152 min., rated R.
Luca Guadagnino’s loose remake of Dario Argento’s stylishly kaleidoscopic 1977 giallo “Suspiria” has been a decade in the making. If Argento’s fairy tale-ish fever dream needed to be reimagined, Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” goes its own way as a singular, grimmer nightmare born out of hell with a daringly transgressive vision. This 2018 rebirth defiantly differs visually and emotionally from Argento’s operatic, rule-breakingly surreal, gorgeously sensory phantasmagoria, and it is far more thematically dense and heady with a 152-minute running time, but it is just as hypnotic. Instead of merely imitating Argento’s masterwork, screenwriter David Kajganich (2016’s “A Bigger Splash”) takes the seeds of the original film and plants them with Guadagnino’s artful, fascinatingly strange, more polarizing sway of the material, along with historical context that doesn’t completely pay off but does add a thematic layer of abusing power to topple the patriarchy. Languidly taking its time but grabbing hold like an inescapable spell, “Suspiria” never fails to seduce, disturb, and mesmerize, as if the film itself was conjured through dark, evil alchemy by a coven of witches.
The original “Suspiria” was pretty straightforward in terms of narrative—a young American ballerina comes to discover that her ballet school in Munich is run by a coven of witches—but it was more of a experiential mood piece. In this “Suspiria,” the fundamental bones of the narrative and character names are the same, and though a minor tweak, the academy is now all-female, not co-ed, and specializes in avant-garde dance in lieu of ballet. Unfolding through “six acts and an epilogue set in divided Berlin,” the film opens in Ohio in 1977 with an ailing woman (Malgosia Bela) on her death bed. Meanwhile, in Berlin, dance student Patricia Hingle (Chloë Grace Moretz) seeks help from her psychiatrist, Dr. Jozef Klemperer (Lutz Ebersdorf aka Tilda Swinton), when she tells him that the Helena Markos Dance Company is run by a coven of witches. He chalks up her hysterics to delusions, until Patricia goes missing. The next day, Ohio Mennonite dancer Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) arrives in Berlin to join the dance company and be taught by her idol, dance instructor Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). When the formally untrained Susie is welcomed to audition, her raw talent instantly catches the eye of the austere Blanc and all of the other matrons. With rumors suggesting that runaway Patricia has left to join the anti-fascism terrorist group Red Army Faction, her disappearance leaves an open spot for Susie, who’s given free room and board. Fellow dancer Sara (Mia Goth) is the first to realize that something isn’t quite right with the school, and by that time, it’s too late for Susie, Blanc’s ultimate muse whose talent for the dance is tied closely to the wicked goings-on in the bowels of the school.
In form and style, “Suspiria” is distinctly its own beast, one that unsettles, sears into the recesses, and leaves one staggering out of the cinema two and a half hours later but ready to unpack all of it. While it is no mystery that the dance company is a front for a coven, director Luca Guadagnino (2017's "Call Me by Your Name") finds his own haunting tempo and baroque, forbidding mood that envelops the viewer. Whereas Argento sprinkled in show-stopping, elaborately gruesome slasher-centric set-pieces from beginning to end, the first act of violence comes later into this film. An unshakably ghastly sequence involves disgruntled Russian dancer Olga (Elena Fokina) meeting her punishing, bone-cracking undoing in an empty, mirrored studio during a tandem dance, as Susie’s physical movements unknowingly mimic Olga’s torturous pretzel-like contortions as if she were a voodoo doll. Writer David Kajganich’s screenplay goes beyond the original film and outside the school with the specificity of the story’s 1977 backdrop, a time of political unrest in Germany during the German Autumn. As news broadcasts alert the terrorist airplane hijacking to release imprisoned members of the Red Army Faction, politics exist within the dance company as well, as there is a divide between the matrons who think Madame Blanc should remain in charge and others who see someone else as a vessel for the third Mother, Mother Suspirium.
Dakota Johnson is subtle but physically uninhibited as Susie Bannion, navigating through the story quite differently than Jessica Harper’s Susie did in the original film; in one way, Susie is a passive vessel, but in other ways that should not be revealed, she has more power than anyone as she gets drawn further into the darkness. Mia Goth (2017’s “Marrowbone”), a unique screen presence, is a more accessible guide as Sara, who learns through Dr. Klemperer that danger is afoot at the academy and does some of her own investigating. Tilda Swinton wears multiple hats and pounds of make-up in two of three roles, but as Madame Blanc, she is effectively severe and intimidating. Lutz Ebersdorf, who’s actually Swinton underneath rather impressive old-age prosthetics, provides a compelling and sympathetic emotional entry into the story as Dr. Jozef Klemperer, a Holocaust survivor who’s still in despair over the disappearance of his wife, Anke (Jessica Harper). With that said, it’s interesting to note that no other men are given speaking parts besides a couple of police officers who are stripped naked and mocked by the witches. Down to the smallest of parts of the predominantly female cast, all of the performers make a lasting impression, including Chloë Grace Moretz, as the quick-to-leave Patricia; Angela Winkler, as the menacing Miss Tanner; Ingrid Caven, as Miss Vendegast; Renée Soutendijk, as Miss Huller.
Alluring, maddening, and even downright queasy, “Suspiria” is not most films—it is decidedly not for everyone but will provoke a strong reaction on either side—as it cannot be dismissed or denied for its unmistakable craft and rattling, spellbinding power that one cannot turn away from. Departing from the vibrantly colorful aesthetic of Argento’s film, cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (2017’s “Call Me by Your Name”) lends a moody, painterly eye and employs ‘70s-style zooms to the dreary, monochromatic palette; before blood is gushed, the only real source of color is Susie’s red hair. Though Goblin’s part-tinkly, part-foreboding, whisper-laden music score is hard to match, Radiohead vocalist Thom Yorke’s indelibly eerie and portentous arrangement comes mighty close. The choreography and the editing of the dancing, which plays an integral role in this version of the story, is stunning, as seen in a dread-ratcheting public performance of “Volk” that has all of the dancers costumed in red rope. And then, there is the ritualistic Grand Guignol orgy of the sixth act, which goes for broke as a brazenly gory test of an audience’s endurance. It is carnal, infernal, and shockingly grotesque, and it might be the moment that divides audiences the most on the entire film. As long as one can give oneself over to the spell it casts, “Suspiria” feels like a full meal that invites viewers to dissect and study it, and whether you want it there or not, it slinks under your skin.
Grade: B +