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In Theaters: SUSPIRIA (2018)

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SUSPIRIA
(US/Italy - 2018)

Directed by Luca Guadagnino. Written by David Kajganich. Cast: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth, Lutz Ebersdorf, Chloe Grace Moretz, Jessica Harper, Angela Winkler, Sylvie Testud, Renee Soutendijk, Ingrid Caven, Elena Fokina, Doris Hick, Malgosia Bela, Vanda Capriolo, Fabrizia Sacchi, Alek Wek, Clementine Houdart, Jessica Batut, Brigitte Cuvelier, Christine Leboutte, Mikael Olssen, Fred Kelemen. (R, 152 mins)

In the annals of Italian horror, few titles are as instantly recognized as Dario Argento's 1977 classic SUSPIRIA. The first of the "Three Mothers" trilogy--it was followed by 1980's INFERNO and 2007's belated and significantly lesser MOTHER OF TEARS--SUSPIRIA was a loud, bloody, garishly colorful, and ultra-stylish assault on the senses that still terrifies, as American ballet student Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper) arrives at the Tanz Academy in Freiburg to find all sorts of supernatural goings-on, all under the control of all-powerful witch Mater Suspiriorum, which is apparent even if Goblin's iconic score didn't include a proto-black metal hiss of "witch!" throughout. A remake has been in various stages of development for the last decade, with one-time indie wunderkind and HALLOWEEN 2018 director David Gordon Green attached for quite some time before he bailed and Italian producer/director Luca Guadagnino, an acclaimed filmmaker thanks to 2010's I AM LOVE and 2015's A BIGGER SPLASH, decided to make it himself. SUSPIRIA '18 was already in post-production when Guadagnino scored his commercial breakthough with 2017's Oscar-nominated CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, and whether you see it because of Guadagnino or because of your love for Argento and Italian horror, know up front that this is likely the most divisive film to hit multiplexes since Darron Aronofsky's MOTHER! pissed everyone off last year. And I'm not just talking about the response it's likely to get from the perpetually bitching gatekeepers (© Jason Coffman) of horror fandom. Guadagnino's SUSPIRIA uses Argento's film as a template before going off in multiple directions, and there's no argument that it bites off more than it can chew. The end result--all two and a half hours of it--is brilliant, frustrating, captivating, pretentious, ambitious, and self-indulgent in equal measures.






Guadagnino and his BIGGER SPLASH screenwriter David Kajganich (whose writing credits also include 2009's BLOOD CREEK, a little-seen horror film that deserved a bigger audience) fashion their SUSPIRIA with the very Lars von Trier-esque subtitle "Six Chapters and an Epilogue Set in a Divided Berlin." Specifically, 1977 West Berlin, with the omnipresent Berlin Wall and the city in turmoil with bombings and recurring invocations of Baader-Meinhof, the far-left militant Red Army Faction, and the October hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181 by the PFLP. In the midst of this is Markos Dance Academy student and Red Army supporter Patricia Hingle (Chloe Grace Moretz), who befriends elderly psychotherapist Dr. Josef Klemperer ("Lutz Ebersdorf"--more on him shortly) and frantically spells out the details of a wild story that the place is run by a coven of witches. When Patricia disappears--those close to her believe she went underground with a terrorist outfit--her spot at Markos becomes available and is given to Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), who's also running away, fleeing a domineering, terminally ill mother and a repressive Mennonite upbringing in rural Ohio.


A rebellious outcast in both her congregation and her own family going back to her childhood--whether she was constantly daydreaming about dancing, obsessed with learning all she could about Berlin, or being caught masturbating in her closet--Susie feels destined for Markos, and more specifically, its renowned choreographer Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), who soon takes the naive, sheltered American under her wing as her protegee for sinister reasons that have to do with more than dancing. Meanwhile, Dr. Klemperer (in the worst-kept secret of 2018, "Lutz Ebersdorf," initially described by the filmmakers as a practicing doctor and non-professional actor making his debut, is really Swinton under extensive prosthetics), haunted by the disappearance of his wife during the Holocaust 35 years earlier, is disturbed enough by Patricia's story and the notes scribbled in her left-behind journals that he begins his own investigation into her claims about the Markos Academy, one that dovetails with Markos dancer Sara (Mia Goth), who bonds with Susie but remains troubled by Patricia's vanishing.


That plot synopsis is really just scratching the surface of everything Guadagnino and Kajganich are up to here. SUSPIRIA '18 does a masterful job of capturing late '70s Berlin, with the gray, dreary atmosphere, the constant rain, the political tumult (bombs and commotion are frequently heard outside the walls of the Markos), the nods to Rainer Werner Fassbinder and the casting of Volker Schlondorff regular Angela Winkler (THE LOST HONOR OF KATHARINA BLUM, THE TIN DRUM) as Miss Tanner, the right-hand to Madame Blanc. The film takes place in a Berlin that's literally divided by a wall, but also by politics and history, particularly the still-open wounds of WWII, as represented by the mournful Klemperer. That extends to the scheming and machinations going on in the academy, with the staff divided over whether to give control to Madame Blanc or the aging and unseen founder Helena Markos. The score by Radiohead's Thom Yorke is moodily effective--a complete contrast to the progasmic bombast of Goblin--but doesn't really signify "Berlin" in a musical sense.





Rest assured, Guadagnino doesn't forget that he's making an Italian horror film, whether it's numerous instances of stomach-turning gore, a truly nightmarish climax that goes completely off the rails, a Yorke piano cue that sounds directly lifted from Fabio Frizzi's score for Lucio Fulci's THE BEYOND, or a late-film cameo by Jessica Harper. There's also Argento-specific callbacks, from the friendship between Patricia and Klemperer reminiscent of Jennifer Connelly and Donald Pleasance in PHENOMENA, and Swinton's disguised second performance recalling Adrien Brody's ridiculous "Byron Deidra" act in the dreadful latter-day Argento dud GIALLO. In a physically demanding performance, Johnson is an effective Susie, whose character arc goes in a vastly different direction than Harper's did in Argento's film, allowing Goth's Sara to resonate more for the audience in a way that wasn't required of Stefania Casini, her predecessor in the role. The dance instructors who make up the coven are well-cast, particularly Winkler, Paul Verhoeven vet Renee Soutendijk, and Sylvie Testud, who's made up in way that looks like a tribute to Jane March's "Richie" in COLOR OF NIGHT. Swinton is a terrific Madame Blanc, whose mentoring of Susie echoes Klemperer's belief that "love and manipulation...they share houses very often." Guadagnino perhaps overindulges his friend and frequent star Swinton, who actually has a third role by the end of the film, coming perilously close to making this her own personal DR. STRANGELOVE (her work as Klemperer is a triumph of old-age prosthetic makeup  that the Oscars should recognize, but she doesn't do enough with her voice to totally sell the "Lutz Ebersdorf" illusion).  While an over-the-top, arthouse deep dive into late 1970s West German politics, history, sociology, and culture seems like a strange approach to remaking a legendary and beloved Italian horror film, it's too lofty in its ambitions and too unpredictably gonzo to simply dismiss, regardless of how much of a daunting horse pill it can be at times.

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