Brow Beat

With Halloween and Suspiria, Art-House Auteurs Are Changing the Horror-Movie Game

David Gordon Green and Luca Guadagnino take different approaches to the genre, and only one succeeds.

Tilda Swinton in a red dress. Masked killer Michael Myers.
Tilda Swinton as Madame Blanc in Suspiria and James Courtney as Michael Myers in Halloween. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Amazon Studios and Universal Pictures.

It’s not unusual for movie studios to exhume horror classics and attempt to reanimate them, but it’s still striking to see 1977’s Suspiria and 1978’s Halloween revived in such close proximity. Their release dates were separated by just a week, and both have been revived with indie-movie auteurs rather than horror lifers behind the camera. Common trajectory aside, though, David Gordon Green’s Halloween (titled like a remake but written as a sequel to John Carpenter’s original) and Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria (reimagining the Dario Argento classic) could scarcely be less similar. As it turns out, they offer a contrasting study in how auteurs can approach the dirty business of horror remakes.

Plenty of great directors have dabbled in horror, or even made their careers there. But since the original Halloween, big-name directors have rarely taken on marquee redos of horror titles. The last time Carpenter’s film had a splashy, retconning sequel boasting the return of Jamie Lee Curtis as heroine Laurie Strode—1998’s Halloween H20: 20 Years Later—it was directed by the undistinguished Steve Miner, whose filmography included a pair of Friday the 13th sequels and a movie about a giant crocodile. When Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes shingle started remaking beloved horror movies in the 2000s, the jobs went to Marcus Nispel (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and Samuel Bayer (A Nightmare on Elm Street), who brought music video style but no experience in feature-film direction

That these mainstream productions were so often helmed by anonymous filmmakers illustrates a central paradox of the genre. Horror is often written off as crassly commercial multiplex fare, but there are also built-in limitations to its audience; think how many people you know who “don’t do” horror movies, compared with less divisive genres like action or comedy. Film criticism has come around on horror—there are probably more American critics willing to give a horror movie a fair shake than ever before—but it still rides a line between serving one core audience and actively alienating another. It’s fitting, then, that critical darlings Green and Guadagnino use their first experiences as horror directors in opposite ways. Green broadens his audience— Halloween has become his biggest commercial hit in a matter of days—while Guadagnino takes the opportunity to make his most alienating movie yet.

Guadagnino’s other recent films aren’t household names, but beyond their very European depictions of sexuality, Call Me by Your Name, A Bigger Splash, and I Am Love are not especially challenging films on a narrative level; they’re all about human relationships, and while they may contain their share of ambiguities, their basic storylines are easy enough to follow. Guadagnino’s Suspiria is flashier and more exciting on the surface, but far trickier to parse. Admirably, he doesn’t attempt a straight remake or even much of an homage to the Argento original. That film’s log line—a young student at a prestigious dance school discovers that the institution is run by a coven of witches—is treated as more of a jumping-off point for a movie that runs nearly an hour longer than its source.

This film’s Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) has more backstory and more ambition, and Guadagnino devotes more time to showing her and the other dancers in action, as well as examining her relationship with imposing instructor Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). Meanwhile, a triple-cast Swinton plays an elderly (and male!) psychiatrist investigating the disappearance of one of his patients and dealing with his own personal demons, as well as an even more mysterious figure in the shadows of the school. The movie is set in 1977 Berlin, amid the remnants of Nazism and the contemporaneous Lufthansa hijacking.

Guadagnino has impressive ambitions and generates some thrilling imagery, especially in a vicious dance/mutilation sequence that feels like an immediate body-horror keeper. But his tendency to let his actors go quiet and subtle as he indulges in directorial flourishes, sometimes effective in his smaller-scale movies, here renders his characters opaque. His stylistic indulgences can’t match the otherworldly pop of the original film’s cinematography and production design, so he heads in another direction, painting his Suspiria in drab, wintry grays. Guadagnino obviously appreciates Argento’s original, but it’s hard to say whether he cares much for horror in general; the movie has unsettling and horrific moments but seems to hold its material at arm’s length, presenting it for analysis rather than intoxication. For all the blood on screen, there’s little running through the movie’s veins.

