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The new Suspiria is both too much and not enough. Director Luca Guadagnino takes the basic story from the Dario Argento horror classic, and reimagines it into something way more ambitious. This is a film with a lot on its mind: It takes on weighty themes like feminism, World War II, and forgiveness, setting it all during a tumultuous episode of late 20th century German history. It is also a horror movie, with some imagery so bizarre and grotesquely beautiful that you just may admire the craft involved. Guadagnino cannot weave these threads together, so he uses bloated storytelling to compensate for his film’s identity crisis. When multiple exploding heads barely register as shocking, then something has gone awry.
Before we get to the sinister dance studio where most of the film takes place, there is a strange prologue involving a disturbed young dancer (Chloë Grace Moretz). She is aloof and belligerent, unable to articulate what ails her. Tilda Swinton plays Josef, her elderly therapist (Swinton has played male characters before, but here she is barely recognizable under layers of impressive make-up). The dancer ultimately disappears, and the action shifts toward Susie (Dakota Johnson), who wants to audition for the same studio. Her performance captures the attention of Madame Blanc, the company leader (also played by Swinton). But Susie has no idea that the studio is also home to a coven of witches, and in the shadows they’re looking for a new leader.
Most people remember Argento’s Suspiria for its color palette. Hot red was that film’s color of choice, and when characters died off, their blood was almost pink. Guadagnino and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, who previously worked together on Call Me By Your Name, instead prefer the drab greys of Germany in winter. This drained color adds a sense of realism, which is only amplified by news reports of Lufthansa Flight 181, a plane that was hi-jacked in order to negotiate the release of Baader Meinhof leaders. By combining supernatural elements with such a tumultuous period, screenwriter David Kajganich cannily suggests that true evil just might lurk under the surface of actual places. Horror movies are often self-contained, but this Suspiria is of our world.
The irony is that the film’s best scenes happen inside the dance studio, with Susie and the others cut off from the outside. Johnson is a convincing dancer, and her routines combine the mid-century choreography of Martha Graham with Pina Bausch. There is an incredible scene where Guadagnino cross-cuts between Susie’s solo performance, and another dancer who is trapped in a room without doors. As Susie contorts her body, the other dancer’s body twists in cruel, inhuman ways. The suggestion here is that the coven uses Susie’s movement to torture the dancer; this mix of beauty and body horror scratches the same itch as the Argento film. Swinton is also terrific as a teacher who demands perfection: She is not as cruel as Vincent Cassel in Black Swan, but her icy distance from her dancers creates in them a plausible desire for perfection.
Another key difference between this film and the Argento film is their runtimes. The original is just over an hour and a half, while this one is two and a half hours. Guadagnino and Kajganich pad the story with subplots, like Josef ’s investigation into the disappearance of his patient, and the fissures within the coven’s middle-management. These asides do not capture the viewer’s imagination since the film relies too much on suggestion.
Suspiria looks great, raising many intriguing questions along the way, but that’s another way of saying the film can be obtuse. When Kajganich does provide answers, he borrows from history in an unearned way. Josef ’s investigation, for example, stems from his failures during the Holocaust, and his genuine pain seems glib when Guadagnino juxtaposes it with withered old crones, Grand Guignol horror, and a Thom Yorke score that just sounds like throwaway Radiohead tunes.
All these threads come together in the lengthy, bizarre climax. No coven is quite complete unless they undergo a ritual where they commune with Satan or whatever, and Guadagnino knows that. What is odd about the ritual is not what happens, but how it unfolds in a lifeless way. The original Suspiria had a frenzied dream logic to its climax, while this one is more patient, even subdued. Since this sequence features the goriest, most extreme violence in the entire film, the deflated horror finally leads to a gnawing sense of disappointment.
Suspiria is a fascinating art film, one that mixes high and low culture into something that invites passionate discussion. But as a horror film, it lacks the defiance and “don’t give a fuck” mania the genre often requires.
Suspiria opens Thursday at Regal Majestic Stadium 20 & IMAX in Silver Spring, Arclight Bethesda, and Regal Rockville Center Stadium 13.