When art-minded film directors stoop to genre-minded filmmaking, it’s generally a good idea to duck. Despite sequences that may lodge in your memory forever, Luca Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” is no exception to this rule.
For those coming in late: The original “Suspiria” (1977) is a cult legend among horror fans and a key entry in the “giallo” school of Italian gore. Directed by Dario Argento, it stars American actress Jessica Harper as a naive young dancer at a very creepy German ballet school, and it’s notable for A) stunning set design and cinematography, B) baroque sadism and lots of fake blood, and C) making little to no sense.
Why Guadagnino, the mastermind of such playfully sensuous dramas as “I Am Love” (2009), “A Bigger Splash” (2015), and last year’s “Call Me By Your Name,” has decided to remake Argento’s movie isn’t immediately clear. To amp up the artfulness? To rev up the violence? To finally provide us with a plot?
“Suspiria” 2.0 does all of those things to some degree, and, like all Guadagnino’s films — if rather more darkly — it revels in the Rabelasian aspects of life: food, art, lust, dance. But the idea that I think is really charging this moviemaker’s batteries is the eldritch, uncivilized power of women.
The new movie has a screenplay by David Kajganich that takes a free hand with the original while incorporating aspects of the mythology in “Inferno” (1980), the second of Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy. (“Mother of Tears,” 2007, is the third.) For the purposes of this review, let’s just say that the staff of the Markos Dance Academy in West Berlin has a history that may predate Martha Graham and Isadora Duncan by several millennia.
The year is 1977, the Berlin Wall is still up, and the Lufthansa 181 terrorist hostage crisis is unfolding on TV and in the streets. Susie Bannion, the waifish American dance student arriving at the school in the opening scenes, is now played by Dakota Johnson (the “Fifty Shades” movies) with less innocence and a lot more ambiguity. We’ve already met one of the academy’s students, Patricia (an unnerving cameo by Chloe Grace Moretz), who leaves a diary with paranoid jottings at the office of her elderly therapist, Dr. Klemperer, before vanishing into the night.
We also meet the school’s chief dance instructor, Madame Blanc, played by Tilda Swinton as an austere, severe high priestess of the dance. Blanc quickly senses something special about the new American pupil, and one of the most rewarding aspects of the new “Suspiria” is the way it uses modern dance as both a swirling, thumping plot device and a form of theatrical expression in its own right. Which is very Guadagnino, as is the choreography’s debts to modern dance legends like Mary Wigman and Pina Bausch. (See Monica Castillo’s smart unpacking of these influences in a recent Vanity Fair piece.) If there’s a governing sensibility in this “Suspiria,” it’s Bausch and loom.
So where’s the horror? When Susie is dancing before a full classroom, something awful is happening in a nearby practice room in ways that may be linked to her performance. And as Dr. Klemperer urges another Markos student, Sarah (Mia Goth), to investigate Patricia’s disappearance, we and she become privy to all manner of ancient, icky secrets. The first “Suspiria” liked things with sharp edges. This one prefers the sound of breaking bones.
Guadagnino is working against his usual skill set here, with colors as desaturated as a Soviet holiday calendar and a muggy atmosphere of unease that cuts against his usual subversively carnal lushness. At 152 minutes, “Suspiria” is a haul, and it would be a complete downer if the director weren’t getting his jollies in more unexpected ways.
For one thing, the elderly Klemperer, credited as played by one “Lutz Ebersdorf,” is actually Swinton doing devilish double-duty under remarkably believable old-age makeup. For another, the coven of dancing instructors surrounding Madame Blanc reads like a Who’s Who of troublemaking actresses from Europe’s best films of the ’70s and ’80s: Angela Winkler from “The Lost Honor of Katherina Blum,” Renee Soutendijk from Paul Verhoeven’s breakthrough movie, “The Fourth Man,” Ingrid Caven of Fassbinder’s repertory company. Even the star of the original “Suspiria,” Jessica Harper, turns up for a shivery cameo.
Such touches give “Suspiria” a frisson of connoisseur’s delight even as the movie starts spinning out of control in the final scenes. All hell eventually breaks loose in a climax that is preposterous, ridiculous, exhaustively choreographed — a shout-out to Damien Jalet’s propulsive work throughout the film — and ripe with the sight and sounds of exploding body parts.
Does that gruesome Lovecraftian finale represent a secret sisterhood that unites the students and that reaches back to Lilith and beyond? (This is a movie in which the only major male role is played by a woman.) Is Guadagnino making a political statement about totalitarianism and the radical left? (Beats me.) What “Suspiria” mostly leaves behind is an acrid taste of having experienced something stylish but unfulfilling — and mild dread at the prospect of the director’s recently announced next project, a dramatic adaptation of Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks.” With any luck, he’s used up all the blood on this one.
Directed by Luca Guadagnino. Written by David Kajganich, based on characters created by Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi. Starring Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth. 152 minutes. At Fenway. R (Disturbing content including ritualistic violence, bloody images and graphic nudity, some language including sexual references). In English and German, with subtitles.