Squad Talk: “Remaking” a Classic: Suspiria

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There’s been plenty of curiosity and hand-wringing about Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Suspiria since it was announced as his Call Me By Your Name follow-up. From debates about Dakota Johnson’s wig to a vomit-inducing clip screened at CinemaCon, Suspiria has defied expectations at every turn.

With the film finally debuting in theatres, the Anatomy of a Scream team got together to discuss everything from the film’s muted colour scheme, to Thom Yorke’s surprisingly understated score, to another potentially divisive ending and the commercial viability of an art film posing as a horror film.

As with all Squad Talks, we dive deep and get into spoiler territory, so beware. (Honestly, you really should go see the film immediately — bookmark us and come back for our hot takes once you’ve seen it!)

Our Relationships to the Original & Overall Impressions

Vincent: I watched the original Suspiria for the first time in Spring 2017 during a college film class dedicated to the horror genre. I fell in love instantly. It ended up being my favourite out of the 14 films we watched in class. It taught me a lot about different ways to value a film. I used to be unable to enjoy a film for its visuals alone. Since opening my mind to Suspiria (1977) I have found other visual favorites, such as The Neon Demon (2016) and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). The latter of which I originally swore off in high school for, what I find to be, terrible changes in the plot from the source material.

I was not happy when a remake was announced. I was one of those assholes adamantly against even mentioning it. I love modern horror, but I love 70s and 80s horror even more. I rarely think remakes do the past justice. News of the remake seemed to get worse and worse as the trailer revealed that the visual style of old Suspiria would not be used. As I was gearing up to see the remake, I explained to my mom that Suspiria (1977) is carried by unique visuals, instead of being driven by a great plot. I told her that the filmmakers were going to have to do something extremely different with the plot for this movie to be good without the same style…

Well, they sure did take that old plot and run far and fast with it! I ended up being very pleased with the direction they went in. Making it as different from the original as possible was the perfect way to do this remake. I truly think Suspiria (2018) is an excellently made film. However, it was not a film for me. I think it was good– I think it deserves praise– but I did not connect to it the way I connect to the original. I would suggest people see it, but it is not a favourite of mine and it is not a film I want to see again and again.

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Joe: Just like Vincent, the first time I saw the original was in a university course on horror films (much earlier than 2017). I, too, love the Argento version, though I can appreciate why there are lots of audiences who can’t relate to its prioritization of mood and visual aesthetic over narrative.

As for the new one, it took me several days of heavy mental lifting, but I’ve come around to the realization that I think it’s one of the best films of the year and the benchmark example for how to “remake” a classic horror film (cough Halloween cough).

Gina: So, admittedly, I have never seen the original (gasp!). I recently attempted to watch it so I could have that foundation before I saw the remake. I anticipated that it would be of course exuberant and theatrical, but for whatever reason, I wasn’t feeling it at that time and I abandoned it about 20 minutes in.

Some Argento films have been hit-or-miss for me, but I enjoyed Deep Red, so I imagine I’ll attempt another viewing of the original Suspiria at some point. In any case, I was prepared to see the film with an open mind and perhaps less skepticism than fans of the original.

Ashley: I saw Suspiria (1977) around 2013, I think. At that point I wasn’t familiar with Argento, so I definitely thought it the oddest horror movie I had ever seen. But I really liked it – I loved the style, loved the dance setting, loved the fairy tale vibe. I went to a screening of the 4K restoration last year and it was like watching it for the first time again. I was so awed by the visual style and use of colour.

I’m obsessed with A Bigger Splash (2015), so I was very excited for the remake for the Dakota Johnson-Tilda Swinton reunion. I was also looking forward to a new interpretation of the story since so much is left unexplained in the original. Coming out of it, I have a lot of mixed feelings. There are things that I really like about it and it’s beautifully shot. But I feel like a lot of the story was over-intellectualized and made the film lose its impact. I wouldn’t say I loved it, but I keep thinking about it.