The new Halloween, on the other hand, manages the tricky feat of working as a crowd-pleasing horror sequel that still feels like a David Gordon Green film. Granted, Halloween has a lot more leeway in how it’s readapted; there have been enough sequels, remakes, and assorted retcons, at extremes of both success and failure, that a new version doesn’t have much to lose. A brand-new Suspiria is a far riskier proposition—one that Green himself was attached to make for several years. It sounded like a possible match for his ability to depict dreamlike moments with gritty texture.

Green established that quality early on with movies like George Washington, All the Real Girls, and Undertow. His first three films all observe young people making their way through half-dreamy post-industrial landscapes, often speaking in offbeat yet naturalistic dialogue, shot with a Terrence Malick–like eye (Malick even produced Undertow). Green has already imported this sensibility to bigger studio projects, most successfully with the stoner action-comedy Pineapple Express (the more maligned Your Highness and The Sitter have their idiosyncratic charms, too). But Halloween, with its masked slasher Michael Myers skulking through suburbia, is potentially a much bigger piece of mainstream cultural heritage than a Seth Rogen/James Franco goof on action comedies—which is probably why Green’s movie tries to do so much.

The 2018 Halloween is part update to its multifarious franchise, dispatching new babysitters as well as a team of journalists attempting to produce a true-crime podcast about the events of the 1978 film, and part legacy sequel, bringing Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) back to consider the repercussions of the first film’s traumas. The sheer number of side characters and subplots threatens to derail the whole thing, and the movie could have benefited from giving Curtis more scenes in its first half. But Green mixes disparate material with skill, drawing on his past experience with letting shots or dialogue exchanges linger where other directors would cut to the chase. His version of horror excess doesn’t involve buckets of gore, but observing a large cross-section of residents in fictional Haddonfield, Illinois.

Like most of the directors who followed Carpenter, Green ups the body count in his new Halloween, but the extra kills don’t feel like padding. Green gives his slasher-fodder characters bits of funny, sometimes sweet dialogue: a son trying to gently but firmly explain to his father that he’s more interested in dance class than their hunting trip, or two cops talking about banh mi sandwiches, or a preteen kid affectionately mouthing off to a longtime babysitter. Some critics and Halloween fans have cited these moments as evidence that Green and his co-writers (including his buddy Danny McBride, a comic actor) can’t help themselves from undermining the tension as they nervously look backward. But Green’s real compulsion is to find humanity, even beauty, in moments of dread. The earlier daylight scenes feel a little antiseptic and washed-out, but once the sun goes down, Green brings out richer nighttime textures and the same tactile sense of place that informs his earlier work. He also shows mastery of a more traditional Halloween skill set when he reaches his climax, where Laurie Strode, her daughter Karen (Judy Greer), and her granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) face off against Myers, performing satisfying riffs on the original’s dynamics with at least two applause-worthy moments.

Guadagnino obviously isn’t looking to provide that kind of satisfaction. His movie seems so suspicious of clarity that its greatest mysteries come from its plotting and puzzling motivations. This doesn’t make Green’s method better in principle—plenty of people will cherish the new Suspiria—but the final products raise the possibility that it’s more of a feat for Green to square his mainstream aspirations with his intimate, lyrical sensibility than it is for Guadagnino to indulge his grandiose impulses. Either way, there’s something thrillingly unruly about both the new Halloween and the new Suspiria. They both clearly want to reach beyond perceived limitations, even as they trade on familiar material. It’s a contradiction worthy of this maligned and beloved genre, and one Green seems to understand after nearly 20 years of blurring the line between soul-bearing indies and studio craftsmanship. Maybe Guadagnino needs to get closer to the disreputable before he can master the art of horror.