I’m not against remakes or reboots in film, general speaking. I think I might have been at one point but I’ve softened a bit on the subject.

Remakes or reboots that feel like they’re just trying to cash in on nostalgia: not a fan. The Nightmare on Elm Street remake felt that way big time. The redux on Steven King’s It much less so. The Bad News Bears I think was legitimately trying to be respectful but you just don’t catch lightning in a bottle like that again. All of the Disney live action remakes of their animated canon feels like a naked cash grab in the worst way.

Though I do reserve judgement on Dumbo. Seriously, have you seen the last trailer? That thing looks fucking adorable!

What I appreciate most, even when it falls short, is when someone tries to create something fresh out of a story that has come before. Luca Guadagnino’s new take on Dario Argento’s Suspiria definitely falls into that camp.

The movie is set in Berlin, 1977. As the city finds itself in political tumult, American Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) finds herself at the doors of the Markos Dance Academy seeking admission. Though she has no classical training, Susie leaves a strong impression on the teachers of the school. Headmistress Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) sees in Susie a potential ability that Blanc hopes to help her harness.

But the potential Susie holds and Blanc senses only has a little bit to do with dance. The greater interest connects to a longer history within the school and its denizens.

One student who’s all too familiar with that connection is Patricia (Chloë Grace-Moritz). Dropping in unexpectedly at her the office of her therapist Dr. Josef Klemperer (played under a pseudonym also by Swinton). In the safe space Klemperer provides, Patricia rambles crazily between her own involvement in the radical Baader-Meinhof terrorist group and dark secrets about Madame Blanc and the other teachers. Secrets about the occult, witchcraft and powers the leaders of the school hope to unleash.

Klemperer is skeptical of Patricia’s stories. He thinks they are projections of guilt Patricia has over her political involvements. When Patricia goes missing, Klemperer finds himself drawn to the school to find out what happened to her. Along the way he has to confront demons of different sort from his own past.

I made it a point to try and see the original Suspiria before the remake. I had heard from multiple sources that the new version only barely has a connection to the original source material. And from a story perspective, that is almost 100% true.

The original has the barest whisper of a plot. It does center on a dance school, and an American student who finds herself at the center of occult happenings perpetrated by the teachers there. But beyond that, you get almost nothing in the way of backstory for the setting or any of the characters. There is a single scene with the one of only two prominent male characters giving a monologue that speaks to contemporary fears about psychotherapy from the time period. And that’s it.

What the original had in spades was a mesmerizing visual color palette and ethereal music that gave the whole thing a disquieting mood throughout. Combined with some fantastic camerawork, I found myself not remotely scared but entranced all the same.

The remake is a bit more subdued with the use of light and color, but that restraint augments the visuals in a way I loved. There’s a more dreamlike element to some of the scenes, especially at the school. And there is one scene that re-uses the original theme song by Goblin in an incredibly powerful way.

Where I feel like this movie exceeds the original is in fleshing out all of the characters and their motivations. Madame Blanc is a character who, much like Germany around her, is at a crossroads. She is driven to make decisions that she knows could alter the life she and her fellow teachers have known for ages. And like Germany, that change can get bloody.

I also felt like Guadagnino elevates beyond the source material in the horror he puts on screen. There are no cheap scares, no stock jump scares. The terror is held in check, building slowly until it explodes on screen in sequences that I found riveting even as they left me squirming in my seat. The first of these also feels like a very respectful nod to one from the original.

In Argento’s version, one of Susie’s friends at the school is trying to make her escape from an unseen threat. She finds herself falling into a room filled with razor wire. She struggles to try and escape and those struggles only prolong her agony, the wire cutting at there even as it hinders her escape. It actually still plays fairly dramatically even if the effects and camera work make it look extremely dated.

The remake takes a different character and locks her into a room that has no visible threat. And then over the course of the next five minutes visits physical horror on her that left me breathless by the end. It’s horrific, powerfully played out in parallel with other activity in the school. And it was in that exact moment I knew I was in for something special.

The performances are up to the same level as the direction and cinematography. Johnson’s Susie is more haunted than Jessica Harper’s turn in the original. The backstory for her character, the family she comes from makes her feel tragic and maybe a little bit disturbed. Everything about her feels off in a way that is disquieting almost every moment she’s on the screen.

Tilda Swinton is a damn god. Nothing I write about her here will begin to do her justice. But for what I can say, she’s incredibly brilliant in both the roles she plays. Blanc is a commanding presence in the studio, but when she’s alone with the other teachers she changes subtly. There is doubt about what she needs to happen with Susie, about whether this is going to come together as it needs to.

And I felt like this same doubt mirrors what she’s doing with Klemperer. His story arc requires him to come to grips with a past rooted in WWII and the Nazi reign. His losses from that time drive his need to save Patricia or at least find out what is true in the stories she’s told.

And all of that doesn’t even begin to touch on the relevance of the story given the current political environment in this country today. The choreography in the final dance scene. The supporting cast. All of it.

I personally think it’s criminal how under-promoted this movie is. I believe Amazon studios had distribution on this but I don’t think it’s getting a lot of serious play outside of a few markets. Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse has been a strong proponent of the film and with good reason. This is good stuff, and I am sad it may die on the vine. If there’s any justice it’ll pick up buzz on home video. But if you have a chance to see it on the big screen, it’s worth it.


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