Bold 'Suspiria' Redo Jumps Into Darker, More Twisted Territory

Directed by: Luca Guadagnino; Runtime: 152 minutes
Grade: B+

The realm of remaking classic horror films can be an extremely dangerous place, where it's never clear whether a specific film should be respectful to the original and diligent in hitting certain familiar bulletpoints … or whether it should merely borrow the concept and create something entirely new. There's no conventional wisdom to follow there, exactly, but one could argue that those films with more identifiable stamps on them -- be it general aesthetics, notable killers, or unforgettable scenes -- will have a more difficult time in the recreation process than the ones that are iconic for their premise. That's why a wave of apprehension flooded the horror culture upon the reveal that a remake of Dario Argento's Suspiria was in the works, in which the original's visual language and musical tempo not only move in sync with the film's suspense, but often are directly responsible for it. Director Luca Guadagnino clearly grasps the reputation of the original, having crafted his own iteration that pivots on darkness, abstraction, and severity in a potently unsettling collaboration between old and new.

Many of the raw narrative points have been carried over in the screenplay by David Kajganich, transporting the audience to a dance company in Berlin where an American, ex-Mennonite Susie (Dakota Johnson), has arrived for her audition. Interestingly, this version of story also takes place in the mid-‘70s, existing as a period piece that directly mentions the geopolitical turmoil going on at the time, surrounding the German Autumn. As events of the world lure certain dancers away, most stay within the confines of the Markos Dance Company's stony, fortress-like walls, honing their craft as creative instructor Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) figures out their next production. Other dancers, however, begin to suspect a darker secret lurking inside the company: that the people in charge are a coven of witches, using their powers to pull strings and punish the disobedient. As Susie rises quickly in prominence at Markos, the film centers on how she's impacted by the powers and threats surrounding her, as well as how the disappearances and ailments of dancers gone missing are perceived.

Dancing taps into a profound, almost spiritual or mystical part of many artists, something that even the most technically proficient of performers cannot obtain, no matter how hard they try. That intangible soulful aspect fits well with the manipulations of witches: some dancers may need other-worldly forces to give them that deeper poignant connection to their craft, while others might willingly cut deals if they can get help with overcoming limitations so that their physical capabilities can match their underlying spirits. This Suspiria makes a subtle, yet noteworthy change in the German company's focus, shifting away from the upright poise of ballet to the rougher, subjective and more overtly expressive realm of contemporary dance, and that shift deepens the film's connection to the manipulations of the dancers' minds, bodies, and souls. While you shouldn't go in expecting a ton of dancing, the ways in which it's continuously involved -- almost entirely in rehearsals -- are mesmerizingly tied to the supernatural enigmas of the company itself, blending the realism of a conservatory environment with setting up an ominous horror atmosphere.

From the early moments when Susie enters the cold, gray space of the studio, it's clear that this Suspiria will be wildly different in visual tone to the vivid drama of Dario Argento. This rendition reaches deep and finds distinctively hypnotic properties that in no way rely on the original's successes, conveyed through the immersive gasps of physical exertion and fluid, yet erratic camera movement that carefully swirls with the dancers one minute and them quickly zooms in on facial features the next. There's a definitive moment when the "horror" kicks into gear where these elements merge together into a fiercely gripping cause-and-effect sequence where the vagueness of the witches' coven taken hold, the shiver-inducing sound design and unflinching cinematography from Sayombhu Mukdeeprom claiming the film's first victim in a room of mirrors. There's a whispery pace leading up to this at the beginning of the film that reveals itself to be a slower-moving spell being cast upon those watching, one that abruptly jerks the audience to attention with the crackle of bones and the spilling of fluid.

Dakota Johnson takes the lead as the protagonist in Suspiria, but calling her a horror-movie victim or prey wouldn't be accurate, and that becomes one of the central mesmerizing deviations in this remake. While this wouldn't be considered much of a character study, there's enough substance in her backstory -- involving her ailing, once-abusive mother and suppressive lifestyle -- as well as in how she adjusts to her new place among the other dancers to embrace her as a dedicated, unpredictable presence. Johnson's history with dance allows her to engage almost all the absorbing choreography (about 10%, the hard stuff, is a double), lending physical legitimacy to what's happening onscreen as her character becomes intoxicated with the recognition and what Madame Blanc and the company can achieve with her as a vessel. This take on Suspiria works on a visceral, oddly sensual level because of the nightmarish persuasion that the witches exert over the dancers: how they mess with the minds of the promising, rob the talents of some, and find ways of discarding the others when they're no longer … uh, useful.

