'Suspiria': Film Review | Venice 2018

A murky witches' brew.
11/2/2018

Dakota Johnson plays an American student drawn into the nightmarish secret world of a European dance academy run by Tilda Swinton in Luca Guadagnino's new take on the Dario Argento horror classic.

Luca Guadagnino's elaborate Suspiria remake is a head-scratcher. Following his intoxicating plunge into the giddy pleasure and searing pain of first love, Call Me by Your Name, the Italian director makes a sharp left turn to reinterpret a signature work by Dario Argento, a compatriot whose best films share an appetite for voluptuous excess of a very different kind. While the 1977 original was a lurid fever dream of violent colors and nerve-jangling sounds, Guadagnino's approach is more muted in both palette and tone, opting for insidious weirdness over shock and gore, for granular texture over bold strokes — right up until the operatic bloodbath of its climax.

The Amazon release is bound to be polarizing, with some genre aficionados sure to respond to its respect for the source material while others will bemoan the relative meagerness of its fright factor. The movie, as expected, is exquisitely crafted and rich in atmosphere; it's graced by a distinctively woozy score from Radiohead's Thom Yorke that could hardly be more dissimilar to the cacophonous prog-rock of Goblin that was such an essential part of the original's sensory assault. The remake is never uninteresting. But it begets the question of whether the slender thread of story about a coven of witches operating out of a famed Berlin dance academy can withstand all the narrative detail, social context and cumbersome subplots heaped onto it.

Guadagnino reteams here with his screenwriter on A Bigger Splash, David Kajganich, who mined this vein far more effectively in the terrific debut season of AMC's horror anthology series, The Terror. The remake has a suitably grandiose subtitle: Six Acts and an Epilogue Set in a Divided Berlin, each part bearing its own chapter heading.

The time frame is now rooted more firmly in 1977, during the period known as the "German Autumn." This allows for a backdrop of urban unrest as the bombings, kidnappings and police clashes of the militant Baader-Meinhof Group shake the city; the hijacking of a Lufthansa flight and subsequent demand for the release of imprisoned Red Army Faction leaders plays out in the background over news reports. But given that subliminal suggestions of a link to the witchcraft hub don't pan out, it's arguable whether this adds much.

A secondary thread concerns German psychotherapist Dr. Jozef Klemperer (credited as the unknown Lutz Ebersdorf), still grieving over his tragic separation from his wife during the chaos of the 1943 Berlin bombing. But that also feels like narrative overload aside from providing room for an extended cameo from original Suspiria star Jessica Harper. In what at this point appears to be an open secret exposed by internet fanboys, it also allows for Guadagnino and his frequent muse Tilda Swinton to have some fun by putting her in heavy prosthetics to assume the fake persona of Ebersdorf and take on a double role. Possibly triple if you're paying close attention. Too bad such playfulness isn't more evident elsewhere.

The new movie opens like the first, in a rainstorm, with Chloe Grace Moretz in full-blown freak-out mode as American dancer Patricia Hingle. She barges into Klemperer's home office babbling that her suspicions about witches in the academy were correct, and that her initial impulse to let the mystery figure known as Mother Markos inside her head has given way to terrified dread. Klemperer attributes her panic to paranoid delusions, but her subsequent disappearance and the notebook she left behind prompt the old man to start probing.

Among the cryptic scribblings and pentagram sketches contained in Patricia's book, Argento fans will recognize the names of Mother Suspiriorum, Mother Tenebrarum and Mother Lachryharum. That triumvirate of ancient witches inspired the director's supernatural trilogy that began with Suspiria and continued with Inferno and The Mother of Tears.

The tanztheater company from which Patricia fled here seems modeled on the troupe of German modern dance iconoclast Pina Bausch, allowing Guadagnino to fold in high-impact performance scenes that feed directly into the witchcraft rituals.

Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) is a runaway Mennonite from Ohio (another woolly subplot revealed in flashbacks) with no formal training. Yet she's granted an audition at the prestigious academy and accepted with a full scholarship and free lodging. Senior instructor Miss Tanner (Angela Winkler) gives her a knowing wink while stressing the importance of a woman's autonomy. The raw intensity of Susie's audition exerts a magnetic pull on the school’s enigmatic artistic director, Madame Blanc, played by Swinton at her otherworldly best, chain-smoking up a chilly storm in a series of monastic-chic gowns and a severe curtain of waist-length hair.

