Film Review: SuspiriaLuca Guadagnino’s remake of 'Suspiria' puts a grimly gory spin on the story of a naive American dance student trapped in a world of witches.
1977: Fresh-faced Iowan Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) was raised within a repressive, rural Mennonite community, but found personal freedom in studying dance. Being invited to join the prestigious, Berlin-based Markos Dance Company is a dream come true, an opportunity to both expand her professional credentials and further her personal rebellion against a strict, religious upbringing.
To be sure, divided Berlin is no Garden of Eden—news reports about the Baader-Meinhoff drone in the background, and the Berlin Wall, a daily reminder of the city’s sundering at the end of World War II, lies no more than a few yards from the entrance to the school presided over by formidably icy Madame Blanc and the authoritarian faculty. Even Blanc’s renowned dance “Volk,” choreographed three decades earlier amid the ruins of post-WWII Germany and now being revived, is a daily reminder that art and beauty are often born of chaos and pain.
But Susie is excited to be surrounded by strong, passionate women in a vibrant city far from the home where girls dressed like 19th-century housemaids spent their days praying and doing farm chores. If only the circumstances weren’t so unsettling. Why did dancer Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz, in a tiny role) disappear after hinting darkly to her psychiatrist, Dr. Jozef Klemperer, about wicked goings-on—the police are still looking for her, despite rumors she may have joined a revolutionary faction. Why did Olga, another dancer, exit abruptly? And what are the teachers laughing about as they eat dinner together at the staff table, exchanging knowing glances and smug smiles?
The reputation of Dario Argento’s Suspiria is such that anyone with even a passing interest in the horror genre either already knows or can make a pretty good guess as to the general nature of what’s wrong at the Markos Dance Academy. Guadagnino (of 2017’s award-winning Call Me By Your Name) doesn’t mimic the unforgettable candy-colored look of Argento's original—widely considered one of his best films and certainly his most popular; in fact, he goes to the opposite extreme. This Suspiria is all sickly browns and greys, gloomily shadowed corridors that alternate with the brightly lit rehearsal rooms and their mirrored walls.
It’s a smart reimagining, but not a particularly compelling one, which is the problem overall. It’s well cast—especially Tilda Swinton as both Madame Blanc and the elderly Dr. Klemperer (an open secret since the film began screening)—and contains at least one haven’t-seen-that-before scene, which is no mean feat in 2018. It’s both thoughtful and suitably grisly and has its own aesthetic, though the score by Thom Yorke of Radiohead has nowhere near the impact of the Goblin original.
Overall, it’s hard to imagine Guadagnino’s version having the staying power of Argento’s, which continues to find new admirers four decades after its initial release. That Suspiria is sui generis, utterly absorbing and aggressively ageless—it too is supposed to take place in Germany, but looks like a stained-glass fairytale come to life. This one is an intelligent, well-made film with some standout moments, like the bone-cracking end of one rebellious dancer in an empty, brilliantly lit studio—it’s one for the “most horrifying moments” montage, but not for the ages.