Suspiria gets caught up in unleashing those haunting sights and sounds upon the dancers, and while the audiovisual tricks remain a treat to savor throughout, Luca Guadagnino's version struggles with holding onto a steady narrative alongside those sensory provocations. Notably, there's a considerable secondary thread involving a psychiatrist, Klemperer, and his gradual discovery of the witches' coven that feels like a superfluous addendum, born of the desire to reinforce the film's truths and historical thematic interests. There's strength involved with how the doctor -- played by Tilda Swinton hidden under prosthetics -- mines the psychology of the dancers and becomes outside confirmation that things happening inside the dance studio aren't just illusions or delusions. That said, his elderly sleuthing and reflections on the disturbances of his prior life become sluggish, elongated diversions from the spellbinding horror and metaphors within and around the dance company. Despite this subplot being responsible for a cameo from Jessica Harper, the original's wide-eyed heroine, this would've been a more focused piece of work had Klemperer's role been significantly reduced.

Yes, Suspiria reaches a point where it feels dragged out for too long, but the graphic, phantasmagoric endgame makes it worth having patience with Guadagnino's scattershot pursuits of symbolic and historical undertones. Those anticipating a duplication of the original's grand finale should be surprised, as David Kajganich's writing has recontextualized and deepened familiar motifs into an interpretive crimson-hued rush of chaos that conveys points on its own terms, and it's been tough to stop thinking about ‘em since seeing it unfold. The corrosive, deceptive nature of power and control result in this Suspiria discovering a truly distinctive energy far apart from its namesake, showing reverence to the premise while also bringing a contemporary edge to the tone, the horror, and the ideas floating around the dance company. Guadagnino's choice to construct something entirely new atop Dario Argento's foundation has resulted in one of the more uniquely beautiful, flawed yet thought-provoking genre films released this year, joining the annals of remakes that stick their landings with enough panache to coexist with their namesake.

Film review also appeared over at [Click Here]

'Skyscraper' Tackles High-Rise Action Without a Vengeance

Directed by: Rawson Marshall Thurber; Runtime: 102 minutes
Grade: C-

The maximum capacity for Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's presence at the box office may have been reached this year, in which he stars in not one, but two disaster movies that made it to the big screen. One features towering gorillas, wolves, and lizards slamming into and destroying a city's highrise buildings, an adaptation of an ‘80s videogame franchise. The other features … uh, different kinds of monsters who are also out to destroy a high-rise building, and while it may not openly claim as much, it's also essentially an "adaptation" of something popular from the ‘80s. Both really shouldn't be able to be lumped together so easily, yet in Skyscraper there's too little of interest within the crumbling architectural chaos to stand out, resulting in a sufficiently boisterous yet entirely forgettable doppelganger of the action genre that lacks a Rock-solid character foundation.

Ten years before the events in the film, ex-military hostage negotiator Will Sawyer was injured in a complicated scenario, resulting in his leg being amputated and in that side of his career reaching an end. Cut to the present day, where he's found a new path as a security analyst of sorts, and he's landed one of the biggest jobs possible: to analyze and report on the safety protocols of a building in China, The Pearl, that's roughly triple the height of the Empire State Building. This isn't just a building, though, designed to be an all-inclusive ecosystem of sorts that stretches to the clouds, utilizing modern energy methods, sporting inhouse organic growth initiatives, and boasting state-of-the-art issue detection throughout the site. As Sawyer's finishing up the final bits of his presentation, the building falls under attack from those with seemingly little on their minds outside of tearing down it down. With his wife (Neve Campbell) and children trapped inside, Sawyer's knowledge of the building gets called to action in a rescue mission.

