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Halloween & Suspiria: The Horror, The Horror

October 16, 2018

halloween-movie-suspiria-michael-myers-dakota-johnson-1130791-1280x0Horror films, like comedies, don’t necessarily age well. What was scary 40 years ago might seem tame or even silly by today’s gory standards. An exception to that rule is John Carpenter’s 1978 classic Halloween — I recently wrote an oral history of the film for The New York Times, timed to coincide with director David Gordon Green’s sequel, and rewatching it over and over to research the piece, it never failed to terrify me. The simplicity and precision of Carpenter’s approach and the care with which he and co-writer Debra Hill developed the characters so you actually care about them stands the test of time, as does Carpenter’s simple yet deeply unsettling score.

I also watched, for the first time, director Dario Argento’s 1977 cult favorite Suspiria in preparation to see the remake by Call Me By Your Name filmmaker Luca Guadagnino. And I’m sorry to say the original, seen through 2018 eyes, seems horrible in all of the worst ways: campy, overdone, fake-looking and most of all, not scary.

So I had very different hopes going in to the new versions of Halloween and Suspiria, and in both cases, my expectations were upended. The new Halloween is a self-referential homage to the original, slavishly recreating signature shots, but it’s too meta to be be truly scary and too mindlessly violent to work as a lark.

What’s good about the new Halloween is what’s good about the old Halloween — namely, Jamie Lee Curtis, who’s only grown fiercer as she’s transformed from a feisty, virginal babysitter to a vengeful, gun-toting grandmother; the relentless yet somehow graceful character of Michael Myers (originally played by Nick Castle, who makes a cameo in the 2018 version), the bogeyman who can’t be stopped; and Carpenter’s score, which recurs thoughout the reboot.

What’s not so good about the new Halloween is almost everything else. Judy Greer is a likable performer but feels miscast as Curtis’ skeptical daughter, and Andi Matichek is a non-entity as Curtis’ granddaughter. The murders are often random and therefore meaningless, as if Green and co-writers Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley were worried the audience would get bored unless Michael slayed someone every five minutes or so. And the ending is a shrug, as opposed to the original’s haunting coda.

The new Suspiria, on the other hand, improves on its predecessor in almost every way except for one very important one. Aside from the basic premise — a young American dancer joins a troupe in Germany that’s thought to house a coven of witches — there’s almost nothing carried over from Argento’s incarnation. Except, that is, Jessica Harper, whose performance in the lead back in 1977 is the sole element that remains in any way modern and believable. She returns in a small but pivotal role late in the 2018 Suspiria, but her part has been taken over by Dakota Johnson.

That’s a disastrous casting decision. Guadagnino worked with Johnson previously on one of my least favorite films of recent years, A Bigger Splash, and he appears to sense some depth in her which is not apparent to me. She was fine as a sitcom lead on Fox’s too-short-lived Ben and Kate, but making three Fifty Shades of Grey films seems to have ruined her as an actress. She’s terminally insipid — and not a great dancer, to boot. Many of her scenes appear to have been done by body doubles. If Johnson were an amazing acting talent, that would be understandable, but she’s not.

Tilda Swinton, by contrast, acts circles around Johnson in a dual role as her devilish dance teacher and — under heavy prosthetics and the pseudonym of Lutz Ebersdorf — a male psychiatrist who suspects supernatural doings at the dance academy. It’s a gimmick, yes, but one that works brilliantly. Depending on Academy rules, Swinton could become the first performer nominated for best supporting actress and actor.

Guadagnino’s Suspiria is overlong (more than two-and-a-half hours, compared to Argento’s 98 minutes) and self-indulgent, but it builds to a truly mesmerizing climax unlike anything I’ve ever seen on film. I was left shaken, which what a horror film should do. The new Halloween, sadly, just made me numb. In short, it’s a cheap trick, whereas Suspiria 2018 is an unexpected treat.

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