There’s nothing quite like a Dario Argento phantasmagoria: succulent colours, inventively grisly murders, searing electronic scores, atrocious dubbing. The idea of remaking his film Suspiria, set in a dance academy run by witches, has been floating around for some time, though Argento has always been dismissive. “The film is there,” he said in 2013. “If you want to see it, just put the DVD in.”
His countryman Luca Guadagnino, the director of Call Me By Your Name, has ignored this advice and made his own version. What’s it about? It’s about an hour longer than the original. Other than that, it retains the same basic plot: an American ballet student, Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), enrolls at the Helena Markos Dance Company where she attracts the attention of the enigmatic Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). To this the film adds unwieldy heaps of socio-political commentary, imposing order on material that was once blissfully illogical.
Guadagnino sets his Suspiria in 1977 (the year Argento’s version was released) and makes a meal of its German setting, which was all but ignored in the original save for some gratuitous glimpses of lederhosen. This is a divided, rain-lashed Berlin scarred by memories of the war (“Why is everyone so ready to think the worst is over?”) and stalked by the Baader-Meinhof group. There are divisions, too, at the academy, which has recently lost a student (Chloë Grace Moretz), possibly to the terrorist cause.
Susie’s arrival seems to promise unity, and certainly excites Madame Blanc, but at what cost? In a spectacular sequence that will be as closely associated with the film as green vomit and spinning heads are with The Exorcist, Susie’s feverish Salome-esque dance becomes some sort of psychic catalyst for the bone-crunching torture of her predecessor, Olga (Elena Fokina). The harder Susie dances, the more Olga suffers. Imagine the worst possible outcome at a yoga class and you’re on the right track.
As long as Guadagnino sticks to the spooky, his film exerts a chilly power, with its own strangely dim, grainy lighting differentiating it from Argento’s eye-popping palette. Thom Yorke’s score swaps the electronica of the original for a dreamily sinister piano. Nightmare sequences dredge up some indelible images: a face screaming under cloth, a mirror smashing noiselessly. And it was wise to mimic the visual grammar of the period; the ungainly crash-zooms lunging toward the actors, and the sudden acceleration of cuts during otherwise languid scenes, suggest that the picture was made in the gaudy 1970s.
Too often, though, Guadagnino gets waylaid by his new sub-plot involving an elderly psychiatrist investigating strange goings-on at the academy. One clear disadvantage is that the character is played by Swinton in a sheepish performance muffled by prosthetics (the credits list the actor as “Lutz Ebersdorf”).
It’s easy to intellectualise the effect Guadagnino is reaching for. By putting a woman in the only major male role, he preserves the film’s feminine integrity. And in splitting Swinton between two parts (one of them a man who has himself endured a terrible separation) the film also mirrors the fractured city. In practice, though, it’s unworkable. Each time Swinton slaps on the liver-spots and white hair, the atmosphere fizzles and the momentum grinds to a halt. Guadagnino claims that his Suspiria is not a remake at all but a cover version. If that’s the case, it can only be the equivalent of turning a three-minute glam stomp into a bloated rock opera.
Staying with musical metaphors, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs feels like the Coen brothers’ B-sides compilation. The picture began life as a six-part Netflix series, each episode telling a different story set in the Old West, but somewhere along the way it was reshaped into a portmanteau movie in which the tales – some shaggy-dog stories, other merely doodles – are collected in a volume leafed through by an unseen reader. One chapter, in which James Franco plays an unlucky bank-robber, exists solely to justify a goofy punchline. Another imagines a young woman (Zoe Kazan) finding romance on the wagon train. The worst by some distance is the opening episode, with Tim Blake Nelson as a garrulous sharpshooter. That smugness to which the Coens are susceptible is in plentiful supply here.
Recurrent motifs provide some continuity. Animals (a chicken in one tale, a yapping dog in another) become harbingers of doom, and gunshots to the head figure strongly, including one in which the victim doesn’t realise he has been hit until he removes his Stetson and spots the hole. Only two episodes transcend the air of triviality. In one of these, a prospector (Tom Waits, looking like a khaki Santa Claus) pays a price for striking gold; in the other, a travelling entertainer (Harry Melling) and his gruff master (Liam Neeson) confront the end of the road. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs begins its streaming life now after playing one or two shows a day on a handful of screens last week. Does that spell the end of the road for the Coens and cinema, too?
dir: Luca Guadagnino
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (15)
dir: Joel and Ethan Coen
This article appears in the 14 Nov 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How the Brexiteers broke history