Nary a pair of black gloves is seen throughout most of Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria — that is, until late in the film, and then they’re used in a surprising fashion. The presence (or lack thereof) of black gloves might seem irrelevant (or a non sequitur), but fans of Dario Argento’s 1977 original will immediately take notice. Giallo, a primarily Italian horror subgenre, tends to feature mysterious slashers, often shown only through isolated shots of gleaming knives cradled by gloved hands. The original Suspiria isn’t technically Giallo — it features a supernatural antagonist rather than a deranged serial killer — but it takes the other stylistic hallmarks of the genre to their logical extremes. (And it does feature a gloved killer, if only briefly.) The seemingly inconsequential moment reveals Guadagnino’s reverence for both Argento’s masterpiece and Giallo films in general. He has made an epic horror film here, one that barely resembles the inspiration he’s paying homage to (he prefers to think of it as a “re-imagining”), yet hidden just below the surface is a clear affection for the original. Those who are slavishly devoted to Argento’s film may be turned off by this radical new interpretation, but Guadagnino’s Suspiria bristles with its own alluring energy.
The basic structure of 2018’s Suspiria matches the original. Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), an American, has arrived in Germany to attend a prestigious dance academy where pupils have been meeting grisly and mysterious ends. But it’s the specifics that make all the difference. This new version opens with a prologue in which a seemingly paranoid former student of the academy (played by Chloë Grace Moretz) visits a psychiatrist (the pseudonymous Lutz Ebersdorf). She claims the school is run by a coven of witches, though most of what she says is unintelligible.
The school’s witch connection is treated as a revelation in Argento’s Suspiria, but Guadagnino treats it as a given from the movie’s earliest moments. He’s less interested in the plot (which was barely there to begin with), and more interested in slowly unraveling the enigma of Susie Bannion. In Argento’s conception, Susie was a total blank; Jessica Harper (who also has a small role in the new version) rarely speaks throughout the film, a passive observer to monstrosities who only takes an active role at the film’s conclusion. Johnson’s version of the character is a Rubik’s cube that is solved bit by bit. We get numerous abstract flashbacks to her Mennonite childhood, her domineering and shaming mother, and her mother’s untimely death. Susie has no formal training (her family wouldn’t hear of such a thing), yet she’s been obsessed with dance her whole life. The film gradually — and quite elegantly — peels back the layers of her history.
Susie is enamored of — even obsessed with — the school’s lead instructor, Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), who also choreographs the company’s dances. Swinton, ever the chameleon, models her character after the Pina Bausch, a German choreographer and dancer who pioneered an extremely physical and relationship-based form of modern dance. She wears loose, flowing dresses that make her body look almost skeletal, and can be seen constantly holding a cigarette between her slender fingers, much like Bausch. Unlike the original film’s malevolent instructors, Swinton imbues Blanc with a strangely maternal energy; she shares the school’s nefarious plans for Susie, yet also has a barely concealed affection for her.
The school’s witch connection is treated as a revelation in Argento’s Suspiria, but Guadagnino treats it as a given from the movie’s earliest moments.
The 1977 Suspiria was technically set in Munich, but it was a place out of time. Most of the film was shot on set, and there’s no sense of the historical weight that the city brings to it. Argento isn’t particularly interested in the social implications of his films; instead, he’s a master of atmosphere. He shuts out the world around his characters so as to create a nightmare labyrinth of his own imagining. His film is dappled with kaleidoscopic colors — colors that make no sense in the context of the movie, but they’re beautiful and entrancing, and that’s all that matters.
Guadagnino isn’t as isolated as Argento is; he finds ways to center his stories in the world around us. In I Am Love (2009), a tale of romantic yearning is briefly suspended for a jargony explanation of a textile factory’s role in globalization, and A Bigger Splash (2015) intersperses a tense vacation with record production techniques. Suspiria veers into the fantastic, yet among Guadagnino’s films, it’s the most grounded in history. He has moved the location to divided Berlin; televisions and radios frequently give news updates on the violence being waged by and against the Red Army Faction, a left-wing terrorist group rebelling against post-war Germany’s conservative bent and the continued presence of former Nazis in positions of power. The dance academy in Suspiria is haunted by a coven of witches, and it’s no accident that the academy is now in Berlin. It’s a city haunted by its own evils — namely Nazism and Stalinism. Young, idealistic people hope to make something new, but older generations threaten to destroy everything.
