The new Suspiria boldly rejects the past while the new Halloween can't escape it

Photo: Jamie Lee Curtis in the new Halloween (Universal Pictures), Dakota Johnson in the new Suspiria (Amazon Studios)

Note: This article contains minor plot revelations for the new Suspiria and Halloween.

Remember when David Gordon Green was going to remake Suspiria? It was about a decade ago, right around the time he made his unexpected foray into stoner comedy with Pineapple Express, that the director began discussing his plan to put a new spin on Dario Argento’s opulent horror classic. For a while, Natalie Portman was going to star and produce, until she did the superficially similar Black Swan and the film had to be “re-envisioned.” Feeling surprisingly sanguine (har har) about the project, Green pressed on, rewriting the script, securing the rights to Goblin’s iconic score, and even assembling a promising cast, including Isabelle Huppert, Janet McTeer, and Orphan’s Isabelle Fuhrman in the lead role. But that proposed production fell apart too, a few months before shooting was scheduled to begin. To hear Green tell it, the main obstacle was money: He needed about $20 million to realize his “operatic” vision, and that just wasn’t going to fly in the Paranormal Activity era, when fright flicks were really only getting made on a shoestring budget.

It took a few more years, but the Suspiria remake is finally real. Directed by Luca Guadagnino—an Italian, just like Argento—the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September and opens in select American theaters three days from now. Green isn’t involved at all; whatever his version would have looked like, this isn’t it. But something tells us that he’s taking that loss of time and energy—and the Suspiria they made without him—mostly in stride. Guadagnino, after all, is the one who convinced Argento to sign off on a remake in the first place, and also the one who brought Green aboard in 2008. (“I’m actually hopeful that it’s happening,” Green told Crave three years ago, before issuing his own implied blessing of the “great Italian director” taking the reins.) Really, though, how can Green be upset about Suspiria when he just scored the biggest hit of his career rebooting a different seminal horror movie from the late 1970s?

That’s right: By some combination of coincidence, seasonal genre demand, and an industry-wide absence of fresh ideas, the new Suspiria is coming out just one week after the new Halloween. Release dates—their own and those of the movies that inspired them, which opened about a year apart some four decades ago—aren’t all these films have in common. On a plot level, both deal with young women in peril and an older male psychologist on the periphery of the violence. On a thematic level, both touch on issues of motherhood and trauma. And both feature roles for the stars of the originals—though Jessica Harper isn’t playing the same character she did in Argento’s Suspiria, nor has she been granted even a fraction of Jamie Lee Curtis’ screen time. Still, for all the parallels, it’s more interesting to consider how radically different these films are, specifically in regards to fidelity. Taken together, they’re a study in contrast: two revivals with nearly polar-opposite relationships to their famed source material.

Photo: Universal Pictures

Already an enormous hit, Green’s Halloween demonstrates, if nothing else, how profitable it can be to stick to the script. The film bills itself as a “direct sequel,” i.e., one of those years-later follow-ups that arranges a prominent position for itself in the franchise hierarchy, mainly by announcing that earlier entries in the series are no longer canon. But while this Halloween does continue the story of John Carpenter’s original, setting up a 40-years-later rematch between Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and psycho killer Michael Myers, the movie often operates more like a stealth remake. Its basic plot components are all borrowed from the first film: Again, the bogeyman escapes an asylum, returns to Haddonfield on Halloween, and stalks a sweet teenage girl (Andi Matichak), killing her friends while evading his doctor (Haluk Bilginer) and the local lawman (Will Patton).

Which isn’t to say that Green and his cowriter, Danny McBride, don’t put their own stamp on the material. For all the pre-release talk that they’d be playing Myers’ rampage straight, the Eastbound & Down duo can’t resist indulging a shared lowbrow sense of humor, which in this context has the regrettable effect of neutralizing the fear factor. (For one dumb example, the pair step on their biggest scare, chasing a solid jolt with the hamming-it-up reaction shot of a preteen wiseass.) But even beyond the basic plot echoes, Green can’t resist reminding us, at all times, of the movie his built-in audience presumably loves. He smuggles in several direct, knowing references to Carpenter’s film, the most notable of which is an at-once clever and pandering habit of sticking Curtis into memorable compositions that Michael Myers once occupied—or, in the case of one climactic overhead shot, unexpectedly didn’t occupy.

In the rare instances where Halloween does break with its iconic predecessor, it tends to be in ways that play directly on our assumed familiarity with the original. Would a twist involving Dr. Loomis’ disciple even land if we didn’t have preconceptions about the motives of such a character? And isn’t the celebrated climax, when Laurie lures Michael into her Straw Dogs suburban deathtrap, meant to play like a reversal of Carpenter’s ending, the prey at last becoming the predator? These subversions are, almost inarguably, the film’s most nominally interesting choices. But for the most part, the new Halloween doesn’t challenge the audience’s relationship to the original, opting to trigger old sensations instead of provoking new ones. In other words, it’s from the lucrative J.J. Abrams school of affectionately respectful fan-service throwbacks: a Force Awakens for slasher buffs.

