Danse Macabre

Visually spectacular, Luca Guadagnino’s reinterpretation of Suspiria is flawed but atmospheric

The threshold to womanhood might not be the most obvious theme for your run-of-themill horror story, but Suspiria, a reimagining of Dario Argento’s giallo (pulp) classic of the same name, is far from the usual. Opening at this year’s Viennale before going into general release, it’s steeped in dark symbolism and fallen splendor, no mere fright fest but rather a feverish coming-of-age story writ in red, dripping viscera.

Fresh off the critical success of his last film, Call Me by Your Name, director Luca Guadagnino puts on a masterclass of stark imagery with production values and talent that a perennial B-movie producer like Argento could only dream of. But despite an excellent (nearly) all-female cast and a score written by Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, it falls short of its ambitions.

It would be foolish to take Suspiria at face value; tellingly, a book by C. G. Jung is prominently shown in the foreground of the opening scene. The protagonists aren’t characters but archetypes, following a loose, dreamlike, semi-linear narrative that is mostly allegory and metaphor. What’s clear is that the virginal, novice dancer Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) is drawn from her Mennonite community in Ohio to divided Berlin during the Deutscher Herbst of 1977 – wracked by left-wing riots and terrorist attacks – where she joins the prestigious Markos Dance Institute. Her raw talent and intensity advance her through the ranks, gaining her admiration and fear, particularly from head instructor Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). Yet something is very wrong at the academy: It’s a front for a coven of witches, who plan to use their pupils to rejuvenate their leader, Helena Markos. As the ritual draws closer, students disappear and secrets are uncovered; Blanc is torn between loyalty and maternal instincts, while Bannion transforms into something more dangerous than the coven itself.

THE HORROR OF BANALITY
Suspiria has its share of flaws. At just over 150 minutes, Guadagnino’s vision adds nearly an hour to the original, stretching an already sparse plot to the breaking point. The slow and deliberate pace makes it hard to maintain suspense. The gore and jump scares are few, not enough for true horror enthusiasts, too much for the arthouse crowd. The many allusions to recent German history like the Holocaust, RAF terror campaigns and the Berlin Wall remain unresolved, leaving maddening dead ends. And while gorgeous, the deep symbolism remains shallow, delivering far less than it promises. The shroud is more intriguing than the mystery it conceals. Still, the film has its moments. What Suspiria does exceedingly well is spin terror out of the ordinary. The antagonists aren’t monsters: Aside from the ephemeral agelessness of Swinton, the coven consists of 40- to 50-something women in sensible clothes. But blood and costumes aren’t needed; it’s the context that chills your bones. As the plot progresses, innocuous gestures and harmless looks take on a sinister spells, malice, power and dark femininity expressed in motion. Maternal gazes and signs of affection appear ravenous once the hidden intent is clear. It’s best seen in the progression of Johnson’s Susie Bannion: At first, she’s a babe in the woods, naïve and out of her depth; yet even as it becomes increasingly apparent that she’s made a deal with dark forces, her innocent demeanor barely shifts. Instead, her purity becomes menacing. Shortly before the climax, Bannion sits up in bed, discussing the moral despair and physical decay – both at the academy and the larger world – with Blanc. When she asks why everyone assumes the worst is over, her face is as cherubic as ever. It’s more terrifying than the orgy of gore that follows. Suspiria offers more questions than answers, but if you get past the dream logic, red herrings and pop psychology, a masterful nightmare tapestry awaits, atmospheric dread woven from disturbing, alluring imagery. That is, if you can stay awake till the end.

Nov 1 & 5, Gartenbaukino. 1., Parkring 12. viennale.at Starts Nov 13, Filmcasino. 5., Margaretenstraße 78. filmcasino.at
Starts Nov 15, Burgkino. 1., Opernring 19. burgkino.at

The Guilty

A masterclass in suspense, this Danish thriller doesn’t show – it tells

While some would consider thrillers a somewhat played-out genre, ever so often a film comes along that manages to breathe fresh life into the formula. A clever variation on the classics, first-time director Gustav Möller’s The Guilty strives to do just that, portraying an abduction in real time through the eyes of Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren), a cynical police officer working the emergency hotline: with all the action taking place off screen, your only connection is an increasingly agitated protagonist racing to save the victims before it’s too late, with the unfolding events all the more grisly in your mind. Denmark’s entry for best foreign language film at the upcoming Academy Awards was inspired by true events, making this feverish, twisted ride all the more engaging.

Starts Nov 1, Filmcasino: 5., Margaretenstraße 78, filmcasino.at; Votivkino: 9., Währinger Straße 12, votivkino.at

Welcome to Sodom

A look at the darker side of the digital revolution

“This is paradise for businessmen!” A bystander beams as the camera focuses on a group of men digging through piles of broken smartphones, laptops and touchscreens. To thousands of Ghanaians, the Western world’s electronic trash is a treasure – and maybe even a ticket out of poverty. Welcome to Sodom shows what happens to the detritus of the information age, taking a long, hard look at Agbogbloshie, a landfill and slum in the Ghanian capital Accra. Nicknamed “Sodom” for its harsh living conditions and high pollution, it’s a dumping ground for discarded electronic devices, often shipped from the West illegally by unscrupulous companies. Its inhabitants get by using hazardous recycling methods, extracting copper and gold for resale by burning cables and computers, hoping to earn enough money to leave this wasteland behind. Amid the bleak images of apocalyptic flames and floating islands of plastic on the lagoon, it’s easy for audiences to descend into despair, but as Ameriko, a skilled computer repairman says, there is potential here: Thousands of capable hands have acquired the know-how to revitalize electronic goods, offering prospects for the future and a way out. Directors Florian Weigensamer and Christian Krönes avoid the big picture, focusing squarely on the resilient locals that eke out a living in Sodom. While this creates an evocative portrait of the human dimension of this environmental tragedy, interviews with authorities or environmental experts would have went a long way toward showing a more balanced picture. Rather than offering solutions, they encourage the hope that maybe, one day, the government will invest in this buzzing enterprise and turn it into a paradise of opportunity and success. Whether that will actually happen, is anyone’s guess.

 

Starts Nov 23, Stadtkino. 1., Akademiestraße 13. stadtkinowien.at