By John H. Foote
This remake of the classic seventies horror film, Suspiria (1977) from Dario Argento is striking to look at, filled with interesting imagery, but so pretentious and, uniquely self-important and ugly within, the filmmaker forgets he is making a horror film. He forgets to scare us. O,h there is gore, but that does not frighten anyone anynmore does it? Gore stopped scaring me after the tenth sequel to Nightmare on Elm Street meets Halloween on Friday the 13th (sorry…), it just does not do it anymore.
My wife believed a horror film should be fun, that it was cool to be scared by a movie. I remember after watching Signs (2002) with her on DVD, she could not move when it was over. I pulled the cmforter off us and turned off the DVD player and TV and reached my hand t take her to bed. She was white. She choked out in paused English “I…am…so…freaked…out…right…now…I cannot …move…”. Looking at her, I choked back a laugh. I sat back down and hugged her tight and she was actually shaking, quaking in terror. She got so into horror movies, she lived them. Watching them with her was taking your life in your hands. She was already right beside me to hold my hand or my arm was around around holding her close to me. (What can I say, we loved each other and still had heat!) The moment something made her jump, she jumped, often nearly into my lap or bashed into me somehow trying to keep safe. She was fun to watch movies with, I miss it.
While watching Suspira I wondered in my mind what she sould have that? We pretty much agreed that horror was very personal, like comedy, what scared you might not scare me. But this was such a different sort of movie, what would she think. I remember her just about climbing into my lap watching The Changeling (1980) when the rubber ball, thrown into a lake by out character comes bouncing down the stairs, drops of water all over it. Would she do any leaping through this? I doubt it.
Suspira is not a “boo” sort of horror movie, in fact, I do not remember a single moment of genuine horror throughout the film.
Susie (Dakota Johnson) is a small town girl from a Mennonite village in Ohio, auditions for a dance troupe in Berlin, and brings so much sexual heat to the number they accept her at once. She is exactly what they are looking for. Her dance seems inspired by sex, the act of, and watching Bob Fosse movies, All That Jazz (1979) in particular. Angry, sudden moves to the percussion of the music seems to be her style.
Once in Berlin, 1977, she goes to the troupe’s home, which would send me backing up on site. IT looks like a place where ghosts would congregate, where the damned might live.
Run by the strange Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) who speaks in platitudes that make little sense, but encourages the girls to be themselves in their dance. Once there Susie gets a chance to audition for a lead role in a show when the dancer dancing the part stalks out of the rehearsal in an angry temper tantrum. As Susie dances, her angry, jutting movements, a floor above the angry dancer is being tossed around the room like a rag doll, as though some strange sort of voodoo were happening. The movements leave the dancer broken, literally as her amrs and legs bend and snap, leaving her in a crippled pile of flesh and bones, blood and urine. Wildly violent, incredibly graphic in its violence, the scene does scare so much as disgust. It makes clear that Susie is much more than she initially seems, and that something sinister is happening in this dance studio.
We find out a coven of witches runs the studio, which is no real surprise given the imagery and nightmares we see. But exactly what they want is never really clear to anyone. Are they looking for a sacrifice? A young girl to sacrifice? Whay has happened to the girl gone missing? It is all too crazy confusing to me, and horror should be anything confusing.
Tilda Swinton plays no less than three roles in the film, a testament to her magnificent talents but at this point in her career are we surprised? She has been startling audiences since her performance in Orlando (1994) in which she as a woman she becomes a man, is terrifying as the White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (2004), winning an Oscar for her vicious lawyer in Michael Clayton (2007) and her finest performance, in We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) for which she was cruelly snubbed for an Academy Award. Here she is Madame Blanc, the good psychiatrist Dr. Klemperer under mounds of make up, and the head witch, the ancient Helen Markos, again under tons of make up. The use of so much make up drew attention to the fact they really did not wish us to know who was there, which made it easy to guess. She does convince she is three different people, but she has been doing that her entire life, just one at a time.
Dakata Johnson grows in her performance, being so much more than an innocent little girl from Ohio. She proves she can act, getting far away from Fifty Shades of Grey (2014) with a decent performance.
While watching the film it occered to me the reason it was not working was because the director, Guadagnino was not working with the horror, he was condescending to it as though he was angry at himself for accepting the job of directing the film. Having just come off directing the superb love story between two young men, Call Me By Your Name (2017) this must feel as a terrible step backwards, but he did not have to treat it as such. The direction seems confused, as though he did not have a clue to say what it was he wanted to say. So instead of a great horror film, which it might have been in the hands of another filmmaker and a tweek or two to the script, we have a film filled with really striking imagery, the final dance scene is stunning, filled with beautiful dancing bodies wrapped in ribbons of red, their flesh and panties adding colour. It is startling to look at, very sexual, It is here the BIG moment happens, the pay off to the entire film, but again there is nothing frightening, merely disgusting…yet again.
The film stays with you, those images are hard to shake, but it is there more to frustrate and confuse than anything else, and that is what it does in your head. Great horror has an atmosphere, strong characters and a constant building of dread. Something terrible is going to happen and we know it, we feel it. Not in Suspira. Bluntly put, it is a helluva mess.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.