anything so pedestrian as scaring you. This does not appear to be a problem at the script level; the obviously talented screenwriter David Kajganich (The Terror, Blood Creek) has never shied away from the mechanics of horror before. Time and again the opportunity to be frightening appears, and the director opts for the high road, as if to say, “This is a film of important ideas and historical violence. It would be beneath us to have a ghoul waiting in a bathroom mirror to shock you.” Well then … what else have you got?
The story remains the height of simplicity, even if it’s quickly crowded with meaningless tangents. A doe-eyed dancer (Dakota Johnson) comes from the American heartland to replace the recently departed lead (Chloë Grace Moretz) at a prestigious international company headquartered in Berlin. She makes friends with another ingenue (Mia Goth), who already presumes something fishy about the heads of school and slowly divines their ill purpose while bodies pile up all around her. The new Suspiria doesn’t build a head of steam the way its inspiration does: Guadagnino cuts out the heart of the original and replaces the still-warm organ with heady allusions as if stuffing a scarecrow. The designs on the academy’s floor, for example, look to take after the furious geometry of Bauhaus artist László Moholy-Nagy. The dancing is deliberately a cross between the styles of Martha Graham and Pina Bausch. Each mistress of the school brings her own artistic baggage. Angela Winkler is meant to remind audiences of her work with Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta, chroniclers of Germany’s political upheaval from the 1940s through the 1970s. Ingrid Caven is there as a paean to the work of her frequent director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, ditto Renée Soutendijk and Paul Verhoeven. Christine Leboutte and Sylvie Testud are no doubt meant as representatives of the cinema of Chantal Akerman, who celebrated female performers and also worked with Bausch.
The act of suggesting other work, offering up a cornucopia of tributes in place of developing aesthetic identity or a firm purpose, seems to content the director. Why try to recreate the visual and or thematic language of Argento, Akerman, Verhoeven, or Fassbinder when you can play it safe and place yourself in their lineage without working toward a coherent stylistic tradition? He turns his mise-en-scène into a muddy brown smear with uncertain dimensions all the while praising directors and actresses he doesn’t see fit to challenge. Certainly no one could accuse him of plagiarism, but it’s not the best way to prove himself up to the task of meddling with another director’s work. Suspiria casts its arms up in praise and its eyes toward the dirt, feeling unworthy of the artists whose name it moans in worship.
By 1977, Argento had arrived at his abrasive, psychedelic style by dint of discovering the elementary function of cinematic components. Image and sound were like synchronized swimmers concerned with symmetrical dependence and form — not distance, technique, or order. They wrap themselves around the viewer, loudly lulling them into a psychotic state. Guadagnino’s image and sound don’t talk to each other. The edit is furious and vivisects the interiors and dialogue with more malice and purpose than it manages to exert on its own expendable characters. No understanding of the dance school emerges, neither its geography nor its textural aura. No sense of the blank young leads emerges, either in their dancing or their fraught, halting conversations. The music by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke in no way corresponds to the images, which themselves are lackluster, deliberately shying away from the original’s singular chromatic form. (The choice to hire Yorke again smacks of contrarianism — the smart money would have been on Radiohead’s guitarist Jonny Greenwood, an accomplished film composer who would have aced this assignment.) Look at the climactic dance performance to see an identity crisis written in light. The costumes the girls wear, a system of red bonds meant to suggest sinew and muscle, don’t accentuate the choreography, the lighting doesn’t help the costumes, and the baggy white underwear each dancer wears undercuts whatever effect they’d have anyway. It’s a shapeless disaster made worse by frenetic editing, and it’s meant to be a showstopper. It’s almost shocking to see Guadagnino so stranded.
By the time heads start exploding while Yorke softly coos on the soundtrack, it’s beyond clear that this is a sort of art-school prank, a film the director did not know how to make so he gave all his favorite artists a fat paycheck and faked it. Little else can explain the stunt casting of Tilda Swinton as both the coldly rational head of the dance school and her nemesis, an elderly male psychologist on the trail of the coven. Guadagnino has once more cooked I Am Love’s betrayal dinner, feeding us broth spiked with something very meaningful to him, hoping the biographical components of the recipe will awaken in viewers the same love he feels for each ingredient as it grew in the wild. Admiration and a love of art history is commendable in a director suddenly handed financial freedom, but they won’t turn dirt into soup, and they can’t save Suspiria.
Guadagnino may have seen in the 1977 original the same exciting blueprints Jeremy Kasten saw in The Wizard of Gore. But Suspiria was never supposed to be more than a bloody funhouse, a gorgeous crashing of color and sound, as sweetly, dreamily insistent as anything in Walt Disney’s Fantasia. Guadagnino had a chance to do something unique and new but given blueprints and permission to be his most outré, bold self, it turns out he isn’t much of a storyteller.