Hello Again. Suspirias (1977 & 2018)

This growing old shit is fascinating and terrifying at the same time and not necessarily in the same amounts.

My wife had urged me to talk to our doctor during my scheduled follow-up because “You haven’t been yourself lately” and after the usual battery of questions it was decided to up the dosage of my happy pills (I had been on the starter dosage of the original Mother’s Little Helper), and that took getting used to. I spent a couple of weeks feeling like I was wrapped in styrofoam sheets, like some figurine bought on eBay. This week I actually started feeling like a normal human being again, which was novel. I’ll be digging into my taxes soon, which will likely put an end to that.

I could finally afford an ophthalmologist appointment again, and they tried a new prescription on me and there was no improvement. The upshot of that was not that I needed new glasses, but cataract surgery. Oddly, this doesn’t frighten me or worry me too much – it’s outpatient surgery these days, my insurance should cover it. The major impact will be on my jobs – you know, the fact that I won’t be able to lift anything heavier than 10 pounds or bend over for two weeks (both eyes are shot). Nor can I afford the super deluxe lenses that would correct my astigmatism (not at $1200 a pop), so I’ll still be wearing glasses. Hell, at this point eyeglasses are a part of my character. Finally getting a pair that aren’t absolutely essential to survival, progressive trifocals half an inch thick, or cost an arm, leg and kidney will be a refreshing change of pace.

Still, I haven’t felt a desire to write during all that hoo-rah. A look at my Letterboxd profile reveals I’ve only watched 17 movies so far this entire year, which for me is bizarre. Admittedly, most of my viewing has been TV shows – The Umbrella Academy, Doom Patrol, American Gods. I started the video game Battle Chasers: Nightwar for the third time on a third computer and dammit this time I am going to finish it.

But maybe I am back to a point where I can finish this damned piece that I started in, like, February. Wish me luck. Here we go.

Suspiria (1977)

Indulge me for a few minutes. I’m going to delve into a bit of personal history that will eventually land on a point. I’ll try not to vent too much, but once you get a Scorpio rolling…

So way back in the days of The Bad Movie Report I chanced upon an internet article where a guy had actually gone to the various fora available at the time, had folks vote on a ballot ranking the 100 Greatest Horror Movies of All Time (possibly because the AFI had done something similar?), and eventually published the results. Those results, I seem to recall, relied on maybe a hundred responses, not exactly the sort of sampling that gets you published in the real world, to be sure. I in turn grabbed the results (with a link back to the original article, of course), and critiqued the ranking.  I didn’t agree with a lot of it, but some I did. I’m not a big fan of ranked lists, anyway.

And that, as Maus would say, is where my troubles began.

I was immediately pilloried for the rankings. No matter how many times I pointed out that these choices were not mine, the comments and e-mails most ran to “You should really know more about horror movies before doing something like this” sneers. I finally got tired of it and deleted the whole thing (about a year after the original poster deleted his, come to think of it). At which point the e-mails calling me a coward started.

Welcome to the Internet, I know, I know. Hopefully those folks whose entire lives seemingly depended on belittling me and calling my qualifications into doubt, have moved on and are now enjoying their lives as ICE officers and YouTube pundits with a following of three or less. While you’re here, please check out my Patreon.

To the point: one of my more chill, responsible readers (I do not recall who, I’m sorry, I blame my advanced age) pointed out that in my comments on the rankings, I referred to Suspiria as “a middling horror movie”, and wondered if I still felt that way. I responded that I had mellowed toward the movie with age and experience with Italian WTF cinema. It wasn’t that I had watched it again, I just felt I had a better handle on where Argento was coming from when he filmed. Time passed; Synapse spent four years creating a 4K restoration, and that eventually became available on blu-ray, which added some speed to any inclination to revisit it.  Then Luca Guadagnino’s remake/reboot/rewhateverthehell hit home video, and away we go.

First: The Synapse restoration is magnificent, ravishing to the eye. I am glad I waited for it, it is that breathtaking.

Second: I still feel it’s a middling horror movie.

We’ll bypass the SPOILER ALERTS FOR A FORTY-TWO YEAR OLD MOVIE and move right into the fact that Suspiria is the tale of Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), an American who has come to study at a dance academy in Freiburg, only to find out that the academy is run by witches. That’s about as much plot as you actually get. There is plenty of weird, wild stuff happening, but past our opening murder setpiece, everything fits into a one-damned-thing-after-another structure so rococo that you’re going to hurt yourself if you try to fit it into a normal movie. That murder – which, like all Argento’s cinematic murders, are among the few that can actually make me physically wince – serves a plot purpose, as the victim (and her unfortunate friend) know too much and must be eliminated. After that…. uhhhhhh…

  • There’s the famous rain of maggots sequence, which is found to have a (sort of) logical explanation. Squidgy and unnerving, which I guess is the point. Serves to set up the revelation that the Academy’s director, Helena Markos, is actually in the building, instead of jet-setting around Europe. And has no bearing on anything else.
  • The architecture inside the Academy makes very little sense, which leads some to speculate that Stanley Kubrick saw this before filming The Shining. Still, keeping a roomful of razorwire in a third floor storeroom seems… a bit much.

These are, however, points with which I thought I had reached a rapprochement, since in the intervening years I had become a fan of Lucio Fulci’s crawling chaos motion pictures, particularly The Gates of Hell and The Beyond, which employ the same dream logic – okay, nightmare logic – to forward their stories. Why something I accept in those is a sticking point for me in Suspiria is annoying, a personal puzzle that I cannot seem to unravel.