Guadagnino and Kajganich give the game away much earlier than Argento by showing a breakfast meeting of the all-female faculty — a freak show ranging from dour frumps to aged glamorpusses — during which they cast their votes for the leadership of Blanc or Markos. That power struggle will play out in the Grand Guignol final act, with Madame Blanc attempting to shield Susie from a fate to which the American is instinctually drawn.

The movie's best — and most horrifically violent — scene revolves around the turbulent exit of Russian lead dancer Olga (Elena Fokina) during rehearsals for one of the company's most celebrated pieces, Volk. (This is partly revealed in the trailer, so hardly counts as a spoiler.) Disturbed by the inadequate explanations given for Patricia's departure, Olga attempts to flee the building before being literally blinded by tears and drawn into a small mirror-lined studio below. As Susie takes her place upstairs and pounds out the dance's percussive rhythms with thunderous force, her movements slam, twist and snap the agonized Olga into knots. The body-horror effects here, combined with editor Walter Fasano's cross-cutting, are first-rate.

At two-and-a-half hours (almost an hour longer than the original), Suspiria feels unnecessarily drawn out, with too many discursive shifts in focus to build much tension. Madame Blanc's mentoring of Susie yields arresting moments, such as an intimate exchange in the American's bedroom conducted entirely via thought transference. But there's too little ambiguity about Susie's destiny to allow Johnson much range or to fuel the suspense.

Mia Goth as Sara, Susie's dorm neighbor and friend, gets more to play as the thriller's moral center. Increasingly fearful, she warns Susie against making a dangerous pact with the witches and follows clues left by Patricia that will lead her into the labyrinthine internal chambers of the building, full of sinister secrets. It's questionable, however, whether anyone unfamiliar with the Argento film will know what's going on when Sara starts counting and retracing footsteps she hears through the walls. As for the gallery of witches, with the exception of the characters played by the marvelous Swinton and Winkler, the roles are insufficiently individualized to make them more than just a leering, menacing pack, an arch sisterhood distinguishable only by looks.

Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, shifting gears from the saturated luminosity of Call Me by Your Name, shoots the movie mostly in the washed-out grays and browns and institutional greens of pre-unification Berlin, the exteriors under heavy skies. That makes the slashes of red in the revealing Volk costumes pop like the fountains of blood that inevitably follow. The look generally, however, is closer to Fassbinder than Argento.

It's all quite aesthetically striking and yet the new Suspiria remains distancing, often borderline inert, not to mention only marginally more coherent than the original version, which showed as little sustained attention to narrative drive as it did to nuanced performance. (Was the great Alida Valli ever hammier? Or the divine Joan Bennett more pricelessly camp?) Guadagnino has made an ambitious homage, but it doesn’t really benefit from its more intellectualized gaze, instead draining the stomach-churning thrills of great horror.

Production companies: Frenesy Film Company, Videa Spa, Mythology Entertainment, First Sun, Memo Films, in association with Dario Argento and Claudio Argento
Distributor: Amazon
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth, Lutz Ebersdorf, Angela Winkler, Chloe Grace Moretz, Ingrid Caven, Elena Fokina, Sylvie Testud, Renee Soutendijk, Christine Leboutte, Malgosia Bela, Fabrzia Sacchi, Jessica Harper
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Screenwriter: David Kajganich, based on the original screenplay by Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi
Producers: Gabriele Moratti, William Sherak, Silvia Venturini Fendi, Francesco Melzi D’Eril, Luca Guadagnino, David Kajganich, Marco Morabito, Bradley J. Fischer
Executive producers: Kimberly Steward, Lauren Beck, Josh Godfrey, Stella Savino, James Vanderbilt, Roberto Manni, Natalie Galazka, Massimiliano Violante, Carlo Antonelli
Director of photography: Sayombhu Mukdeeprom
Production designer: Inbal Weinberg
Costume designer: Giulia Piersanti
Music: Thom Yorke
Editor: Walter Fasano
Casting: Stella Savino, Avy Kaufman
Choreographer: Damien Jalet
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)

Rated R, 153 minutes