Dir: Luca Guadagnino
The Hex Factor
With the original representing the high watermark of the Italian ‘giallo’ style of horror movie, we might assume this 2018 update would slot straight into the ‘why even bother?’ file. Dario Argento’s 1977 Suspiria was a technicolour carousel of bad dreams, gory death theatrics and a thrillingly spooky soundtrack. The sum of those parts was an artful nightmare with the power to genuinely scare. So this remake from Call Me by Your Name (2017) director Luca Guadagnino is never going to match up, right? Well …it doesn’t. But. Why does it immediately feel lodged in the memory? And why do you sense it calling you back, almost as soon as the post-credits scene has rewarded those who stay to its dying minute?
Constructed from the same screenplay as the original, it’s built upwards from the same foundations, but ends up with very different architecture. The dance studio setting in the first incarnation is actually little more than a suitably atmospheric, gothic backdrop, allowing the kaleidoscopic set pieces and whispers of occult suspicions to take centre-stage. This take’s considerably longer runtime gives time and space for the mechanics of the dancing itself to be explored, for one thing. Not to mention the extreme physical exertions they can lead to. Let’s just say we’re not dealing with the soft-focus ballerinas and ballrooms of Degas’ Paris.
That the film is going to be in the shadow of its forerunner is unavoidable, so that fact has been wholly embraced. Which begs the question of whether it’s best appreciated by those familiar with the earlier film, or those yet to be inducted into the scariest dance school in pop culture. Yet this is not a contemporary ‘reimagining’ (à la Dawn of the Dead (2004), or even Ghostbusters (2016). It’s still set in ‘77 for a start. So it feels like an expansion, a second run at one of cinema’s most cultish chillers.
We follow Susie Banyon’s initiation into the school, and Dakota Johnson presents both her youthful purity, and a charismatic authority as she matures into finding her place within it. Tutor Tilda Swinton’s terse otherworldliness fits perfectly. Meanwhile the sole male character, psychiatrist Josef Klemperer, is portrayed by Lutz Ebersdorf. Who turns out to be one of the most enigmatic of actors…
Staying true to the spirit, music is still a key ingredient in this fresh concoction, and Thom Yorke’s off-kilter piano laments complement the adult fairy-tale vibe to a tee. It’s at the opposite end of the audio spectrum as Goblin’s voodoo nursery rhymes on acid, but just as memorable.
At two and a half hours, it’s certainly overlong, spending too much time on character back-story and creepy cul-de-sacs. The sensual and highly aesthetic seventies version is, in essence, a string of elaborate, operatic murder sequences. This deeper reading of the story, and the expanded content that goes with it, simply requires a larger package. And it’s here I wonder if new viewers may tire.
But it’s a validatory blessing to see the original’s lead (Jessica Harper) return in the later stages. And, despite my reservations, I can’t shake a feeling that I myself will be revisiting it in the not too distant future. It’s hard to put my finger on why. Almost as if some sort of spell has been cast upon me in the last couple of hours.
★ ★ ★ ½