The descriptors “highbrow” and “horror remake” rarely make their way into the same sentence, but that’s exactly what Call Me By Your Name director Luca Guadagnino is going for in Suspiria. Guadagnino’s bold follow-up to his Oscar-nominated breakthrough is an even more lurid, outlandish reimagining of fellow Italian director Dario Argento’s 1977 classic about a coven of witches who run a ballet school.
Guadagnino, working from a script by horror-savvy American screenwriter David Kajganich, follows the original story beats but so forcefully reinterprets the material that he manages to claim familiar ground as his own. His ominous aesthetic is so overpowering it merits a Kubrick comparison, but where The Shining is all chilly calculation, Guadagnino’s Suspiria is hothouse madness.
Dakota Johnson is Susie Bannion, an American ballet dancer who has crossed the Atlantic to Berlin in the hopes of landing a spot in the company with dance guru Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). Susie gets accepted, thanks to the disappearance of dancer Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz), but a role in Blanc’s show doesn’t come without sacrifice. Literal sacrifice.
Johnson may play the protagonist—and she plays it beautifully—but this is Swinton’s showcase. In addition to Blanc, whose unknowable genius supplies the gravity that keeps the story in orbit, Swinton does a gender-swap by appearing in a second role as Dr. Josef Klempferer, an aged psychiatrist who bears witness to the supernatural. Swinton even features in a revoltingly wicked third role that constitutes a spoiler all by itself. It’s tough to imagine literally any other actor pulling this off.
Suspiria is fussily, self-consciously structured, and its ambling pace over the course of two and a half hours could be construed as indulgent—by people who are wrong, that is.
Suspiria ’s strength is its slow-burn-surrealism. (Note that earlier Kubrick comparison.) This is a film devoted to, and dominated by, atmosphere. Call Me By Your Name conjured up as much lust for the Italian countryside as it did for carnal connection. Here too Guadagnino lingers over the graceful savagery of a ballet performance, which always threaten to devolve into body-breaking savagery. The film effortlessly vacillates between gorgeous and ghastly.
The final act descends into full-on horror that may put off viewers more accustomed to the arthouse than the haunted house. Hereditary haters might similarly dismiss Suspiria’s conclusion, but the Grand Guignol climax is welcome weirdness to those who like a little genre-boundary pushing.
As with Argento’s best work, this new Suspiria appreciates that logic and fear are unrelated. What frightens us need not make sense; in fact, the nonsensical can be vastly more unnerving.
Argento’s primary concerns have long been atmosphere and image; if the story doesn’t entirely hang together, so be it. Guadagnino does the master of Giallo cinema proud, swapping out the older Italian’s signature bright color palette for darker, velvety hues and offering an updated, more empowering ending. His fidelity remains to the lavish grotesquerie and omnipresent sense of dread that haunt viewers long after the particulars of the plot have faded from memory.
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Doris Hick
Theater: Now playing, area theaters