There’s a decent chance that you won’t like Suspiria, the remake of the 1977 Italian horror classic. I think you should see it anyway — if for no other reason than there’s also a chance that you may deeply dig it. That suggestion may sound ridiculous to you: Why should I waste my time watching a movie I may hate? To which I’d reply, “Because there’s something exciting about not knowing.”
So many films are formulaic or dependably competent — you basically know going in what you’ll probably think of them. Love or hate this new Suspiria, it’s one of those rare movies that’s expertly made but also resolutely untamed and mysterious. I’ve seen it twice now, and I’m still not sure I understand everything that happens or could tell you all the themes at play. But I’d happily watch Suspiria again, right now. In a way, it’s better than a masterpiece — masterpieces are thought of as these perfect, peerless works of art. Instead, Suspiria is a beautiful monster — a flawed, violent, messy, absorbing beast that you and your friends can fight about.
On the whole, beautiful monsters are more fun.
If you haven’t seen Dario Argento’s 1977 original, don’t worry: The new Suspiria, directed by Oscar-nominated Call Me by Your Name filmmaker Luca Guadagnino, is its own creation. Its contours are somewhat similar, though. In the remake, Dakota Johnson plays Susie, an American dancer who moves to Berlin in 1977 to become part of a celebrated troupe. But the big secret of the original is made clear early on in the new Suspiria: This dance academy is actually a witches’ coven, and if you displease the company’s artistic director, Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), gruesome, horrible things will happen to you.
Guadagnino’s version is about a lot of things — motherhood, femininity, the reunification of Germany, living with the sins of the past, the best way to lift and carry a crumpled dead body — but it’s largely interested in screwing with your head and evoking all types of strange, primal emotions. Revulsion, grief, horror and anger all play a part in this new Suspiria, and Guadagnino doesn’t try to tamp down any of the storms his film stirs up. Rather, they all have their place, competing for your attention in a movie than spans about two-and-a-half hours.
This is the moment where some people may be tempted to bail. A lot of viewers don’t like movies that are a rising tide of unchecked weirdness. We all live stressful, complicated, confusing lives: Can our movies just give us a break and deliver a satisfying, easy-to-follow story? A film like Suspiria asks more of us. Guadagnino invites you to do a deep dive with him into all the things that drew him to this remake. His previous movies, especially I Am Love and Call Me by Your Name, were about characters who gave into their unbridled passions. His Suspiria is a chillier, more somber concoction than Argento’s original — it’s less a horror movie than a psychological character study — but the flamboyance of these dancers and the strange happenings that befall them have an operatic, florid quality to them. Suspiria is just one movie, but it’s a lot of movie.
Critics’ reactions have run the gamut, with reviewers calling it a “rapturous, experiential masterpiece” as well as “highfalutin silliness.” I’d argue Suspiria is both brilliant and a mess, which is why it’s so powerful. This is a film that, above all, is unsettled. With most films, you watch them, digesting what’s happening in a somewhat passive way. Suspiria doesn’t let you do that — it keeps provoking you with its unexpected turns and bizarre flourishes.
Movies like Suspiria often get dismissed as being “pretentious” because they’re actively trying to jolt viewers out of their comfort zone. And, interestingly enough, when I started thinking of other movies that worked on me the same way that Suspiria did, all of them, loosely anyway, are horror movies: Mulholland Drive, Shutter Island and Mother!
Now, I’m betting that at least one of those films — maybe two — annoyed the hell out of you. In fact, you might have hated them. I’m not going to try to argue you out of your angry feelings about those divisive films. However, I will suggest that those kinds of raw, mysterious, impassioned movies — all of which I really love — are such unique experiences that they’re worth it, even if you didn’t ultimately like them. They’re made with an all-consuming obsession, and you can feel the directors’ fervor flowing through every frame. In fact, each of those movies is too much to process in just one viewing — you need to return to them, maybe several times, to entirely unscramble everything they’re trying to do.
A well-made, clockwork-like narrative has its immense pleasures, but there’s almost something a little too tidy about them — they’re already perfect, so they don’t require anything of me. Messy movies aren’t that way — they practically invite your participation to complete them. When I watch something like Suspiria, I have no doubt that Guadagnino is an immense talent who made exactly the movie he wanted to make, but its inconsistencies, flaws, missteps and quirks force me to pay closer attention. What’s going on here? What’s he up to? What’s this whole thing about? I feel active, not passive, when I watch a Suspiria. And it stays with me longer once it’s over. I’m not sure I’ve come any closer to cracking Suspiria. But I’m foolish enough to think eventually I will.
Here are three other takeaways from Suspiria.
#1. Radiohead albums < Radiohead members’ soundtrack albums
Radiohead have been around since the mid-1990s and are one of rock’s most influential groups of the last few decades. But in recent years, their best work hasn’t been as a band — it’s been when individual members have gone off and scored movies on their own. Before Suspiria, I would have been referring chiefly to Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood. But now singer Thom Yorke deserves some kudos, too.
