‘Suspiria’ is thoughtful, but it’s tough to watch two movies at once

Images courtesy Amazon Studios.

6/10 Suspiria, a forgettable proto-slasher from 1977 that became a cult classic in retrospect, has been remade for 2018, and director/producer Luca Guadagnino has done something rather thoughtful with it. The original is set in West Germany – Freiburg, to be exact – more or less by default, and it’s just a scary movie about witches running a dance company. This new version is explicitly about West Berlin in 1977 and the experience of watching the original with that cultural background.

As we enter the film, the world-renowned Markos Dance Company is quietly in a state of political turmoil. The coven that runs the dance studio is divided between Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), who oversees day-to-day operations, and Helena Markos, an ancient and infirm witch said to have been ordained by Mother Suspiriorum herself. Being evil witches who use human flesh in their spells and rituals, the coven regularly takes advantage of its students. Over the course of the film, the witches use their power to wipe memories more and more often, with the implication being that students could be forced into participating in their strange rituals on a much more regular basis than is actually shown.

At the film’s start, Patricia Hingle (Chloë Grace Moretz) flees the academy to her psychotherapist, Josef Klemperer (also Swinton, credited as Lutz Ebersdorf), to whom she explains the witches’ abuse. She disappears soon after and is presumed to have joined the Red Army Faction, a left-wing terrorist organization protesting to bring communism to West Berlin.

After that, innocent Ohio girl Susie Bannon travels halfway across the world to audition for the dance company. She immediately catches the eye of Madame Blanc, also building a friendship with her roommate, Sara Simms (Mia Goth). Bannon becomes Blanc’s protégé, and the cycle of abuse that drove Hingle away starts anew.

Suspiria is set against the backdrop of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which literally translates as “past coping,” the period of German history during which survivors of World War II came to grips with their role in the war.The process of confronting that guilt dominated decades of the country’s artistic and philosophical output.

The film is set particularly against the tumultuous autumn of 1977, during which the Red Army Faction committed a series of bombings and kidnappings to protest its three leaders’ recent life sentences. For more details on the history, check out Vulture’s wonderful breakdown here.

Suspiria often asks viewers to follow two scenes at once, but stepping further back, it’s two movies at once. One is a much higher-quality remake of the original following Bannon on her strange journey, but the other, more interestingly, is about Klemperer and that original film’s context. Klemperer is a tired old man worried about the RAF and struggling with his culpability in the Holocaust who is suddenly privy to this horrifying coven of witches, just like anyone who would have been watching Suspiria in 1977. In the last act when he’s lead to the coven by the illusion of his long-lost wife, who disappeared when the Nazis invaded Poland 40 years prior, she’s even played by Jessica Harper, the star of the original.

It’s a thoughtful idea that demands a second viewing with more attention paid to the news items that constantly dominate the background – despite being an Amazon Studios release, the film won’t hit the streaming platform until January.

Far too many movies don’t make their midpoint action sequences feel consequential, brushing past them to focus on a 20 or so minute climax, and I’ve got to hand it to Suspiria here — this midpoint performance of “Volk” is critical to its plot, symbolism and production, and much of the movie is building up to this more than the sabbath scene.

Unfortunately, it also demands a second viewing just because of how difficult the whole thing is to sort out. It’s not just two stories going on at once – at many points, including two of the film’s key sequences, viewers are literally asked to watch two scenes at the same time, and we’re just not given the space to do that.

In the film’s most memorable scene, Bannon is psychokinetically connected to Olga Ivanova (Elena Fokina), who has just stormed out of rehearsal. As Bannon pluckily auditions to take her place, her dance moves magically beat and throw Ivanova from afar.

The camera cuts quickly between the two, with not even a single consecutive split-second shot of the same subject. The rapidity of the shots adds viscerally to Bannon’s performance, but takes the viscera away from Ivanova. She’s dealt about a dozen grievous injuries in the scene, finishing it tied up into a pretzel as her muscles collapse around a completely shattered skeleton, unable to move other than to cough up various digestive fluids, but because the shots are timed to match Bannon’s performance, you never really feel those individual blows. While Bannon’s dance moves are edited correctly, Ivanova’s plight needed to be slowed down.

Not properly celebrating its gruesome elements is a consistent problem in Suspiria. During the climactic sabbath scene, when one character is disemboweled and her intestines eaten raw, we don’t get to see everything that’s involved in that. We see her stomach cut, and we see witches eating intestines that look remarkably like gelatin Halloween decorations. We don’t get to see the second cut, we don’t get to see the intestines being removed from her and we don’t get to see the witches chewing and enjoying their meal. In this gore-based horror movie, you get to know that this sickening thing is happening, but you don’t get to be sickened by it.

This shot, of Ivanova’s skull being ripped apart underneath her face, is probably the only shot of the sequence where the camera really lingers on her as long as I’d like.

Helena Markos (yet again, Tilda Swinton) finally appears in the flesh during this scene, a horrific Jabba-the-Hutt esque monster with abscesses and extra limbs all over her body. It’s a remarkably detailed design that doesn’t get its due. No grand entrance. No detail shots. This character who’s been built up as potentially a god over the past two and a half hours is suddenly onscreen like she’s been there the whole time.

All of these trimmed shots, including some extremely obvious shots missing from the climax of the movie, indicates that some regrettable editing sacrifices were made to get Suspiria down to its still-quite-long 152 minute runtime. That subsequently gives me hope that there’s a three hour version of this movie floating around somewhere, an idea that I am completely onboard with. This movie is an odyssey, and if you already like it, another 20 minutes or so wouldn’t really be a big ask.

Without spoiling too much, the sabbath scene ends with a lot of people getting Scanners’d, and that’s another letdown. Almost all the splatter gore is CGI and looks like it’s CGI.

Suspiria is mightily ambitious, but its core function is still to cause discomfort with all the blood and guts, and it never even makes the blood and guts convincing in the first place. If you can’t do a head explosion properly, you shouldn’t be making a gore movie.

Suspiria fits in to a string of recent movies that seem to be trying to make witches vile again. For a generation, the dominant cultural exposure of witches has probably been Hokus Pokus and as a vague, non-threatening Halloween costume. “Witch” as an insult has also been subtly reclaimed by women as a term of endearment and power, in contrast with its roots as a tool of persecution. While that’s definitely a positive change in the overall culture, it’s nice to also have witches back in more modern movies as horrifying, demon-summoning cannibals with no regard for human life as in Suspiria, The Witch and Hereditary earlier this year.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate and managing editor of The Lewisville Texan Journal. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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