Luca Guadagnino, director of the highly successful Call Me By Your Name, returns to the Festival Circuit with a remake of the 1977 cult horror Suspiria. Dario Argento’s original was innovative and hugely influential in terms of production design thanks to its surreal decor, haunting score and disturbing atmosphere that grabs you right from the outset. Guadagnino’s vision for Suspiria sees him recoiling from this aesthetic, dimming the colours while adding an hour to the running time.
Guadagnino sets Suspiria in the gloomy Berlin as opposed to the more colourful Freiburg of Argento’s original. Key plot points remain, tracing the tale of a young dancer (Chloë Grace Moretz) who suspects that occult figures occupy her school that’s run by a cold-blooded Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). The dancer asks an old psychoanalyst Dr. Klemperer (which may or may not be Swinton in old age makeup) to help her and disappears. Soon she is replaced by aspiring dancer Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson).
Guadagnino’s expansion of the original script adds so much flesh to the bones of this story that it creates a confusing, ponderous structure. The combination of mystical, political and psychological elements never converge, and the director consistently undercuts any sense of suspense by showing explicit, bloody rituals to the audience, making one bored as they wait through a tedious running time for the characters to figure everything out.
The action is set in the early 1970s when the far-left militant organization Baader-Meinhof Group came to full force. We hear the news about it throughout the movie showing that Nationalism during the post war period was hidden but not yet forgotten. Dr. Klemperer, who lost his Jewish wife during the war, apparently is more fascinated by the political context of the school. For him there exists under the magical trapping a real attempt to change and control the consciousness of the masses. The dance in new Suspiria called “Volk” (People) serves not as a mere background to witchcraft but as a powerful force of manipulation breaking every bone in your body.
The psychological subplot is closely intertwined with Johnson’s character, showing she’s not as innocent and simple as we may at first think. The obvious hint is her long red hair, an allusion to times of Inquisition where such an affront would lead her to death by burning. The core of Susie’s enigmatic character is formed by repressed sexual desires denied by her mother since she was a child, although Johnson’s restrained and feeble performance doesn’t manage to reflect much of it.
Susie’s embodiment of guilt and shame echoes the same feelings of Dr. Klemperer, whose own life has been a tortuous path of failed attempts to save the women he cares about. This inability of men to act makes women solve their problems themselves and most of the time in a very bloody and hard-hitting manner. It’s in this kind of “feminist” catharsis that the mystical, psychological and political elements converge, culminating in Guadagnino’s attempt to explain female nature. The end result is tricky and confusing as it sounds.
The script is so unwieldy and overloaded with ideas that none of them can stand on their own, unable to make any comprehensible statement. Suspiria tries to embrace the immensity of its project, filling it up with fascism, feminism, mystery and psychology but not actually saying anything coherent about any of these topics. As for the horror elements, the film remains both sensual and beautiful, but its execution is too deliberate and its hampered by its desire to impress. Guadagnino is an aesthete enjoying every sequence, every doorknob, every spit of blood and takes his time to show it. This constant visualization kills the suspense which naturally lies in obscurity so there is no real horror to it.
In the end, this contemporary take on Argento’s classic is a mess – an emotional and at times haunting film, but a mess nonetheless. Suspiria’s attempt to coalesce too many elements results in an overly long and overly produced work that neither lives up to the power of the original nor provides anything new worth confronting.