I’m not usually too lenient on remakes of my favourite films and 1977’s Suspiria would have been a deal breaker, but holy goddamn if they didn’t do it justice and then some with 2018’s fierce, austere, unrelentingly gruesome update. It shouldn’t even be called a remake anyways as besides title and general premise, it’s an entirely different beast possessing of its own unique aesthetic and themes far removed from Dario Argento’s vision. Italian director Luca Guadagnino is not a voice I’m familiar with, I haven’t seen a single other film he’s done and looking at his credits it seems this is his first venture into the horror genre, a winning first stroke for sure.
The visual atmosphere here is decidedly different and that’s part of what makes this such a piece all its own. Argento’s neon bathed, opulently saturated colour and lighting is traded in for bleak greys, browns, sickly beiges and suffocated hues that breed uncomfortably onscreen for something less attractive yet far more unsettling than the bejewelled beauty of its predecessor. It also fits the late 70’s Berlin setting which as history reminds us was pretty fucking grim. Young Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) journeys from an Ohio Mennonite community to the prestigious Markos dance academy, which as fans of this story know, is front for a nasty coven of ancient witches. Things go awry almost from the second she arrives but the film plays deftly with who and what it means to be a protagonist here and we see a dynamic shift from other girls (played solidly by Mia Goth and Chloë Grace Moretz) who get suspicious and then wish they hadn’t. The school is run by angular, mercurial shryke Madame Blanc, played by Tilda Swinton in one of three roles, because apparently she can do anything.
So is this a better film than Argento’s original? There is of course no right answer to that and I don’t even think they should be compared alongside one another, they may as well be from different galaxies, let alone genres. There’s a sense of diseased malfeasance to these witches, who go out on the town, drink and party just like anyone else but are anything but human. I loved the decision to change Susie’s character from doe eyed heroine to an eerily intuitive avatar with a seemingly dark destiny already written in blood years before. The film wanders about in draft filled hallways, echoey dance studios and chilly, depressing Berlin streets for much of the runtime until the climax arrives, and holy fuck I was not expecting this to go the whole nine yards into outright wanton, surrealistic chaos horror mode. There’s a crazily violent collective piece of mania that happens deep within the bowels of the school building that might be one of my new favourite set pieces in any horror film ever. It tells this story through image, impression, carnage, lighting and fantastic performances from all involved including a terrifying cameo from the grim reaper itself. All set to a hauntingly unconventional score by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, it’s not a sequence I’ll soon forget and propels the overall film into classic territory. What an experience.
Although not quite the dense, delicious narrative feast I envisioned based on marketing, Drew Goddard’s Bad Times At The El Royale is an impressively mounted period thriller with gorgeous late 60’s production design, fantastic performances from a variety of players and a hard boiled, ultra violent storyline loaded with equal helpings of melodrama and pulp. Somewhere along the Nevada/California state-line lies the ornate El Royale, a retro pop funhouse with a giant chandelier, soda jerk sensibilities and and a jukebox that doesn’t quit. The rooms in California cost an extra dollar a night than those in Nevada because of course they do. A handful of strangers show up one fateful day in 1969, the motives, pasts and true temperaments of which are slowly revealed throughout the rainy night via an elliptical tale that weaves forward, backwards and flows past many perspectives and angles to show what is actually happening. Jeff Bridges is the salty preacher with memory issues, Jon Hamm the chatterbox salesman who moonlights as a clandestine federal agent, Lewis Pullman the dodgy hotel clerk, Dakota Johnson and a scary Cailee Spaeny two hippie sisters on the run and Cynthia Erivo in the film’s best and most human performance as a fledgeling singer just trying to survive the crazy night. Alliances shift, flashbacks sometime prove reliable and sometimes not, people are killed graphically, the rain pours down, intentions are laid bare and that jukebox keeps on keeping on. The soundtrack they’ve amassed is something else here, an old time collection of Mo town, sun n’ surf and heartfelt solos by Erivo that give the film a vibrant personality. And yes, Chris Hemsworth is in it too, playing a volatile, Manson-esque cult leader with a short temper, long hair and a button down shirt that conveniently never gets buttoned down (anything to fill those seats). The character is a bit much and sort of takes over the wheel in the third act, but Chris is too young to pull something that magnetic off as well as others could and I couldn’t help feeling like he was miscast. The film sort of suffers from what I call Hateful Eight syndrome a bit; when you have an Agatha Christie sort of tale to tell, the setup is always a tantalizing mystery that, once unravelled, has to feel worth the build and earn its revelations along the way. The payoff here is better than Hateful Eight and the film overall is stronger too, but I felt just a smidge underwhelmed once everything was laid bare and the wrap up rolled around. Nevertheless, this is a surefire piece of thriller entertainment with many elements that work terrifically, namely acting, dialogue and production design. Erivo seems to have come out of nowhere and also impressed me in Widows earlier this year, she grounds the film in reality and serves as the moral compass of sorts in this miasma of reprehensible human behaviour, I hope to see more of her and hear more of that singing voice in the future. Spaeny too was excellent, playing a pitch perfect acolyte with an unbalanced edge and a dead eyed stare that was truly chilling and definitely reminiscent of what I’d imagine a freaky ass flower power cult chick would have come across as back then. A fine piece of entertainment that wasn’t as deeply plotted as it could have been, but blasts by with admirable energy and streamlined ambition.