Beyond the differences in its story, Suspiria looks nothing like Argento’s original (at least until its final scene). Guadagnino is too tethered to reality to indulge in the ecstatic colors that Argento favors; his film is mostly painted with grays and browns, though when colors do intrude they’re quite brilliant. It’s an appropriate choice for a film set in Berlin Autumn, a time and place famous for dreariness. Still, Guadagnino and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (who shot Call Me by Your Name) create their own kind of intriguing visuals. Bright colors aren’t requisite for a beautiful film, and the two wrangle stunning visuals out of seemingly dreary settings. Guadagnino’s fleet camera is often on the move; it soars across grand halls in elaborate shots that would make Alfred Hitchcock proud, but it also settles down whenever the film needs to enter a minor key. This version of Suspiria doesn’t have the stunning purples and pinks and greens of the original, yet it creates a new visual language that’s drastically different, but no less stunning.
For all its differences, this Suspiria shares one major connection with the original: its clunky screenplay. The screenwriter, David Kajganich, has previously collaborated with Guadagnino on A Bigger Splash, and created AMC’s excellent horror series, The Terror. None of his previous work betrays such a tin ear, yet it’s on full display in Suspiria. The saving grace is Johnson, who delivers Kajganich’s most awkward lines as if they were delicate puzzles to be pored over. She’s an actress who always seems to be a bit disconnected from what’s going on around her. In trash like the Fifty Shades films, she almost seems to be participating in a practical joke, but here her opacity is entrancing and electrifying. We want to know everything about her, and the film only delivers fleeting details, leaving us wanting more. Her version of Susie exists at a juncture between the more realistic performance of a fellow student (played excellently by Mia Goth) and the mystical stylings of Swinton. She often speaks as if in a dream, but rather than creating a distance between the audience, it makes us lean closer.
Suspiria, at 152 minutes, is as luxuriant as a mink coat. It’s a kind of epic filmmaking that rarely graces horror films, which regardless of their ambitions, tend to be short and sweet. Luca Guadagnino is at the height of his powers, and his film is imbued with his own brand of magic. His Suspiria won’t replace Dario Argento’s original, which remains just as vital now as it was more than 40 years ago, but it’s a stunning counterpoint that desperately needs to be seen.
Sam Mendes Creates a Rare Cinematic Experience with ‘1917’
War movies have been a constant trend in cinema since the beginning of film. From black and white propaganda pieces during World War I and II to grand, ultra-realistic, modern dramas like Saving Private Ryan, war films have intrigued filmmakers and audiences alike for over 100 years. There’s a long list of films that have succeeded in recreating the horrors of fighting on the frontlines while telling a captivating story of heroism. Telling an emotionally gripping tale combined with some visually stunning filmmaking, 1917 can now be added to that list, and is nothing short of an incredible achievement.
Directed and co-written by Sam Mendes, and starring Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay, 1917 tells the story of two British soldiers during World War I that are given orders to personally deliver a message to a battalion off in the far distance. The message: to call off an attack that will result in the death of thousands, including one of the soldier’s brothers, should they fail to make it in time. Early on the two soldiers walk swiftly through crowded trenches; one of them, dragging behind yells, “Shouldn’t we think about this?” The other doesn’t reply. There’s no time to think about it. He carries on forward without looking back. The two had just been given orders, and time is now their worst enemy.
It’s this sense of urgency and persistence that drives 1917. Every minute is critical, and every moment feels dire. The two soldiers constantly push forward despite the overwhelming odds, as the life of thousands are in the lone hands of these two young men. The threat of failure is real, and 1917 never allows the audience to forget that.
Chapman and MacKay give wonderfully human performances as the main protagonists, Lance Corporal Blake and Lance Corporal Schofield. The audience gets to know the two men through little bits of conversation amid all the tension of getting closer to enemy lines. Their deepest and darkest secrets are never revealed, yet their actions provide reasons to care about them. The two men have their differences, but it’s clear that they want to help each other see the mission to its end. Their loyalty to one another and to the mission relentlessly drives them forward, and ultimately makes it easy for the audience to hope these characters succeed.