  • I’m still all sorts of put out that the Tanz Academy invited Bannion to study there, and then proceeds to drug her into oblivion and plot to kill her, when it would have been much simpler to not invite her to study in the first place.
  • Then, I’m not at all sure why the blind piano player is such a menace to the coven that he has to be driven out and killed, except oops witches are evil.
  • It had been so long since I’d seen it I’d forgotten Udo Kier was in the movie, with the unenviable role of Dr. Plot Dump, which he immediately hands off to an older actor who tells Suzy that witches are evil and Helena Markos was the worst.
  • Dude, I know some witches and I protest this characterization.

It is this overarching question of why that has kept me from placing Suspiria in what I am told is its rightful place in the horror pantheon. There are some king-hell horror movie bits in it, to be sure, but it lacks that little bit of plot pushing it (and me) forward to a satisfactory conclusion. Though – speaking of conclusions – I do appreciate the Roger Corman-esque protagonist escaping from a burning, collapsing edifice of evil that closes Suspiria. Also that you could tell that it was an Argento movie simply through the device of an important clue hidden in muddled memory suddenly made crystal clear at exactly the right moment to land our hero(ine) in a world of trouble.

Really, I had no idea that Germans loved red lights this much. It’s fascinating to me that Argento and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli didn’t use a Technicolor camera, but used the Technicolor developing process for better control of the truly wild colors in the movies’ palette, and is possibly the last movie to use that process. Despite all my kvetching, if you haven’t seen the original Suspiria, you should, and hopefully this restoration is what you watch. It is beautiful, creepy, and the casting is spot on. No small amount of credit is owed Daria Nicolodi, Argento’s muse for several years, who urged him to move from straightforward gialli into the realm of the supernatural and to feature stronger female protagonists, both good things for his oeuvre.

Suspiria (2018)

So then onto the modern Suspiria, or as I prefer to think of it, oh thank christ finally a plot.

First off, there is no playing cute, plot-wise: there it is, first scene of the movie: they’s witches.

  • Overall, the thrust of the narrative in this version is much clearer; Tanz is now a professional dance company, and the coven is somehow feeding off and using the energies of the young members. Susie (Dakota Johnson, who is pretty amazing in the role) is a prodigy who is being primed to be the recipient of Helena Markos’ soul. All my misgivings about the story of the original movie evaporate.
  • For a movie that took place at a dance academy, the original Suspiria had remarkably little dance in it; this newer version corrects that, and it is a wonderful thing. The fact that the witches derive and utilize their powers through dance is like the unmistakable power of song in The Wicker Man. Both were vital to ancient religions, and this aspect of the movie seems reasonable, even logical.
  • I don’t have enough adjectives to adequately praise Tilda Swinton. She is magnificent as Madame Blanc, the head of the company, taking Susie under her wing, and emotionally torn over the girl’s eventual fate. She also plays Helena Markos and the elderly psychiatrist in that first scene, both under tons of prosthetic makeup. I was also pretty sure that she was the Edna Mode-lookalike witch who commits suicide because she foresees how badly Markos’ machinations are going to end up, but I haven’t found anything to verify this.
  • Jessica Harper’s cameo was a shock. Always good to see her, though.

Guadagnino takes pains to distance himself from the original while still acknowledging its existence; there’s no bizarre lighting and Lynchian lingering on mechanical doors in this opening, but we’re still in the German underground and the film’s title appears as a street sign. Gone is the fairytale technicolor, replaced by a wintery palette that renders the occasional color even more striking. The first Suspiria is relatively timeless, but here we are specifically in 1977 Berlin, still separated by a wall, and the news dominated by the German Autumn and hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181. The real world insinuates itself regularly into this version of the story. The original intended vessel for Markos (Chloë Grace Moretz) was “more interested in blowing up supermarkets” than learning the craft.

Turns out things like that, things that give some form of signpost into the story’s intentions, are immeasurably helpful to my enjoying that story. The new version is an hour longer than the original, and I didn’t mind, as I was fascinated by the newer subplots, complications, and the chemistry between Swinton and Johnson’s characters. It has its place in the pantheon, is what I am saying.

The only thing I have left to say concerns my bewilderment at the post-theatrical marketing for the new Suspiria. For a movie with so many remarkable, unsettling images (even if you’ve never seen the movie itself, you have almost certainly seen some of those images), the cover of my blu-ray seems rather bland (it’s from a fleeting moment in the movie, and I guess someone found it evocative), and Amazon’s Prime Video ad (remember, it’s “Amazon Studios presents”) seems to cast it as a coming-of-age domestic drama, perhaps Ladybird but with witchcraft this time.

Then, I despair of the current state of such things, and yearn for the return of actual illustrators doing these ad materials, not just somebody with a semester of Photoshop.

I can dream.

 

 

 

 

3 Comments

  1. Well, I guess I need to see that remake after all, huh? I planned to anyway, but it moved up a few notches, so thannnnnnks. And yep, getting old REALLY sucks to the point where I wish I could zap some overly whiny millennial with what I have for a month and drain their energy kinda like Helena Markos. (Oh, I can dream, too, heh).

    • I will follow that up with an evil chuckle and nod.

  2. Never ever post ranked lists and say they are “your favorites”. Because then you have to deal with assholes telling you you can’t have your opinions. I have one non-blogger/twitter/social media film fan who’s perhaps a little on the spectrum who did Livejournal, for some reason, and would PERENNIALLY tell me I was wrong to enjoy what I enjoy, and not in that playful way some do sometimes that is still not always nice to hear, just flat out “you’re wrong.” UGH.


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