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Valeska: The original Suspiria is one of my favourite films. I see it every time local repertory cinemas schedule screenings and I pre-ordered the Synapse limited edition steelbook edition immediately. So, I will admit that (like Vincent) I was vehemently opposed to the idea of a remake. But when the trailer dropped, I was actually thrilled by the vastly different visual look and mood; I think that drastically shifting the tone and visual language of the film was the smartest way to approach the remake of such a singular and visceral cinematic experience. Once I’d seen the trailer, Suspiria (2018) became my most anticipated release of the year.

Upon actually seeing the film, I was enthralled (for the most part). Up until the climax (which we’ll talk about later), I was fully absorbed. Rapt attention is a little rare for me — I’m the kind of person who, even when they’re truly enjoying a film, always winds up surreptitiously glancing at their watch midway through Act 2. Not so with Suspiria (2018). It worked for me on all levels; I felt deeply invested in the story and found the visuals, which muted and subtle compared to the original, were still a feast for the eyes. I appreciated the theatricality and over-the-top garishness of Argento’s death scenes in the original, but I could watch Luca Guadagnino’s grotesque and inspired vision of Olga’s slaying forever.

Joshua: The original Suspiria (1977) was absolutely life-changing the first time I saw it, and became one of my favourite horror films. It was my introduction into the world of giallo, with its stunning and brazen use of colour and music to accentuate the horrors that played out. North American horror generally seems hellbent on realism, so the original Suspiria was a visual odyssey that completely changed my outlook on filmmaking. The soundtrack is as spellbinding as the visuals, with Goblin’s score rightfully among some of the best film scores of all time.

I’m generally apprehensive about remakes, but when this was announced, along with the casting of Tilda Swinton and Thom Yorke taking on the score, I was immediately excited. While the original has long been a favourite, I knew (or at least hoped) there was a possibility that someone could take the source material and make something original, fresh and engaging. I was pleasantly surprised that the film not only met my expectations, but exceeded them.

Performances & Production (Score, Colour Scheme)

Joe: My initial, obvious reaction is to effusively praise Tilda Swinton’s restrained, tightly wound performance as Madame Blanc, but for me, the true hero of the piece is Dakota Johnson as Susie Bannion. I’m not a hater or an apologist of the famous actress, but this feels like the first feature to successfully capitalize on Johnson’s unique mixture of innocence and sexuality – primarily because she’s playing at least three different versions of the character (I actually count four: rebellious Mennonite, aspiring dancer, sexualized lead dancer, Mater Suspiriorum).

I’m curious to see how those of you who adore the spectacular and vibrant colour scheme and Goblin soundtrack of the original wound up feeling about the muted, subdued versions of this new version?

Gina: Yes, not surprising that Tilda Swinton delivers another brilliant performance, and I agree about Dakota Johnson’s fit — the film definitely showcases what she actually has to offer, be it that wide-eyed, eager ingenue, or the awe of her quiet yet heavy presence as an ethereal being.

I can’t stop thinking about that early sequence though, where Susie’s aggressive dancing translates to the brutal punishing of Olga, the outspoken, protesting dancer who storms out of rehearsal. It’s super uncomfortable and almost fantastical — Olga contorts and deforms before our eyes into a nearly unrecognizable and impossible shape. Grotesque for sure, but it signals that more body horror is to come.

And I’m a fan of the soundtrack – I think Thom Yorke’s haunting, creeping stylings fill the empty space of the set and supports the supernatural tone in this version.

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Ashley: All of the performances were great and I think the chemistry of the cast helps the film through some of its weaker moments. Using muted colours was a bold choice, but the different shades of red add a punch of colour and calls back to the original’s colour palette. The dream sequences stood out the most – so gorgeous yet so unsettling. The new Suspiria is definitely one of the best looking films I’ve ever seen.

