A hoot, a folly and a marvel, Luca Guadagnino’s magnificently obsessive remake of Dario Argento’s “Suspiria” gets its ghastliest scene out of the way early, but good luck dislodging its sickle-like hooks from your brain.
Two students at an elite dance academy stand in two separate rooms, unaware that their bodies have been supernaturally conjoined. While Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) dances gracefully of her own free will, Olga (Elena Fokina) is brutally tossed about, a marionette jerked by invisible strings. Bones crack, limbs twist and urine pools in a tableau that’s part ritual punishment, part pretzel-making demo and all shivery body-horror bliss.
For the devoted horror purists in the audience, what Susie’s dance does to Olga might seem analagous to what Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” does to Argento’s “Suspiria,” twisting and torturing it beyond recognition. But there is meaning in this mutilation and, if you don’t regard the classics as sacrosanct, a grim, brooding sort of pleasure.
The early notices that emerged from this year’s Venice International Film Festival suggested we might be in for the most polarizing howl of a movie since Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” — a title that could easily have taken the place of this one’s, punctuation and all.
With its chilly gray palette, its emphasis on intellectual rather than visceral jolts and its luxuriant 152-minute running time, Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” shares little more than a basic premise — dancers and witches and knives, oh my! — with Argento’s lush, gaudy, take-your-poison-straight original. That picture was a landmark in the Italian giallo horror tradition, an art-nouveau nightmare doused in candy-apple blood and a demon-possessed music box of a score by the progressive rock group Goblin.
Guadagnino, who has said he wanted to remake “Suspiria” since he first saw it more than 30 years ago, signals both his reverence and his seriousness by departing from it in every way imaginable — visually, sonically, dramatically, emotionally. He has drained away the bright, lurid colors and most of the scares, and crowded the story with historical and political detail. Notably, too, he has muted the swooning eroticism of his earlier triumphs, “Call Me by Your Name” (2017) and “I Am Love” (2010), and slowed the story’s pulse to a steady, narcotic drip. This “Suspiria” takes its time creeping into your veins.
It’s 1977, the same year Argento’s film was released, and the radicals of the Red Army Faction and the lingering specters of the Holocaust hold sway over a rainy, still-divided Berlin. Whether we should fear the demons that lurk within the Helena Markos Dance Company or the violent events transpiring outside its walls is one of the movie’s more insistent questions. It begins with a student, Patricia Hingle (Chloë Grace Moretz), fleeing the school in distress and meeting with an elderly psychologist, Dr. Josef Klemperer (Lutz Ebersdorf), who interprets her ravings (“They are witches!”) as a paranoid delusion.
Patricia runs off, rumoredly to join the RAF radicals, and is replaced at the academy in short order by Johnson’s Susie Bannion, a young woman from Ohio who is strikingly pale of skin, red of hair and assured of manner. Her audition instantly rivets the academy’s formidable director, Madame Blanc, played by Tilda Swinton, an actress with so much natural sorcery in her fingertips that the task of playing an actual witch (not for the first time) summons forth one of her more restrained performances. Maybe even two of her more restrained performances, but I’ll say no more.
Johnson has faced off with Swinton before, in Guadagnino’s “A Bigger Splash” (2016), and after the softcore exertions of the “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy, she is no stranger to being indoctrinated into a world governed by strange physical demands. Her Susie seems destined for horrible greatness from the moment she arrives, her outsider’s naiveté belied by her uncanny self-possession and the technical brio of her dancing.
Madame Blanc consorts with the other members of her faculty, a Nicolas Roeg’s gallery of witches that includes the marvelous if under-used Angela Winkler, Alek Wek, Sylvie Testud and Ingrid Caven (who worked with and was once married to the German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a major influence here). They position Susie as the company’s new lead, and the implications of that decision are of far greater consequence in this “Suspiria” than they ever were in Argento’s.
Guadagnino, always less interested in what happens than how it happens, has structured this six-part narrative as a detective story, and one that seems perversely willing to explain its own mysteries. The screenwriter, David Kajganich (“A Bigger Splash”), sends Susie into the school’s secret archives with another sympathetic student, Sara (the excellent Mia Goth), and turns Dr. Klemperer’s private investigation into a parallel subplot. But the script also infiltrates the coven’s inner circle, laying bare the witches’ behind-the-scenes rivalries and giving their incantations an almost banal, bureaucratic hum. It all but nudges us onto their side.
And why not? I mean, forced to choose between hijacking planes with the Baader-Meinhof Gang and eating chicken wings with Tilda Swinton, what would you do? It’s not an entirely facetious question. In this movie’s boldly absurd reimagining, the art of dancing — mediated by Damien Jalet’s forceful choreography and Thom Yorke’s eerie, dissonant music — becomes a form of supernatural resistance. The Markos coven is an all-female institution that channels violent national traumas into vibrant art, a stronghold against the tyrannies of the police state and the wars waged by mortal men. For Susie, it also offers a bold rejection of her repressive Mennonite upbringing, glimpsed in creepy, oneiric flashbacks.
This witchcraft may be righteous stuff, but it could hardly be called benevolent. Its high priestesses are identified in a student’s diary as Mother Tenebrarum, Mother Lachrymarum and Mother Suspiriorum, a nod to Argento’s larger filmography, and their matrilineal magic takes an extraordinary physical, emotional and moral toll on its performers. (One piece, “Volk,” conceived in the wake of World War II, is choreographed with such hellish extremity that it can only be described as Hieronymus Bausch.) The women pass down their spells from generation to generation, bound by the terrible weight of history, the sense that the past is at once irretrievable and inescapable.
This is uncommonly weighty, lugubrious subject matter for a genre picture to take on, and those who miss Guadagnino’s signature sensuality may well chafe at his insistence on intellectualizing his movie’s demons. For once, the director doesn’t seem particularly interested in individual psychology or, for that matter, straightforward identification. As the heroine’s baton passes among Susie, the principled, troubled Sara and even Madame Blanc, tragically entombed by her own rituals, “Suspiria” becomes larger in spirit and more symphonic in structure, stretching like a womb to accommodate the perspectives of its unholy sisterhood.
Guadagnino has always been an archaeologist of emotion, an excavator of buried, primal longings, and at the heart of this movie beats a love story, lost but not entirely forgotten amid the rubble of war and the weeds of memory. By the time the phantasmagorical finale arrives, you are flooded with blood and viscera, yes, but also something even more unsettling — a sudden onrush of feeling, a deep, overpowering melancholy. It’s the most startling of the movie’s transfigurations, and it returns us to the primordial theme of motherhood, as “Suspiria” remade suddenly becomes “Suspiria” reborn.
Rated: R, for disturbing content involving ritualistic violence, bloody images and graphic nudity, and for some language including sexual references
Running time: 2 hours, 32 minutes