What really sets 1917 apart from other war epics is the masterful directing by Sam Mendes. The film creates the illusion throughout that the audience is watching a single continuous shot. From the first shot until the last, the focus never strays from its protagonists, allowing the audience to experience every step as it’s taken. Aside from the characters moving into a dark trench or behind a tall structure, it can be really tough to tell just how long each take is; where the director says “action” and “cut” is blurred to a point of fascination here, and though audiences have seen prolonged shots of war in past films, this is on another level. Combined with some brilliant pacing and jaw-dropping action sequences, 1917 never loses grip of its audience, as everything is seen without pause.
It’s also worth noting that every shot is elevated by a phenomenal score by Thomas Newman (who has worked with Mendes before on Skyfall). It seems that the goal here was not only to increase the intensity and drama of each scene, but also to allow the audience to feel exactly what the characters are feeling at all times. Whether the soldiers are walking through crowded trenches, cautiously cornering buildings, or taking a brief moment to catch their breath, every bit of what they’re feeling and just how their fast their hearts are pumping is translated. The music always feels natural, even in its most dramatic moments, and it deserves high praise for complimenting Mendes’ story so well.
1917 is one of the most unique movie-going experiences in recent memory. It takes the war movie genre and does something no one has ever seen before, which is extremely difficult with so many memorable war films in cinematic history. With 1917 Sam Mendes has created an unforgettable experience that needs to be seen on the biggest screen, and it deserves to be ranked among the greatest war films of all time.
With ‘Road to Perdition,’ Sam Mendes showed another side of Tom Hanks
In his long, distinguished career, one thing Tom Hanks hasn’t done a lot of on screen is dispassionately shoot people. Sure, in Bonfire of the Vanities he hit a kid with his car, and in Cloud Atlas he threw someone off the roof of the building. And yes, he played a soldier in both Saving Private Ryan and the Vietnam part of Forrest Gump, and there was a third-act gunfight in his 1989 cop/dog comedy Turner & Hooch. But the one and only time Hanks has played a full-on murderer was in Road to Perdition, director Sam Mendes’ 2002 meditation on fathers, sons, crime, and the legacies of violence.
Naturally, Hanks being Hanks, Mendes’ film positions his Michael Sullivan not as an irredeemable monster, but rather a humanized character who may not be beyond redemption (the film’s poster tagline was “Pray for Michael Sullivan.”)
Set in the 1930s and adapted from a first-rate screenplay by David Self, Road to Perdition tells the story of Sullivan, a mob enforcer in Rock Island, Ill., who works for local crime boss Rooney (Paul Newman), the man who raised him. Frequently dispatched to bump off Rooney’s rivals, Michael is committed to not allow his young son, Michael Jr. (future Arrowverse actor Tyler Hoechlin), to go down the same path in life he did.
When the young Michael witnesses his father committing a murder, it leads to a chain of tragic events that has the two Michaels on the road to Chicago to make a deal with Al Capone’s crew (in the person of his henchman, played in one scene by Stanley Tucci), and eventually on the run from a rival hitman (Jude Law.) Meanwhile, Rooney’s jealous son, Connor (a pre-Bond Daniel Craig), schemes against him.
Road to Perdition attaches a violent crime plot to considerations of sin and specific references to Catholicism, which is something that directors from Martin Scorsese to Abel Ferrera have done for decades. But Mendes’ film finds a new way to tell that particular story by focusing it on the gangster’s young son.
Road to Perdition, which came out in the summer of 2003, was Mendes’ second film, and his first after 1999’s Best Picture-winning American Beauty. It’s the better film, thanks to a strong script and the work of a great cast, but more than that, it’s absolutely visually stunning in a counter-intuitive 1:33 to 1 aspect ratio. The film’s final sequences, of both the rain-drenched gunfight and the denouement on the beach, are among the most beautiful cinema of the 2000s.
The film won the Best Cinematography Oscar for Conrad L. Hall, the third of his career, although sadly Hall passed away before the Oscar was awarded; it was accepted on his behalf by his son, Conrad W. Hall. Hall’s Oscar was the only one the film won after it was nominated for six, although not including Best Picture or Best Actor.
Road to Perdition came at the front end of Hanks’ nearly 20-year Oscar nomination drought, between Cast Away and this year’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor. But Road to Perdition is an underrated Hanks performance. Even beyond all the murder, it’s very understated, and much more strong/silent than is typical of Hanks’ work. He also wears a hat most of the time, which Hanks doesn’t often do.