Valeska: Totally agree with Ashley about the palette. I loved how this film looks. And Joe hit the nail on the head re: Dakota Johnson. I’d never honestly considered her before this film and definitely questioned her casting when it was first announced, but she owns this role. I can’t imagine the film having anywhere near the same impact without her presence. And I loved the quality and quantity of Tilda Swinton that we were blessed with.

I’d also been a little leery about the idea of Thom Yorke stepping into Goblin’s shoes, but the score was perfect (and available on Spotify, you guys!)

And the dancing! I swoon.

Vincent: I didn’t dislike anything about the look or sound of this film, but I did find myself actively missing the old color scheme and Goblin soundtrack throughout. I really wish they could have found a place to use the Goblin theme at least once. If I didn’t have the original version to compare it to I don’t think I would have any complaints, but the direction they chose to go with design and sound just isn’t the type of style that really grabs me.

However, I think of the increased focus on dancing scenes as a kind of trade-off for the old style. I have always found the lack of dancing in the original to be my only complaint about it, so I really appreciated the incorporation of dance into the narrative. Now if only I could have a movie that choreographs a dance to the Goblin soundtrack while under colorful lighting, it would be the perfect film!

Others have mentioned Dakota Johnson’s and Tilda Swinton’s performance, which are definitely great, however I don’t think Mia Goth’s performance should be forgotten either! She was like an insertion of the audience into the film. Her genuine connection and concern for Susie reflected the audience’s growing connection to Susie. Her inability to discern whether or not Susie was a pawn or an active participant in the witches’ plan was the same mystery I was struggling to unravel while watching. I thought both her heartfelt moments and her moments of terror felt very real.

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Joshua: I have to echo the well-deserved praise for Tilda Swinton and Dakota Johnson. Swinton, in particular, manages to create compelling character after compelling character, with the complicated, yet subdued, Madame Blanc as her centrepiece.

I was pleasantly surprised with the direction the film went. It managed to create a new, fresh, and interesting story, while still paying homage to the original. The muting of colour was a bold choice considering the original’s dependency on striking colours, but I think that choice only added to the overall tone of the film. It felt like Suspiria, but in the real world.

Memorable Setpieces and THAT Ending

Joe: Not unlike Hereditary, I wonder how polarizing the end of this film will be to audiences. On the whole, I think that Suspiria is a much less accessible film for general audiences, but to me the entire massacre scene that closes Part 5 feels almost like it belongs in a different film. Thematically and character-wise, it makes total sense; visually it didn’t quite land for me. The blurry visual, the dim red lighting and the near-comical levels of gore are clearly intended to help this sequence stand apart from the rest of the film, but it also looks cheap, grainy and – dare I say it – amateurish?

Also: I’m annoyed that the prosthetic effects of Susie ripping open her own chest that leaked back in the summer wound up being supplanted by really fake-looking CGI in the finished film. I stan practical effects and this single effect was bad enough to distract me from the film’s biggest talking point.

Valeska: Totally agree. The climax is where the film (which previously held me in the palm of its hand) lost me. Co-sign on the complaint about the weird visual effects. I hadn’t seen the leaked image before you showed me after the screening, but I do agree that the final effect was inferior.

What I do love about the ending is the agency that it granted Susie. I love a woman with absolute power.

Gina: The dance academy’s architecture is really striking, and a good fit to complement the era and the atmosphere – cold, grey, sterile, minimalist. Fortress-like. It reflects the strictness and rigidity of the dance training, too, of course; and I’ll bet it also enhanced all that percussive breathing of the dancers. I thought it really captured the harsh essence of that Madame Blanc quote, too: “There are two things that dance can never be again. Beautiful and cheerful. Today we need to break the nose of every beautiful thing.”

At the same time, the school’s hidden depths, labyrinthine hallways, illusory spaces, lighting, use of mirrors — all of this speaks to the suspicious and conspiratorial nature of its inhabitants, and the dark secrets that come out from the bowels of the place.

