Morbidly Beautiful

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“Suspiria” (2018) is a savagely beautiful, bleak fairytale that is both horrific and heartbreaking, visually spellbinding and deeply thought provoking.

Like so many of you who consider Dario Argento’s Suspiria to be a work of incomparable brilliance and breathtaking beauty, I found the idea of someone attempting to remake one of horror’s greatest cinematic achievements simply incomprehensible. I was outraged by the mere idea of it and convinced a project of such unimaginable audacity was doomed to fail before the ink could dry on the impossible- to-write script.

In its early stages of development, Argento himself expressed grave concerns about the controversial remake. He asked the same questions so many of us have asked ourselves…”Why?” “How?” and “How dare you?”

However, in spite of all my instincts to the contrary, the more I heard about the daring reimagining from Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name), the more I was intrigued, impressed and even — as much as I hated to admit it — undeniably curious.

At the very least, I had to give the filmmakers credit. While fans worried about them killing a sacred cow, they focused on slaying the film’s marketing campaign.

Is it possible Guadagnino, who fell in love with Argento’s Suspiria as a teenager and vowed to one day remake it, and writer David Kajganich (The Terror), could have somehow achieved the impossible? Could they create a new vision of a beloved classic — one that was respectful and reverential to its rich source material, while still original enough to hold its own against the inevitable comparison to a masterpiece?

The short answer? Yes.

Even before the official announcement came, Fantastic Fest was buzzing with the possibility that Sunday night’s Secret Screening may in fact be the North American premiere of Suspiria. I was surprised by how hopeful I was the rumors were true. I had gone from rabid cynic to cautiously optimistic cinephile. I wanted — no, I needed — this film to be good.

As the film was announced, with the promise of something mind blowing from the fest’s program director and a brief on screen introduction from Guadagnino, butterflies danced in my stomach. I said a silent prayer to the gods of cinema. “Please just let it not be a train wreck.”

At this point, I’m almost tempted to stop the review. Because this film, like the masterpiece it was inspired by, is one you don’t just watch — you experience. You consume it as it overwhelms your senses and transcends mere pictures on a screen. It lives and breathes inside you. It gets under your skin, transforming you, forever imprinting itself upon you.

There’s an extraordinary scene in the film involving a disturbing dream sequence. The head witches in a coven, masquerading as a German dance academy, have invaded the mind of American dancer Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson). While she sleeps, they telepathically transfer their dreams to her, filling her head with a series of strange but hypnotic images.

And it’s the best metaphor I have for this film — a stunningly grotesque visual and audial feast that’s impossible not to be transfixed and altered by.

 While the bare bones structure of Argento’s plot remains intact for this reimagining, this version bears little resemblance to its predecessor. And yet, the influence is undeniable. Everything that makes the original so influential can be found here, but with a satisfyingly unique spin.

While it would be foolish, if not impossible, to try to copy Argento’s signature visual style, the aesthetic here is no less impressive and artfully executed. And that undeniably critical component of sound is handled masterfully by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, employed by Guadagnino to create a mesmerizing and disorienting soundscape — equal parts dreamscape and nightmare fuel.

The cinematography is a crowning achievement, with Sayombhu Mukdeepom exhibiting a breathtaking level of artistry and command of the camera. There are more than a few shots that left me quite literally breathless.

Then there’s the dancing. Oh my god, the dancing.

These masterfully choreographed sequences are both hypnotizing to watch and narratively significant, creating an enhanced plausibility for the storyline and explaining why a coven of powerful witches would choose to hide within the walls of a dance academy.

We learn that the dance routines act as a form of spell-casting, allowing the witches to manifest their desires through movement. It’s in this way that the coven uses Susie as a vessel to unknowingly influence and bring harm to others.

Kajganic said he studied countless hours of dance to write those sequences, but he made sure to only study dance that had been created by women. He seems acutely aware of the responsibility of being a man in charge of creating powerful female characters and a female-driven storyline. And he handles the task with the utmost respect and flawless execution.

Speaking of harm, horror fans can take delightfully sick pleasure in knowing that this version honors Argento’s flair for violence and gore by delivering satisfyingly shocking, grisly, and frightful kill scenes. Without spoiling anything, the dance kill sequence is one of the most effective and unforgettable scenes in horror history. A bold statement, I know, and one I’m confidently resolute in.

The entire cast is magnificent, with Dakota Johnson delivering a career-defining, highly physical performance as Susie Bannion and the always brilliant Tilda Swinton shining as Madame Blanc, one of the most respected elders in the academy. The gifted chameleon actress also plays two other roles in the film, in which she is completely unrecognizable — and unmistakably brilliant.

While Argento’s opus is a masterpiece of cinematic style, Guadagnino’s take brings a higher degree of substance. In a stroke of genius, he and Kajganich add a powerful real-world political backdrop to the proceedings at the academy. This serves as a mirror to the turmoil and unrest within the coven, fueled by a fight for control and an ideological battle for their future.

What we end up with is a film that works on multiple layers. While it more than delivers on the horror and artistry you’d expect from a new take on Suspiria, we also end up with a richly layered and wonderfully complex film about feminism, collective guilt and denial, and the exchange of political power that feels both deeply rooted in historical context and yet frighteningly current.

During the post-screening Q & A, both Kajganic and Jessica Harper (the original Susie Bannion) hinted at the possibility of a sequel. As much as I would have never imagined myself waxing poetic about the brilliance of a Suspiria remake, I sure as hell couldn’t envision a world where I gleefully hoped for a sequel to said remake.

And yet, here we are.

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