A darkness swirls at the center of a world-renowned dance company, one that will engulf the artistic director, an ambitious young dancer, and a grieving psychotherapist. Some will succumb to the nightmare. Others will finally wake up
Remaking or adapting any well-loved piece of cinema can be seen as a fool’s task complemented by a variety of results. Do we need two versions of Nightmare on Elm Street, Psycho, or Carrie? All of which are basically shot for shot remakes? No. However, it turned out we did need another version of It and Evil Dead. They undid and played with what the original films achieved. In the case of It, it went back to the source material to mine it for fresh scares.
The remake of Suspiria from Luca Guadagnino – who has given us the likes of A Bigger Splash and Call Me By Your Name – is one which sits comfortably in neither camp. Do we need Dario Argento’s classic remade? No, but yes. But probably… No. And yet, yes.
Dakota Johnson plays Susie, a wide-eyed ballet student who manages to get a place at the prestigious Tanz Dance Academy in Germany. Unbeknownst to Susie, the Academy is run by a coven of witches who sense in her someone to be used as a host for their new leader, Mother Markos. Susie is taken under the wing of Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), who shapes her into a formidable dancer and unwitting host. Meanwhile, psychiatrist Josef Klemperer (Swinton again) tries to steal a glance behind the curtains of the Academy as he searches for a former client, Patricia (Chloe Grace Mortez), who studied there and has recently disappeared.
Giving himself more room to work with, Guadagnino takes the original’s 90 odd minute runtime and stretches his take on the premise out to an almost unbearable 152 minutes. The original Suspiria, it’s fair to say, only makes a modicum of sense. There’re witches, some ballet, color that will cut your face off and lashings of overzealous scoring from Goblin. It’s less a movie and more of an experience. The same of which can be said about the new Suspiria, because despite a resemblance of a narrative, it’s all about the experience, darling.
Commendably refusing to update the narrative, Guadagnino keeps his film planted in the time period of its predecessor. He adds an extra layer by throwing it into Berlin during the German Autumn, a period of political unrest for the country that encompassed Hans Martin Schleyer kidnapping and the hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181. Does it add anything to film? Honestly, despite how much the film appears to insist it does, the answer is no. It’s one of the many additions that bog the film down and have you regularly glancing at your watch. As too do references to Klemperer’s life during the Second World War. Whilst his backstory is used to some extent in the final act, there’s the feeling that we didn’t need to go the scenic route to get there. All this political porridge feels like a defiant writer insisting his work is of great academic value.
And yet, there are moments in Suspiria that resonate long after you’ve seen the film. Brutal, violent moments, such as broken bones being pounded into broken mirrors and the finale of rotten flesh exploding. There are moments of emotion and beauty that feel like they’ve come from a completely different film, where the power relationship between Susie and Blanc teeters between the two as Susie becomes less innocent. Staying on that track, both Swinton and Fanning bring home the goods and whilst the former’s three – yes, THREE – roles are a mixed bag, it always nice to be reminded how bewitching she is to watch in literally anything. Pun absolutely intended. And the dance choreography is basically stunning and could be watched on loop for hours.
Overall then, Suspiria doesn’t really escape the shadow of its predecessor, though it does make a valiant effort. Choosing to go in a completely different direction, both tonally and cinematically, it manages to stand on its own two legs for a for a decent go before becoming fatigued by all the superfluous extra reading it expects of its audience. Like its dancers, Suspiria is better served being lean and mean.