Watching the film, you get a real sense of what Green might have done with Suspiria. Right before the remake slipped from his grasp, he was talking about how faithful his version would be—how it would offer a nearly scene for scene replay of Argento’s plot, replicating “those exact shots and dialogue.” It would have been different, in other words, but mostly the same. That is not the tack that Guadagnino has taken. His remake ends up feeling like an almost complete reinvention; per its grisliest scene, it twists and snaps Suspiria into an unusual new shape. It’s so different, in fact, that plenty of diehards may end up totally despising it.

Photo: Amazon Studios

Superficially speaking, the plot hasn’t changed much: This is still the story of a young American dancer, Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson, in the role Harper originated), who comes to Germany to study at a prestigious academy, only to be enveloped by the supernatural forces that have consumed the school. (Many of the character names remain the same, too.) But right from the start, screenwriter David Kajganich—who, ready your pitchforks, has confessed to hating the original’s script—breaks with blueprint by having terrified fellow student Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz) come right out and say what Argento only revealed in the homestretch: That the Markos Dance Academy is run by witches.

Even the biggest fans of the ’77 Suspiria tend to grant that nobody really loves that movie for its story; it’s a glorious set-piece machine, not an involving mystery. So it’s almost perverse, the extent to which Kajganich and Guadagnino foreground narrative concerns. Their version removes the suspense about what’s happening at the academy because it genuinely wants to get into the politics of the coven—the internal power struggles, the ultimate aims, even the relationships. It treats the witches as actual characters. And while Argento’s plot was functional at best—again, it was mostly connective tissue between remarkable suspense-and-murder sequences—the new Suspiria finds room for multiple subplots: There’s a whole thematically relevant strand about the Baader-Meinhof Group, and the movie’s emotional arc hinges partially on the psychologist—a purely expository figure in the original, here a full-on supporting character with a tragic backstory. (Yes, as everybody surmised from the trailer, he’s played by Tilda Swinton in old-man makeup.)

Which isn’t to say that the new Suspiria privileges substance over style. In its own way, it’s as much a treat for the senses as the original, using off-kilter compositions and sometimes jarring editing rhythms to pull the audience into a world coming supernaturally unglued. But the operative words here are its own way. Besides a couple of audio cues (heavy breathing, footsteps), there are no direct callbacks. The set pieces are entirely new, and parsed out more sparingly than Argento’s were—in yet another major departure, the gorily over-the-top opening death scene in the original has been replaced with… nothing. (It’s a good half-hour at least before anyone meets a gruesome fate.) Most notably, Guadagnino, who made last year’s acclaimed summer romance Call Me By Your Name, completely rejects a loudly primary color scheme, the Technicolor glory for which Suspiria is most widely remembered, discussed, and beloved. His film is muted, its evocatively drab 35mm cinematography creating an entirely different atmosphere of autumnal, sometimes even mundane dread. It’s a film at least partially about the banality of evil—a concept that necessitated a less extravagant and (in Green’s words) “operatic” visual palette.

Whether Suspiria “works” on its own terms is a question that will be debated a lot in the coming weeks. This critic found it more abstractly alluring than involving: a kind of boldly artisanal “play” on horror, to be studied and admired from a distance, but not a thriller that ever grabbed me by the heart or throat. There are times, too, when I wondered if it’s a little too academic for its own good, meant to inspire thesis papers on its big but not always compatible themes. Suspiria didn’t really scare me, in other words—but then, neither did Green’s Halloween. What’s exciting about the Guadagnino movie, for all its flaws, is that it quickly destroys any sense of security about where the story might go, even if you know Argento’s version by heart. In using Suspiria as a launching-off point for its own interests, it’s the rare, special remake that doesn’t feel beholden to its inspiration. It is bravely, defiantly Its Own Thing.

So, yeah, a lot of fans may hate this Suspiria, which turns a seminal midnight movie into an up-its-own-ass “art film.” At the very least, it’s bound to be more divisive than the new Halloween, which most fans—killjoys like yours truly excepted—seem to have happily embraced. Guadagnino, unlike Green, refuses to treat his source material as a sacred text. He openly rejects the past, stylistically but also philosophically: Among many other things, his Suspiria is about the old ways laying dormant under the deceptive appearance of new ones—an idea that has some very chilling contemporary relevance, and which almost plays like an implicit critique of a movie like the new Halloween, whose vaguely feminist upshot can’t disguise the overall sense of formula. The best horror is about discomfort—about taking something familiar, like a “safe” Midwestern neighborhood or a school or a story you know by heart, and making it alarmingly unfamiliar. Only one of these back-to-back reboots attempts something like that. Hint: It’s not the nostalgia trip.

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