I fully acknowledged being tickled that Luca Guadagnino’s follow-up feature to the tender, elegant Call By Your Name is the the precise opposite, in almost every respect. Suspiria is officially a remake of the 1977 horror film of the same name, directed by Dario Argento. Overlay the two movies’ plots and there isn’t all that much in common: a dance school, some basics to the characters, supernatural doings. There’s a similar divide stylistically. Argento favored vivid colors and ornate art direction, coating the screen with dizzying splendor. Guadagnino counters with a concentrated drabness befitting the film’s setting of Cold War Berlin. The clearest commonality between the two works is a beautifully dark, lurid soul.
Guadagnino’s Suspiria casts Dakota Johnson as Susie Bannion, an American dancer who arrives at Germany’s Markos Dance Academy. Her background with a Mennonite family makes her comes across as a little odd, especially when interacting with comparatively freewheeling dancer Sara (Mia Goth) or stern, exacting instructor Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). The atmosphere around the academy is filled with portent, but Susie’s own behavior hints at a deeply entrenched discontent. Satisfyingly insidious, Argento’s Suspiria ultimately played by very familiar horror movie rules. His art house bona fides firmly in place, Guadagnino is up to something else.
When Guadagnino’s artistic vision is compact and ruthless, the impact is rattling. A scene in which Susie dances with kinetic intensity is spliced together with shots of one of the film’s first victims meeting her gruesome fate, and it’s like flying a Cessna through a thunderstorm. And when Guadagnino pushes into Boschian swirls of hellish excess, he largely manages what Darren Aronsofsky wrongly thought he was pulling off in last year’s mother! This is largely because Guadagnino follows through on previously planted ideas — notably the dismissals and betrayals regularly endured by women, as well the hard physical contortions of modern dance — rather than just slops grandiosely challenging imagery into the the frame. The thesis is imperfect, but at least it’s consistently present.
The veins of serious artistry throbbing through the film cause some trouble, too. At over two-and-a-half hours, this Suspiria is too long. The most obvious grind is the parallel plot featuring elderly therapist Dr. Josef Klemperer (Lutz Ebersdorf, the credits claim) and his slow discovery of evil afoot. But there are plenty of passages that hold on a little too long, lingering enraptured by the bounty of bleakness. Guadagnino has effusively praised Argento’s original work, claiming it was personally transformative when seen at a young age and then multiple times after that. The new film bears that affection with both awkwardness and grace. In cracking open his artist heart, Guadagnino naturally spills a little blood. And that stuff can get slippery.