Director: Luca Guadagnino
18 | 2h 32min | Fantasy, Horror, Mystery | 16 November 2018 (UK)
Call Me By Your Name director Luca Guadagnino's hotly-anticipated take on Dario Argento's colour-drenched 70s cult Giallo horror Suspiria runs a full hour longer than its predecessor and sports a notably different tone and set of subtexts, though the spine of the story remains identical. I can't deny Guadagnino's strange creature ( written by both him and screenwriter David Kajganich) has its moments of teeth-rattling, skin-crawling supernatural terror, and his film boasts a ghostly score from Tom Yorke and superlative (albeit muted) production design that more than adequately summons a potent mood of anxiety and dread in a wintry, Cold War-era Berlin.
As the trailers made clear, the film features some striking dance sequences that become seance-like in their mystery and intensity. Dakota Johnson does a decent job stepping into the role originally inhabited by Jessica Harper; that of young, unworldly but ambitious American dancer Susie Bannion, who manages to squeeze her way into the world-renowned Berlin dance school of one Helena Markos. Johnson makes Susie a potent physical presence, and one not entirely resistant to the growing supernatural presence she feels. Overseeing her is the sublimely vampiric figure of Tilda Swinton (probably the best thing in the film), who plays the unearthly senior dance instructor Madame Blanc. Sadly for Susie, this dance school, as it was in Argento's film, is in fact a cover for a coven of witches (who all occupy senior positions in the school), though exactly what they want with Susie, who they seem to sense as 'special', isn't clear. The dynamic between Swinton and Johnson's characters grows increasingly and intriguingly ambiguous; Blanc shifting between mothering, torturing and deceiving Susie whilst a hint of sexual tension hangs in the air.
But as impressed as I was by some of the more inventively gruesome moments Guadagnino conjures for the viewer, such as a dance piece Susie performs for Madame Blanc that (unbeknownst to Susie) causes the rebellious dancer Olga locked in the next dance hall to be mangled like a human Rubik's Cube courtesy of some weird voodoo-like enchantment, the film doesn't really justify that additional hour of running time. New Suspiria does have a lot on its mind, but the focus keeps darting about without all the pieces being connected to full effect. At times, Guadagnino's screenplay brings discourses of remakes and borrowing to the fore, the film self-reflexively commenting on its own transgressions onto the hallowed ground of a previous classic. Susie is, after all, taking the place of others dancers who have 'mysteriously vanished' from the school, and the challenging dances she is tasked to perform for Blanc are - at least at first - strictly not her own.
But then this thread seems to get dropped, to make way for a (very slow) drip feed of information about the true past history of the aged psychiatrist Dr. Josef Klemperer (bafflingly also played by Swinton, under 10 tonnes of latex), who comes in to the orbit of Susie due to his suspicions being aroused after witnessing the traumatic state of one of the dance students who had come to him for treatment. Klemperer's arc, which parallels Susie's but is packed with far less incident - never felt like it slotted into place so as to truly illuminate the goings on in the dance school (beyond more general sense that this is connected to the evils of the 20th century), even as the witchery does reach a suitably delirious crescendo by the final act, one that delivers far more on visceral thrills than it does any satisfying thematic punch. There are also infrequent mentions via TV news or newspaper headlines of the political whirlpools outside the school ground caused from by the real-life terrorism of the Badher-Meinhof group and pro-Palestinian airplane hijackings. Are these fuelling the witches' power, or vice versa?
Suspiria ultimately feels like a film with too many ideas in play, to the point where any sense of exhilaration and, dare I say it, fun, got shoved down the priority list.