Polarizing is too tame a word to describe reactions to Luca Guadagnino’s radical rethinking of Suspiria. Either you’ll dig in or bolt for the exit — no in between. For starters, Dario Argento’s 1977 landmark of horror didn’t need a remake. The original, about an exclusively female dance academy run by witches, is still there in all its bracing, bloody, neon glory for you to stream and get drunk on. It’s clear that the movie had its way with Guadagnino, so much so that the director of Call Me By Your Name, A Bigger Splash and I Am Love shows his respect by absorbing the essence of Argento (a.k.a. Asia’s dad) and then going his own muted, cerebral way. Suspiria ’77 offered up 98 minutes of exotic, erotic, creepy, campy thrills, with hot music by Goblin. The new film takes a punishing 152 minutes to think things through, with chilly music by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, allowing chunks of sinful fun and cheap sensation to get lost in the process. It keeps announcing it has subtext and you’d better pay attention. There might be a quiz.
Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kagjanich present their version in six acts with an epilogue. Dakota Johnson, freed from Fifty Shades bondage, excels as Susie Bannion, a sheltered Mennonite from Ohio, who arrives in late Seventies Berlin to attend the prestigious Helena Markos Dance Academy. Immediately, she is smacked with reminders of German history, from the Nazi era to the Berlin wall smack outside the academy’s doors. The Baader-Meinhof Gang, a violent group of young leftists, throws bombs in the streets in an effort to create a new Germany. Danger is everywhere, especially inside the academy where Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) enlists Susie to perform in Volk, a modern dance piece choreographed by Damien Jalet, of such muscular writhing and pounding that a wrong move can cause bodily injury. Swinton stuns in the role, playing this chainsmoking taskmaster with a Pina Bausch intensity and sudden flashes of warmth that make all the girls her slaves. This will come in handy when she seeks to lead a revolt against the exceedingly unmotherly Mother Markos.
The resplendent Swinton had previously shown up earlier, this time covered in prosthetic makeup, to portray Dr. Josef Klemperer, an elderly German psychoanalyst still feeling guilt over letting his wife (Jessica Harper, the original Susie, in a cameo) fall prey to the Nazis. The doctor is currently treating Patricia Hingle (Chloe Grace Moretz), a student at the academy who tells him that the witches who run the place want to “hollow her out and eat her cunt on a plate.” It’s an attention-getting statement that the doctor puts down to paranoid delusion, a stinging rebuke to the patriarchy’s attempts to write off the claims of women. Guadagnino soon puts the lie to alleged paranoia as Susie performs a dance while below another student, Olga (Elena Fokina), is trapped alone in a rehearsal room while her body attacks her from within in a wicked parody of Susie’s dance moves. It’s a scene of crippling terror, shot by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom and edited by Walter Fasano with brutal brilliance.
There are several such scenes in Suspiria, including a public performance with the dancers slithering around in red rope and a truly horrifying glimpse of the witches stripped of all artifice as they prepare to feed on new blood. This 2.0 take achieves hallucinatory marvels, marred only by overlength and his desire to give the horror a historical context that’s as grandiose as it is grand, maddening as it is mesmerizing and infuriating as it is indelible. Guadagnino’s reach far exceeds his grasp. But to watch him excavate evil to find a sorrowful truth is something you won’t want to miss.