Dario Argento’s 1977 “Suspiria” is hardly a great movie, or even a great horror movie. The tale of a young woman who enrolls in a German dance school only to find that its staff turns out to be a coven of witches is pretty dumb to start with, and Argento was never a master of narrative even in the best cases. But the picture was memorable as an explosion of sound and color, from its garish visuals to its pulsating score. And it careened forward at a pace that allowed you to dismiss all the absurdity as the roller-coaster ride sped on.
Now Luca Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” has appeared, not so much a remake of Argento’s movie as an attempt to turn it into a Film with a capital “F.” The result is a lugubrious exercise in pretension both narrative and stylistic that snuffs the life out of the tawdry source material and renders it well-nigh unwatchable. If Argento’s “Suspiria” was a goofy, tackily vibrant fever dream, Guadagnino’s is an artsy attempt to transform it into a dark nightmare pregnant with profundity, and all it shows is that it’s still impossible to make a high-toned silk purse out of a lurid, lowbrow sow’s ear.
The plot, of course, remains centered on a young dancer who joins the academy whose faculty are witches. She eventually discovers what the motivation behind the Satanic activity—and the murders attendant to it—is all about. But whereas for Argento, that was just an occasion for a wild exercise in color, sound and weirdness, logic be damned, for Guadagnino it’s a skeleton on which to build a fable about the emergence of female strength in a wounded male world, or—as he has auggested himself—a film about mothers.
The seriousness with which Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich take their effort is indicated by the elaborate structure they impose on the material, and the major additions they make to it This isn’t just a movie, it’s a succession of chapters or “acts,” each announced by an imposing title card. It’s also set in the divided Berlin of 1977, with persistent allusions to the grim historical circumstances of the time—the bombings and plane hijackings undertaken by West German and Palestinian terrorists.
In addition to all that, the script adds a major new character in Dr. Josef Klemperer (advertised in the credits as being played by an actor named Lutz Ebersdorf, though it’s fairly common knowledge that’s a pseudonym). He’s a doddering white-haired psychologist to whom Patricia Hingle (Chloë Grace Moretz), a frantic student at the Markos Dance Academy, comes to declare her suspicions about the place. Klemperer considers her a typically hysterical female, babbling about Mother Markos and her coven, but when she abruptly disappears, he peruses the frightening scribbled notebook she left behind and approaches the police to investigate. Naturally their efforts prove unavailing—especially since the witches enrapture the cops who visit them—and so Klemperer is forced to look into things himself, even as he continues to grieve the loss of his wife Anke (a cameo by Jessica Harper, the star of Argento’s original) back in 1943.
Simultaneously, American Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), a waif fleeing a repressive childhood in an Ohio Mennonite community, shows up to audition at the Academy, and though untrained she demonstrates a degree of animal power that earns her not only the immediate attention of the school’s artistic director Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) but a full scholarship—as well as a chance to take the lead in an upcoming performance of their signature ballet, “Volk”—a title with obvious echoes of the nation’s past.
That’s fortuitous, because Olga (Elena Fokina), the girl who was to take that part, has announced her intention to leave as a result of Hingle’s mysterious absence. The coincidence leads to what is the film’s single most memorable sequence, in which Susie’s audition for the role alternates with its effect on Olga—a virtuoso montage of action and editing that may not actually be scary, but is certainly unsettling (and for some will be positively revolting).
How these various threads eventually tie together, culminating in a grand finale in which Mother Markos finally makes her big appearance, would be a chore, perhaps even an impossible one. Suffice it to say that this “Suspiria,” edited by Walter Fasano, mostly lumbers along at a pace as stately as that the aged Klemperer affects—it winds up running, at 153 minutes, nearly an hour longer than the original; even the performance of “Volk,” with the troupe garbed in some remarkably outré outfits, comes across as a loony riff by choreographer Damien Jalet out of Pina Bausch territory rather than a witty foreboding of things to come.
There’s much to admire in Johnson’s performance—no least her response to the role’s physical demands—but the film is undoubtedly a tribute to Guadagnino’s muse Swinton. It’s best if viewers find out about her multifaceted contributions to it by themselves (or through sleuthing they can do afterward); suffice it to say that while it’s possible to criticize what she and the director have pulled off as a mere stunt, it’s one that definitely works. Mia Goth, as Susie’s school friend Sara, gets some creepy footage as a girl eager to discover the secrets that lurk within the academy’s walls, Moretz plays to the rafters in her brief scene; and Fokina shows enormous versatility, of the physical sort, in her single major sequence (though special effects are obviously involved as well). But much of the fun comes from watching grande dames like Angela Winkler, Ingrid Caven, Sylvie Testud and Alek Wek camping it up as Madame Blanc’s faculty colleagues.
Any Guadagnino film boasts extraordinary visuals, and this one is no exception. Inbal Weinberg’s production design and Giulia Piersanti’s costumes are ravishing in their way, though the color palette of cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom emphasizes drab browns and grays, befitting the moody atmosphere. Nor should one overlook the makeup effects; they’re as important as anything else here—more so, in fact—and they’re enormously impressive.
Still, while you can admire Guadagnino’s achievement in reimaging “Suspiria”—this is obviously a very personal vision, carried through with absolute conviction—it’s unhappily the case that his film, apart from some potently disturbing imagery, is not at all frightening, rather dull, and decidedly silly. Ultimately it tries to elevate the horror genre in the way that Kubrick did in “The Shining,” which transcended its source material to such an extent that it even irritated the source’s author. But Guadagnino does not prove Kubrick’s equal, whatever his admiration for his work. In its effect his movie resembles “The Shining” less than it does a picture with a theme similar to its own—Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” Its message is, to be sure, less deliberately opaque, but the end result is the same: despite the obvious artistry behind it, the new “Suspiria” is loony and tedious in approximately equal measure, whatever it wants to say.