Yes, the dance school is indeed a coven of witches, but they are not the blood-thirstiest killers spreading terror over the divided city of Berlin. Key members have been captured, but the Baader-Meinhof Gang remains a potent criminal and dysfunctional social force during the so-called “German Autumn.” The chaos outside provides a backdrop for the lunacy taking place inside the Markos Dance Academy in Luca Guadagnino’s remake of/homage to/riff on Suspiria (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York (11/2 nationwide).
Initially, psychiatrist Dr. Jozef Klemperer assumes his patient Patricia Hingle is delusional when she claims the Markos Academy is dominated by witches, but when she disappears, leaving behind her alarming journal filled with occult scribblings, he starts to wonder. Unfortunately, she was rather prone to unstable behavior and left-wing politics, so most of the school accepts the claim she left to join the Red Army Faction, but not Olga. When she challenges the cover story offered by Madame Blanc, the Pina Bausch-like artistic director, the witches turn their wrath on her on.
Susie Bannion, the new arrival from America, will unwittingly do their dirty work, thanks to an enchantment Madame Blanc puts on her hands and feet. The violent dance she improvises will literally beat-up, unnaturally twist, and rip apart the helpless Russian, in the film’s already celebrated and infamous show-stopping sure-to-be-iconic centerpiece scene. However, it comes squarely in the first act of the 152-minute film.
Frankly, it often feels like Guadagnino is channeling Andrzej Zuławski’s Possession more than Dario Argento’s original Suspiria. You have the washed-out color palettes, the grim Berlin setting, and episodes of jaw-dropping contortionist freak-outs. Instead of hair-raising scares, the response Guadagnino seems to be going for is: “dude that was totally bat-scat crazy.” Regardless, whatever he set out to do, he must have accomplished, because there is no holding back in this film.
In between big nutty set pieces, there is an attempt to stitch together a bit of plot, in which Mother Susperiorum will indeed eventually play a role. Speaking of playing roles, Tilda Swinton’s work here is the stuff of legend. She is wonderfully regal as Madame Blanc, gliding through the film like a cross between Martha Graham and Cruella De Ville. As you have probably heard, Swinton has finally copped to also portraying Dr. Klemperer, under heavy prosthetic makeup and the pseudonym Lutz Ebersdorf. It is pretty amazing how seamlessly she slips into character as the seventy-something man. Her voice and body language are spot-on. Arguably, it is a tribute to her skills that the is-it-her-or-not guessing game went on so long.
Dakota Johnson is also perfect for Bannion, in a glassy-eyed, vacant-staring, loose-limbed marionette (whose strings need to be pulled) kind of way. Chloe Grace Moretz is quite the hot mess as Hingle, whereas Elena Fokina gives one of the most impressive physical performances perhaps ever, as Olga (undoubtedly, she was helped by digital effects and camera tricks, but still, just check it out and try to argue). It is also a pleasure to watch all the sinister scenery chewing from the accomplished continental supporting cast, including Ingrid Caven, Angela Winkler, Silvie Testud, and Renee Soutedijk, as various coven/faculty members.
You have to give Guadagnino credit, because he successfully decouples his reinvented Suspiria form Argento’s original. Even the most ardent Argento will leave the theater saying: “okay, so that was something.” Despite and/or because of his idiosyncratic decisions, his film is definitely its own animal—and it is a wild beast. The sum of its parts is definitely greater than its whole, but some of those parts horror fans just need to see for themselves. We’re still conflicted on it, but we wouldn’t want to sit out the debates and the second-guessing. Recommended as a horror movie event more than a discrete, formalistic viewing experience, Suspiria opens tomorrow (10/26) in New York, at the Regal Union Square and the IFC Center.