Italian horror maestro Dario Argento’s hallucinogenic 1977 Day-Glo fantasia Suspiria was about a young American dancer attending a German ballet academy run by a coven of witches. Over time, the film has become iconic among genre cognoscenti less for its barely-there plot than its operatic gore, color-saturated eye-candy palette, and moody score by the band Goblin. Argento’s Suspiria was the epitome of style over substance…but what style! Now Luca Guadagnino, the sensualist behind Call Me by Your Name, has remade it. Well, not so much remade it as reimagined it as an overly busy occult thriller that trowels on unnecessary subplots and characters. It’s likely to be enjoyed more by audiences unfamiliar with the original.
Guadagnino and writer David Kajganich have broadened the story, set in 1977 Berlin, to include the outside world through allusions to terror attacks by the radical Red Army Faction and an elderly psychiatrist character (whose alter ego became a cheeky parlor game for a while). Still, the basic tale is the same: An ingenue dancer stumbles into a freaky hothouse of deceit, dark secrets, and sorcery. It helps that the dancer is played by Dakota Johnson, an actress whose résumé to date hasn’t matched her talent. Johnson’s Susie is a naive but ambitious runaway from a strict Mennonite family. Guadagnino regular Tilda Swinton (all severe Martha Graham gestures and icy hauteur) is Madame Blanc — the stern head instructor who comes with her own air of mystery cloaked in cigarette smoke. She’s also a witch.
There’s a smattering of incredibly effective sequences in the film, including one showstopper in which Susie auditions for the lead part in a piece while, in a nearby studio, one of her fellow dancers is violently whipped around like a rag doll, her joints contorting like a possessed Swiss Army knife. In moments like that one, the film jolts to life, rivaling Argento’s baroque Grand Guignol style. The trouble is, the new Suspiria is…well, kind of silly and boring. Argento’s ravishingly trippy colors have been leeched of their psychedelic pop and his sinister plot stripped of much of its perverse terror. Too much is spelled out. It’s as if Guadagnino doesn’t trust the audience to just go on his erotically phantasmagorical ride with him. In the end, sometimes the highest compliment you can pay an artist is to leave his art alone. B-