The first thing you should know about Luca Guadagnino’s version of Suspiria is that it is merely based on the characters of Dario Argento’s original. David Kajganich is given screenwriting credit and Argento and Daria Nicolodi are credited for the characters. That’s it. This film is more different to the original Suspiria than comparable. Both happen to take place in 1977 West Berlin, and the characters are similarly named, but the likenesses end there. A direct comparison would be unfair. That said, Guadagnino’s version will probably never achieve the cult following of the original, for it’s overlong, ponderous and takes itself way too seriously to be loved in any similar fashion as the original, a sort of impressionist masterpiece on paranoia and psychosis, despite its dated special effects and overdubs.
Guadagnino’s Suspiria opens in with a go-for-broke performance by Chloë Grace Moretz as Patricia, raving about eerie happenings inside the Markos Dance Academy to her therapist Dr. Josef Klemperer (whose high-pitched voice gives away Tilda Swinton behind a load of makeup), an elderly Holocaust survivor. As she bounds between ranting and collapsing in tears she flips over a book by Jung with an eye decorating its cover, a gesture not only alluding to her fear of being watched but that also puts a Jungian interpretation of this film to rest. In another early scene, Klemperer also makes a reference to Lacan. Again, this film, with its female-centric concerns and horrors, defies these icons of 20th century psychological concerns.
Just as soon as these early scenes brush off these noted male psychologists, whose theories never considered the female psyche as much as the male, Patricia goes missing. When Klemperer notices her missing person flyer, he is inspired to investigate the dance studio Patricia once called home. This sets up a story that will feature merciless women on various levels doing some rather cruel things psychologically, not to mention physically, while men are side-lined to the periphery. Men are so helpless in this movie that there is a particularly chilling yet funny moment featuring some cackling matrons of the studio waving a sharp object before the slack, exposed genitals of a catatonic police detective (shout out to Angela Winkler for the best laugh and expression of the coven).
As Patricia disappears, Dakota Johnson enters the story as Susie Bannion, who leaves her Mennonite family in rural Ohio for a spot at the renowned dance company, despite a sick mom (Malgorzata Bela) back home. They put her up in a room inside the cold and stark building, which houses the school, studio and theater (Guadagnino also likes to remind viewers that it faces the Berlin Wall). In one of the film’s most sustained, disturbing scenes, senior dancer Olga (Elena Fokina) cracks during rehearsal for “Volk,” a dance by Madame Blanc (also Swinton), Susie enthusiastically tries out for the lead role then and there. As Susie steps up, Olga, who had stormed out of the studio in tears, finds herself trapped in a mirrored rehearsal space. While Susie makes a strong impression on Blanc with her movements, Olga, trapped and alone, begins to dance uncontrollably, her body contorting beyond a breaking point as she smashes herself into the floor and glass panels until she’s a bloody, twisted pulp. As the associative editing suggests, this isn’t the innocent, narcotized Suzy of Argento’s Suspiria.
Whereas the original movie focused on the horrors of witchy behavior behind the scenes at the dance school and lots of paranoid dread by the innocent young dancers at the heart of the film, Guadagnino’s version tries to do much more, sometimes too much more. It’s not like the original needed these odd loose references to the Holocaust and the Baader-Meinhof Group. Connections are so loosely presented they hardly feel as though they matter. The film also drags whenever the dancers and their matrons are outside of the dance studio. However, Susie’s flashbacks home, which could also be a telepathic connection to her sickly mother, add a depth to the film’s twist ending, and there is something to be said about the stunt casting of Swinton as the only significant male character of the film.
The film’s inhabitants are consistently beautifully dressed by costume designer Giulia Piersanti. Suspiria is also engagingly shot by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, whose subtle zooms hint at something deeper inside the characters. However, much as this writer loves Radiohead, Thom Yorke’s first attempt at a feature film score, an often lovely, sometimes creepy piano-based work, falls short at adding anything to the film’s eerie quality, unlike the original, where the soundtrack by Goblin and Argento heightened the proceedings in often extreme fashion. Again, this is a different movie, but the point is to note that the new film’s quality is rather inconsistent. This writer, a fan of Béla Tarr, grew restless too often for the filmmakers’ strained attempts to say larger things about women, the occult and the divided Berlin of the past. The attempt sometimes feels noble, but a rather indulgent and zany bloodbath toward the end of the film feels more mean-spirited, flashy, ham-fisted and ultimately empty than anything that might add further depth to the proceedings of this supposed art house horror film.
Suspiria runs 152 minutes, is in English, German and French with English subtitles and is rated R. It opens in our Miami area in the following theaters: O Cinema Wynwood, Regal Kendall Village Stadium 16 IMAX & RPX Movie Theatre, CinéBistro at Dolphin Mall, AMC Aventura 24,AMC Sunset Place 24, CMX Brickell City Centre, South Beach Regal 18 Miami Beach, CMX Brickell City Centre and Cinemark Paradise 24 in Davie. For screenings in other parts of the U.S., visit this link. Amazon Studios invited us to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.