Skyscraper has no delusions over what it's mimicking, and that can be seen in the measures it takes to diverge from being an unnamed reimagining of Die Hard, as if following a checklist. A famous tower quickly becomes the focal point of the setting, of course, yet its science-fiction addons and geographic location give the writing a slightly more substantive and contemporary agenda, forming the Chinese building into a beacon of clean energy and combating urban sprawl. Sawyer's a capable rule-bender willing to traverse the perils of the building under attack, yet he definitely isn't a divorced police detective estranged from his loved ones, instead the unshakable -- and, admittedly, vanilla -- patriarch of the ideal nuclear family. Some incredibly blunt exposition gets those core points across, combined with extensive and obvious computer-generated effects involved with the building's tech advancements. Skyscraper feels like an expanded, yet toned-down and less-interesting riff from the moment it breaks ground.

The cards are stacked against those who want to criticize Sawyer as the hero of Skyscraper: coupled with Dwayne Johnson's inherently charming, grinning persona, he's portraying a combat veteran who also copes with being an amputee in his everyday life of being an honest contractor and doting father. Thing is, the story relies too heavily on these sterling character traits and not on other potential layers of his personality, letting those base qualities go on autopilot with effortless assurance that those watching will feel obligated to root for him. The Rock tends to be at his best when he's allowed to flex at least a little of that raised-eyebrow, roguishly confident muscle from his pro wrestling days -- something that can be found in San Andreas and Rampage= -- yet there are limitations on Sawyer through his paternal instincts and boy-scout demeanor that inherently put that facet of Johnson's persona on lockdown. Neve Campbell's combat-medic wife is more interesting, humorous, and ultimately underutilized.

Even the most milquetoast of heroes can be elevated by the right kinds of action-movie intensity exploding around them, though, making demands of their physicality and responsiveness … and few settings are as volatile or hazardous as a collapsing, flaming, technologically advanced Skyscraper. This occurs just as the sun begins to set in China during Skyscraper, though, which results in nearly everything taking place in orange-tinged darkness, clunking around in the shadows of an almost-entirely vacant high-rise tower. The "terrorists" overtaking the tower are an immensely forgettable band of gun-toting goons, lacking a compelling face for their operation outside of a few higher-level mercenaries with advanced skills, turning The Pearl -- the building itself -- into the prime force-of-nature villain of the movie by default. Sawyer's handling of explosive and high-wire obstacles breaks little new ground, if any, barely amped up by how the writing handles mandatory obstacles installed throughout The Pearl, as well as one sequence that makes generous usage of the ex-soldier's prosthetic leg.

Due to the nighttime action shrouded in darkness, the villains' shrug-worthy (and entirely familiar) motives, and a determined yet boring hero tearing through it all, Skyscraper struggles to conceal that it's a shallow, over-the-top exploit that's uninterested in taking extra steps to answer "…why?" about many things. From the architectural and technological designs of The Pearl to its haphazard digital security measures and choices made by the bad guys amid their takeover, most of those concerns must default to the explanation that, yes, it's a blockbuster designed for thrills and not to be surveyed too closely. For some things that become integral to the action -- such as the entire reason The Pearl's observation deck can double as a carnival funhouse of mirrors -- that explanation doesn't really cut it. When the cinematic materials are assembled like this, they aren't sturdy or distracting enough to roll with the utter predictability of how things go down in Skyscraper, let alone overlook the pop-culture blueprint followed during its creation.

For the full Blu-ray review, head over to [Click Here]

Classic Musings: The Bride (1985)

A small, yet important subplot in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein led to the creation of the Bride of Frankenstein, expanding upon the writer's suggestion that the disfigured Monster deserves a mate despite his horrid appearance. Despite the "bride" not fully coming to life in Shelley's original story, she has expanded into an iconic staple of the classic monster-movie subculture due to other adaptations in which her creation was a success, with the 1935 sequel laying the groundwork for how the scenario could've played out. The tale of The Monster's Bride works because of how it feeds off the original creation of Frankenstein's Monster or Creature, though -- how a given version of the creature begins to think about life, passion, and companionship -- and jumping straight into a story focused on her creation lacks that buildup. That may be the bulkiest, most obvious constraint holding back Franc Roddam's The Bride, an ‘80s semi-remake of the original movie, but it's far from the only one.

