Halloween and horror movies go together like Ars and Linux OS reviews—it can be hard to imagine a more appropriate, occasional pairing. And while a classic scary movie (or fun innovations on the genre, like Get Out or A Quiet Place) still hits the sweet spot for many film fans, sometimes you simply want something different.
This pre-Halloween weekend, audiences lucked out. Two horror adjacent gems—the highly stylized scares of Suspiria and the supernatural thrills of Border—each open in select US theaters. The two films have been conquering film festival after film festival this year (including Fantastic Fest, where Ars caught ’em) due to very different skill sets. But for anyone looking for alternatives to the traditional holiday fare, a double-feature may be in order.
Seduced by Suspiria
Two kinds of film critics likely make up the online world this weekend: those who have seen the original Suspiria and those who have not. (This writer falls into the latter category.) But even without the context of what makes Dario Argento’s original a favorite among horror diehards and Cinema As Art™ types, this new Suspiria remake will simply dazzle anyone who appreciates a good big-screen experience.
At a world-renowned dance studio in Cold War Berlin, something strange seems to be going on with management. To start, it really takes a lot of people to run this thing; Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) and her crew of eccentric older dance industry vets seemingly outnumber the performers themselves at times. But more importantly, anyone they disagree with even slightly tends to disappear. Still, this Blanc studio represents the best of the best, so a young dance phenom from rural Ohio named Susie (Dakota Johnson, Fifty Shades) wouldn’t want to be anywhere else even as the peculiarities begin to reveal themselves.
Giving away much more than that would ruin the plot for anyone entirely new to Suspiria, but know that the frenetic yet elegant early dance audition scenes—pulse-quickening in their use of score, the physicality of Johnson, and the kinetic, almost angular camera work—will be equalled in spectacle by some genuinely watch-through-your-fingers expressive gore. Anyone with a passing familiarity with Italian cinema knows its artistic reputation, and Suspiria (2018) pays homage to that kind of visually stunning, edge-pushing filmmaking whenever possible.
Among the filmmaking aspects that will stick with you: Swinton does double-duty in an almost unrecognizable getup as the studio’s main external adversary, an elderly detective named Josef looking into the recent disappearance of a young dancer. Blanc has an elegant creepiness, almost ghostly in her elongation but always quietly in control. Josef seems the polar opposite: meek and seemingly frail despite obvious competence as a formidable foil to the management protecting whatever secrets lie within. The cinematography and sound design take things to 11 again and again—like rich colorization and heightened audio (an almost extinguishing flame sound) as the lights dim before dance practices; or the use of quick cuts, silence, and title cards at various points of the film. The film has room for moments of laughing out loud and genuine sexiness in between unraveling its mystery and introducing horror. And as an ensemble, the main cast of women really feels strong, executing a number of different tones but always exuding a sense of sinister strength (the management) or vulnerable cunning (the pair of dancers we follow closely).
Two and a half hours in a vacuum will always feel like a big ask, and Suspiria will inevitably have to battle comparisons to the beloved original (even if filmmaker Luca Guadagnino, of Call Me By Your Name, prefers “homage” over “remake” nomenclature). But if you enjoy rich performances (#SwintonForever, but Johnson does great, too), supernatural horror, and highly stylized filmmaking, you won’t find a better cinema experience this pre-Halloween weekend.
You want to talk about this Border
Also opening this weekend, Border initially feels like a much quieter film (don’t fret, it has absolutely nothing to do with the current US immigration debates). The story ostensibly follows a Swedish customs agent named Tina who lives a fairly simple life: work, visits to her dad at an elderly care facility, nights at her fairly remote cabin watching TV with Roland, her kinda platonic roommate who raises muscular show dogs. Tina also appears to have some kind of condition—the camerawork emphasizes a really pronounced brow line, bloated fingers, routine heavy breathing. It’s unclear what, but it’s clear she’s different.
At work, at least, this gives Tina an advantage. People trying to smuggle things into the country may underestimate her, but Tina demonstrates again and again that she possess an uncanny ability to sense when someone hides anything nefarious. Maybe police dogs could also sniff out drugs, for instance, but could they find a hidden SIM card? Tina almost smells it on one business traveler, and it turns out the guy tried smuggling child pornography into the country. That particular feat of policing earns Tina a shot at following the child porn case (trying to find where this SIM card came from and who this delivery was for) through in between shifts at the customs desk. But just as she starts earning new responsibilities, Tina finally encounters a border entrant that sets off her Spidey-sense yet seems clean upon further searching. And to complicate matters a bit, this individual looks to have the same condition as Tina.
The mysteries of Border reveal themselves slowly from here, but each one ratchets up the film’s stakes in a delightful manner. The film shows Tina experiencing a reawakening where she intimately examines her background, her identity, her family, her current lifestyle, and her sexuality—Border vaguely mimics other coming-of-age stories like Moonlight or Call Me By Your Name in this regard. But Tina (and the film at large) has to balance this personal exploration against her pursuit of an increasingly disturbing and complicated criminal enterprise. No spoilers, but these two main narrative threads may get intertwined and messy accordingly. (The film’s blurb at Fantastic Fest namechecked Let The Right One In.)
Filmmaker Ali Abbasi does well to blend these two contrasting styles into a single, gripping experience. Watching Tina embrace who she is and what she desires can be genuinely moving, and the location allows for some great imagery of her truly happy against lush Swedish nature. (Swedish actor Eva Melander really, really captivates.) Border also builds to some moments of great tension during her investigative work, leveraging the good will felt towards Tina by introducing this sense of dread that something horrible must be awaiting her professionally given how much her personal life seems to be improving. All throughout, Abbasi drops hints that something more may be at play—Border weaves in these moments of near-magic realism where animals seem to be communicating with Tina or where the camera lingers a bit too long on her analyzing something as seemingly plain as a tree or insect.
Taken in consideration with its Fantastic Fest brethren, Border leans more toward semi-supernatural thriller than pure horror. While both films merit your time and money, if you want more traditional genre or an arthouse cinematic experience, opt for Suspiria first.
If you want a film you’ll be rushing to find others able to talk through it, however, nothing opening this weekend (or for the rest of the year) will feel quite like Border. You’ll leave the theater pondering plenty of questions about what happened (most philosophically applicable to life, naturally), and you’ll have experienced moments of triumph and tragedy blended together as effortlessly as the film marries its disparate genres.
Border and Suspiria each hit US theaters on 10/26.
Listing image by Fantastic Fest