Greenwood began composing film scores in the early 2000s, but that side career really took off after he hooked up with director Paul Thomas Anderson. Starting with 2007’s There Will Be Blood, they’ve been close collaborators, and the guitarist has proved adept at different sonic realms, whether it’s depicting the herky-jerky inner world of a disturbed war veteran in The Master or providing deceptively lush orchestral music in last year’s prickly love story Phantom Thread.
Radiohead’s recent output hasn’t been terrible — 2016’s A Moon Shaped Pool was especially strong — but after all these years, we sorta know what to expect from the band. Greenwood’s film scores are intricate and intelligent in the same way that Radiohead’s songs often are, but his compositions are packed with surprises — in part, probably, because he’s serving a director’s vision. Which isn’t to say that his work on There Will Be Blood and The Master isn’t full of artistry and craftsmanship, but I almost wonder if Greenwood enjoys the excuse of forgetting about his famous band and going off to play in someone else’s sandbox for a while.
Now comes Yorke, who wrote the score to Suspiria. That’s a hefty undertaking considering that the original film has a pretty beloved score from the band Goblin.
Goblin’s music edged into camp while delivering creepy thrills — it’s exactly what you’d want for a gory, over-the-top horror movie. But just like Guadagnino’s film is radically different from Argento’s, so too does Yorke’s score go its own way. Sure, it has the same mournful, piano-centric tone that Yorke brings to his Radiohead material. And yet, it’s gorgeous, haunting and abrasive in its own way. The standout cut is “Suspirium” — even if you don’t ever see the film, you need to hear this.
#2. In hindsight, spending time on the internet looking up information about fake testicles was almost certainly going to be a mistake.
By now, you’ve probably heard that Tilda Swinton doesn’t just play Madame Blanc in Suspiria. She’s also Klemperer, a therapist who investigates what’s going on at the dance academy. Because Klemperer is an elderly man, the role required Swinton to undergo hours of makeup. However, it also meant…
“She did have us make a penis and balls,” [makeup artist Mark] Coulier said. “She had this nice, weighty set of genitalia so that she could feel it dangling between her legs, and she managed to get it out on set on a couple of occasions.” And where is Swinton’s superfluous genitalia now? “Probably in a box somewhere!” Coulier said brightly. “I should try and find it, and put it on a plaque on the wall of my workshop.”
This, of course, isn’t the first time that fake genitalia have been made for a film. But at least in the case of Will Ferrell and Step Brothers — that cost $10,000, by the way — the point of making gag testicles was that we got to see them in the film. Swinton’s junk was just for her to get into character — we never get to check out Klemperer’s member.
Out of curiosity, I decided to look online to see other famous instances of fake genitalia in the movies. I quickly regretted my inquisitiveness: I came across things like this horrifying mask when I really just wanted info on iconic scenes like the one from There’s Something About Mary.
But I also was reminded of the best, most tasteless instance of testicle-related humor in cinema history. There was this anthology comedy that came out in 2013 called Movie 43. It wasn’t very good. However, one of the segments stars Hugh Jackman and Kate Winslet, two refined and celebrated actors, as people on a first date. Things seem to be going well … until she realizes he appears to have a scrotum hanging from his chin.
Not surprisingly, the segment was directed by Peter Farrelly, one-half of the brother team behind There’s Something About Mary. Yes, it’s a one-joke skit, but it’s kind of amazing how much Jackman and Winslet commit to it.
#3. I am down for a Luca Guadagnino movie based on ‘Blood on the Tracks.’
Bob Dylan is one of my all-time favorite musicians. Unfortunately, on the big screen, he’s had a pretty spotty track record. For every superb documentary about him (Don’t Look Back), there’s been a Renaldo and Clara, a vanity project he directed himself that goes on for hours. Still, I’m interested in movies about the guy: The 2007 Todd Haynes pseudo-biopic I’m Not There was a nervy, impressionistic and emotional look at Dylan’s career, splitting his different phases into distinct characters.
Well, there may be a new Dylan movie heading our way. In a recent New Yorker profile of Guadagnino, it came out that he’s working on a movie version of Blood on the Tracks, Dylan’s seminal 1975 divorce album. The screenwriter is Richard LaGravenese, who wrote The Fisher King, and according to the magazine, the movie will follow “characters through a multiyear story, set in the 1970s, that [LaGravenese] and Guadagnino had invented, drawing on the album’s central themes. ‘When they’re repressing, we dramatize the repression, and what that does to them,’ LaGravenese says. ‘And we dramatize what happens when you let your passions take over too much.’”
Blood on the Tracks has been a touchstone album for a lot of sad dudes getting over breakups — I know, I was one of them — and its 10 tracks touch on heartbreak from distinct perspectives, including anger, sadness and acceptance. (An expanded version of the album, More Blood, More Tracks, actually comes out November 2.) Lots of movie projects are announced and then abandoned, but I’d be very curious what a Luca Guadagnino take on Bob Dylan would be like. If it’s anything like his Suspiria, it will honor the source material without worrying about being slavishly faithful. Which is the best way to go when dealing with hallowed texts — especially from an innovator and rule-breaker like Dylan.