Paul Newman was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for what would be his final on-screen role, although his voice continued to be used in Pixar’s Cars movies, even after his death. As for Daniel Craig as Connor, he’s playing a character who in today’s parlance would be called a “failson,” and it’s a role that he undoubtedly has been too big a star for just a few years later.
Sam Mendes has had something of an uneven career. His first film, American Beauty, won Best Picture, but its reputation has somewhat suffered over time for reasons fair and unfair. He’s directed great James Bond movies (Skyfall), and not-so-great ones (Spectre.) He’s made small films that were decent (Away We Go) and big ones that were disastrous (Revolutionary Road). But while he’s getting some of his best attention for 1917, which has emerged as an Oscar frontrunner, Road to Perdition stands as his most complete and satisfying work.
‘Color Out of Space’ is Pure Cosmic Horror
Festival de Nouveau Cinema 2019
Color Out of Space stands out as one the best direct adaptations of Lovecraft’s work.
Even before a meteor streaks out of the sky, Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space firmly establishes an atmosphere of alien, otherworldly dread. Opening on a fog-shrouded forest dripping with foreboding atmosphere, Stanley evokes the spirit of the controversial author in a way few filmmakers have, and the use of direct quotes from the short story further cements this as a love-letter to Lovecraft and his work. But Color isn’t just a slavish ode to the influential writer and his cosmic horror creations; the South African director also injects just enough of himself into the film to create something that builds upon the core of Lovecraft’s story, maintaining that kernel of pulp horror while introducing elements that feel wholly personal to the filmmaker. For this and many other reasons, Color Out of Space stands out as one the best direct adaptations of Lovecraft’s work, and one of the most engrossing genre movies this year.
The film by and large maintains the narrative core of the original, recombining elements to suit the change in medium, but staying quite faithful otherwise. Nic Cage stars as Nathan Gardner, who has moved his wife and two children to a secluded country home to get away from urban life. The Gardner family’s pastoral bliss is interrupted by a meteor that strikes their farm in the dead of night, and both their home and their very bodies begin to change soon after.
Unsurprisingly for a film with the hands of Lovecraft, Stanley, and Cage on the wheel, Color is often quite a strange experience, rife with disparate influences and odd touches. Nathan’s daughter, Lavinia, is a practicing witch, which is a story element that could only have come from Stanley, a magician himself. The Gardner family are also trying their hand at Alpaca farming — a bewildering plot element that feels like it could have been one of Cage’s notoriously eccentric fancies, right down to the brief lesson in Alpaca milking. Of course, Lovecraft’s passion for unknowable cosmic terrors is draped over all of this. There’s a wonderful atmosphere of dread and the unknown, about as pure an expression of Lovecraft as one could hope for in a contemporary setting. You’d think it would all make for a disjointed mishmash, but it all gels quite nicely, with the quirky family coming off as endearing more often than not.
Color Out of Space is one of the most engrossing genre movies this year.
There are a few distracting, odd moments, like Lavinia’s turn to self-scarring in a desperate ritual to avert disaster. It largely isn’t commented on, and her sudden appearance with arcane runes carved into her flesh doesn’t end up feeling like the important story or character beat it probably should have. Likewise, Cage’s performance is on the eccentric side, with odd mannerisms and a truly strange accent taking over as the Gardner patriarch begins to go off the deep end. But then, that’s half the fun when it’s Cage we’re talking about.
Like so much of Lovecraft’s work, Color Out of Space deals with the intrusion of the unknowable and alien into the mundane waking world. While other works have had this manifest in the form of eldritch space gods or croaking fish-people, Color instead uses an alien environment as the intruder. While Stanley clearly isn’t working with a massive budget, this idea is still used to create some stunning environments as the Gardner farm’s transformation progresses, with the climax offering some of the most engaging visuals in recent memory. There’s also some truly unsettling body horror, more gruesome and explicit than anything from the story, but an organic fit for the material. Color Out of Space is Stanley’s first feature-length fiction film in around fifteen years, and by all indications, he hasn’t lost his edge. For both fans of Lovecraft and the director’s own works, there’s much to see and love here. The visuals are breathtaking, the atmosphere sumptuous, and it’s Lovecraft to the core with just enough original madness thrown in.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on October 14, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Festival du Nouveau Cinema.
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