I see where Joe is coming from though, in his description of Part 5 – it’s very performative, on a scale beyond everything else in the film (and if I’m honest, it reminded me in a way of Gaspar Noe’s latest film, Climax). But it’s a distorted, morbid continuation of the restrained above-ground public performance of the dancers. I liked the juxtaposition of the simple red-stringed costume pieces to the stringy intestines and washes of blood in the vault scene. And I liked that it was an erupting, cathartic unleashing or exposing of all that’s pent-up or repressed (and in horror, there’s always that ‘return of the repressed’).

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Ashley: I know everyone’s talking about it, but the ending is actually the part I liked the least and it’s only because it felt so forced and rushed. By having Susie go from confused newcomer to coven leader without any sort of internal or external conflict made the ending feel like it came out of left field and deflated the film for me. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t entertaining and intense because it was definitely both.

Also, I really like what Gina said about how reflective the sets are of the dancers’ environment and practice. The add a lot of mood and atmosphere to the film and keep that fairy tale tone of the original.

Vincent: I have read some really interesting opinions from other film writers across twitter that point out how the film is really about excess and the ending is the pinnacle of excess, and so on. When I read those opinions I’m like “YES! That is such interesting reading of the film!,” but when I actually watch the ending I’m just not a fan. For me, the ending is more interesting to talk about than it is to watch.

I will say that I found Johnson absolutely captivating during most of the climactic scene. Her styling was perfect. I could really believe that she was a sacred entity from the dawn of time. My least favorite part about the ending (besides the CGI chest rip) was Madam Markos. I thought her grotesque design was an interesting choice, however she just grated on my nerves. I know she isn’t a character I am supposed to like, but my annoyance was at a level that took me out of the moment.

As for set design, I really loved all the mirrors. I think they could have utilized the mirrors even more to be honest, but I find the 360-degree mirror audition room to be a perfect room for a horror film.

Joshua: Aside from the mirrored audition room, which was used to perfection in almost every scene it was featured, I absolutely loved the secret passage that Sara finds herself in the second time. As a fan of the original, I knew when watching this was in reference to when the original Sara lands in a room full of razor-sharp wires. The moment perfectly encapsulates how the remake pays homage to the original, while going in completely different and surprising directions.

Sex, Sexuality, Doubling (Blanc & Susie’s relationship, Susie and ”Death”, interchangeability of the “chosen” girl)

Ashley: What I found interesting was how expendable all the dancers were to the coven to the point where they considered sacrificing so many and took away their talents so readily. Originally, I thought it was going to be a comment on how dance takes a serious toll on a dancer’s body over time. Or that the coven represented an older generation of women who were molding a younger generation to conform to their ways – like the push and pull between different waves of feminism. Obviously, I was thinking way too esoterically, but I do think that there’s a lot to unpack in the film in regards to women, their bodies and how they relate to each other.

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Vincent: My favorite thing about the film was the sexual tension I felt between Susie and Madame Blanc and Susie and Sarah. I realize objectively that there are a lot of things this film can be praised for, but for me on a personal level, these connections are the one absolute standout thing in the film. I find both relationships to be touching in their own way and that created an interesting internal conflict. Susie’s relationship with Sarah felt innocent and pure, like something that could be found in a beautiful indie drama about a woman finding her first love in college. Her connection to Sarah felt safe. Whereas Susie’s relationship with Madam Blanc felt powerful and passionate, and somehow deeper than her relationship with Sarah, but dangerous (for obvious reasons). I couldn’t decide which connection I wanted Susie to pursue more so I spent the film torn between wanting Susie to escape the witches and wanting her to join them.

Valeska: Yes! I was absolutely fascinated by the relationship between Susie and Madame Blanc. I loved the way that it was built up throughout each of their interactions and how Susie was so completely in control of it, even though she was positioned as a sexual innocent and Madame Blanc as the ostensibly more powerful one (maybe Johnson learned a few lessons about topping from the bottom through her Fifty Shades work). I was surprised and thrilled by how queer Guadagnino’s Suspiria wound up being! Plus it’s so interesting to see that kind of sexual tension between an older and younger woman, because we see that dynamic play out so frequently with older men and younger women.