Pop singer Sting embodies Baron Charles Frankenstein, which by itself is an unusual jumble of words that probably shouldn't be put together. The Bride picks up with this Dr. Frankenstein in the midst of his second experiment in reanimating flesh, as his first hollow-brained creature (Clancy Brown) watches in amazement, until circumstances lead the laboratory to be destroyed. Despite that, Frankenstein's experiment turns out to be another successful resurrection, producing a woman, Eva, without memories of her past life, who'll need to learn how to speak, and who'll be malleable to whatever she's taught about society. After fleeing from the castle, The Monster gets entangled with a traveling dwarf, Rinaldo (David Rappaport) who hopes to reconnect with the carnival atmosphere further down the road. As The Monster -- eventually named Viktor in this rendition -- builds a new relationship and encounters life lessons in his journey away from the lab of his creation, Frankenstein discovers the beauty of the woman he created for his first experiment.

Along with wondering what Franc Roddam was thinking in rolling with the relatively soft-spoken and dapper Sting as Dr. Frankenstein, The Bride poses a lot of questions by dropping in at this specific point in the narrative, mostly about The Monster's mental development and relationship with his creator. Everything comes across like it's following up on how Clancy Brown's rendition of the iconic character was created, yet that's information the audience doesn't have … or, more accurately, that the movie assumes the audience already has based on pop-culture knowledge of Shelley's novel and the ‘30s film. Thing is, Brown's take isn't really like either of those classic iterations, and the direction of the story doesn't feel like a natural extension of either the iconic monster movie or the author's more cerebral telling. The sluggish intelligence and naivete of The Monster are responsible for him sticking to his journey, and not knowing exactly how this version of his brain came to this state weakens the film.

Jennifer Beals provides an even bigger obstacle to The Bride than the creature, though, because she makes for a supremely dull cornerstone for the story's ideas. There's something appealing about Eva's wide-eyed absorption of the world once she awakens and begins her (initially nude) exploration of Frankenstein's castle, unable to properly speak or have a grasp on how to act. As she begins to enunciate her thoughts and feelings, Beals' languid performance marries with some abrupt jumps forward in her character's awareness, resulting in a banal, poorly-committed takedown of gender politics in which her creator's attempts to imbibe her with independence and determination lack genuine characterization. What Dr. Frankenstein expresses about his desires for Eva are compelling -- that he wants her to be just as driven and free to act as men are -- but the execution doesn't back up those pursuits. Despite the gumption and confidence found in her performance in Flashdance, Beals turns into a limp and directionless vessel that feels as if she isn't really learning at all.

The Bride bounces back-and-forth between the concurrent stories of Eve and The Monster, which only serves to underscore the issues involved with how this version of the narrative handles the minds of Frankenstein's creations. As Eva develops from a groaning mute to a passably cultured lady, The Monster remains at a consistent level of intelligence -- in fact, his awareness comes and goes at the behest of the story. If he needs more foolishness or naivete for something to occur in his travels, the script's control over his lagging monster brain will make that happen, all while Eva hones her speech and skills of observation into a formidable individual. Through this, director Roddam and his screenwriter, The Mummy's Lloyd Fonvielle, attempt to have it both ways: the side of Eva hopes to capture some of Mary Shelley's more intellectual ambitions, while the side of The Monster sticks to the lethargic, brutish monster-movie headspace of the James Whale classics. Without clearer, more credible explanations as to how both can be represented, the legitimacy starts to come apart at the seams.

Sure, maybe I've been spoiled. Showtime's TV series Penny Dreadful recently executed a phenomenal take on the Bride of Frankenstein idea, finding ways of transforming the woman who was created for The Monster into a uniquely intelligent, terrifying character empowered by her existential advantages. The Bride doesn't succeed in any of those areas: there are no scares coming from either of Frankenstein's resurrections, and the progression of events doesn't do any favors for Eva's brainpower as she navigates romance -- a young Cary Elwes complicates matters -- and her creator's oppression. What takes shape can be best described as a sort of gothic, faintly macabre drama above all else, and with Sting's more-bitter-than-mad scientist pulling the strings of later developments, The Bride loses a lot of energy amid a shallow culmination of themes centered on possessiveness and independence. Yes, it needs the world-building of its own telling of Frankenstein's original experiment to help it come alive, but that still wouldn't have kept the execution of what's there from burning out anyway.

For the full Blu-ray review, head over to [Click Here]