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Joshua: The tension between Susie and Madame Blanc was perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the story, with the actual status of the relationship being continuously questioned throughout before the climax. The sometimes motherly and sometimes sexual moments between them complicated the reality that Blanc saw so much of herself in Susie and, in my opinion, was grooming her to become her successor. Moreover, I think when you take Susie’s troubled relationship with her mother into consideration, the connection between Susie and Blanc becomes a much more queer relationship, worth looking at as something of a ‘chosen family’ versus ‘biological family’ story.

Other Talking Points (Klemperer + WW2, RAF movement, divided Germany) and the Film’s Chances of Success

Ashley: The main issue I have and the reason I didn’t like the film as much as I expected to was the expanded role of Dr. Klemperer. I just really don’t understand the choice to frame a movie about women and female empowerment around a man’s revelation. Having the character played by Tilda Swinton doesn’t change the gender dynamic when the character is ostensibly a man. It still passes the Bechdel Test, but it feels like the wrong choice, thematically.

I liked the historical backdrop (even though I had only a vague idea as to what it was they were referring to) because I think it added to the overall feeling of anxiety and claustrophobia that’s so present in the dance world. But with that plus Klemperer plus the dance academy drama, it feels like too much story is being crammed in and a lot of what works ends up getting lost. I think if they had kept the focus on the dancers and their environment, it would have been a much sharper film. But it’s really about its visual style, which makes it in exactly the same vein as the original. The Suspiria remake so visually stunning that it’s definitely going to garner an audience following regardless of the weak (in my opinion) storytelling.

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Vincent: I originally wrote: “I feel like the RAF plotline was only added as a historical anchor, which I found unnecessary.” However, while I was writing this statement it suddenly struck me that the RAF was a brilliant parallel to the witches’ coven. Devoting your life to a radical political group is similar to how the film shows devotion to the witches’ coven. I take back the idea that it was unnecessary, and instead say that the addition of the RAF was an awesome idea with a less than great execution. I just felt the way it was worked into the plot was very clunky, it didn’t flow with the rest of the film.

I really don’t know how to judge if it will be successful. Most of people I know online have seen it and enjoyed it, but it can be hard to step back from the curated community of my twitter to judge the reaction of people on a larger scale. I definitely don’t think it was a failure. The filmmakers took a well-loved classic and made it their own. The film hasn’t been without criticism, but it seems like most people in the communities this film was made for (such as the horror community) have deemed it a success.

Valeska: I liked the RAF plotline and agree with Vincent re: the coven parallel. I also thought it helped the film feel a bit more grounded and real, whereas the original had more of a folk tale vibe. I do agree that we spent a little too much time with Klemperer, although that paid off for me with Jessica Harper’s glorious cameo as Anke (and the cruel reveal when Klemperer returns unwittingly to the academy).

Do I think it’ll be a success? Joe, Gina and I went on opening night and the theatre was pretty empty (which I found shocking). I haven’t looked at its numbers, so I’m not sure how it’s doing at the box office, but I think that the film does offer a lot to talk about, thematically and aesthetically. Will it garner the same devoted cult following that the original did? Perhaps not. But I do think it’s a film that will continue to fascinate and inspire debate and discussion. (And yes, I’d totally buy its steelbook edition as well!)

Joshua: It is a well-known fact that horror films are a reflection of the fears of the day, and I thought it was an ingenious decision to take a look at the social and political side of 1977 Germany, and a brilliant way to dissect and explore where the original could be coming from. I think it managed to help create an original story, which at the same time making the original more complex. It brought the reality of the original film to the forefront in a way I wasn’t expecting.

Unfortunately, I think the film is a bit too artistic for general mainstream consumption, and I think it will end up being a divisive film among North American moviegoers. However, for those who can appreciate 2018’s Suspiria, I think they will have undoubtedly found a new favourite horror movie.

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