“That was fun!” exclaimed one young woman sincerely to her friend as the Suspiria credits began to roll at my half-press, half-public screening. “Is there going to be a nine-hour sequel?” groaned a guy a few rows back, feeling in the dark for his coat. Luca Guadagnino’s remake of the giallo horror classic by his countryman Dario Argento has divided critics along those same lines. Is it a lush, meticulously crafted exploration of female sexuality and revolutionary violence and psychoanalysis and the work of historical trauma and … other important stuff? Or is it an overlong, overstuffed, and under-scary bore whose main points of interest are its kinky production design and #HalloweenGoals costumes?
In that moment after the movie—stiff not with terror but from the effects of spending two and a half hours in a bad cineplex seat stuck in the most reclined position—I tended to place myself more in the camp of Coat Guy. But a day later, I couldn’t stop thinking about Suspiria, even if it’s only to get annoyed all over again. It can only be to this movie’s credit that I care enough to keep wondering: What was it trying to do? Did it succeed on its own terms? Why did I find myself admiring nearly every external element of the film—performances, lighting, editing, costuming—and yet find Guadagnino’s extremely aesthetically pleasing assemblage of these same elements into a whole somehow drab?
Both versions of Suspiria hang on the same simple but rich horror premise: an elite German modern-dance company is secretly a functioning witches’ coven, with the staff of teachers (played in the 1977 Argento version by classic-Hollywood grandes dames like Alida Valli and Joan Bennett and in the remake, which is set in that same year, by veteran international actors Tilda Swinton, Sylvie Testud, and Ingrid Caven) grooming the beautiful young dancers for their own occult purposes. An American student named Susie Bannion—played this time around by Dakota Johnson and in the original by Jessica Harper, who appears here in an extended cameo—joins the company. In good Gothic fashion, the Markos Dance Academy also functions as a kind of boarding school where the dancers live on site, swanning through the ominously whispering halls in extremely artful nightwear. Susie moves in, takes up a position in the company, and soon gets swept up in the obscure but nefarious doings of her creepy dance mistresses.
Though he’s added a boatload of characters, subplots, and twists, Guadagnino has held on to Argento’s basic structure, including most of the character names. He’s also stuffed this remake with more Easter eggs than there are on the White House lawn in April. The new Suspiria is a deeply respectful, even extravagant homage to the old one, a love letter from an evident admirer of genre filmmaking to this particular cult genre’s most celebrated practitioner. But Guadagnino—the maker of such paeans to sensual pleasure and erotic obsession as I Am Love and Call Me by Your Name—has saddled the slim frame of the 98-minute original with layers of meaning it may not have been designed to carry.
The setting has been changed from a small German town to Berlin in the bleak days of the Cold War, with the forbidding graffitied wall between East and West dominating nearly every outdoor scene. A freaked-out dancer, Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz), who escapes the school just before Susie arrives, is motivated to flee not only by an understandable fear of becoming satanic-ritual fodder but by her passion to join the Baader-Meinhof gang of leftist militants who are disrupting life in the city. The film’s action takes place over a period now known as the “German Autumn,” when in addition to the civil unrest and violence caused by domestic terror, there was a disastrous international hijacking incident involving a Lufthansa airplane. Radio and television broadcasts about these events make up part of Suspiria’s murmuring ambient soundtrack, though the facts of what happened seem less important than the general mood of anxiety and enervation.
As if the combined fears of terrorist violence and demon possession through dance weren’t enough, Suspiria also boasts a significant Holocaust-themed subplot that’s arguably, in its low-key way, the movie’s main story. It involves an elderly German widower, Dr. Josef Klemperer (Lutz Ebersdorf, a previously unknown performer about whom you can, if you don’t mind some meta-narrative spoilers, read more here). Josef is the psychoanalyst of the tormented Patricia until her sudden, unexplained disappearance. Perhaps driven by the still-raw memory of losing his wife in World War II, the frail but determined Josef begins to question whether the fantasy he had diagnosed as Patricia’s paranoid delusion—that her dance teachers were secretly a pack of evil witches plotting to harm her—might point to some earthly form of wrongdoing on the Markos company’s part. So he starts to investigate the group on his own, eventually bringing in the Berlin police to question the company’s council of eccentric crones. The acting head of the school is the steely and monastically clad head dance teacher Madame Blanc (Swinton), who decides Susie should become the lead dancer in the company’s challenging next production based on a single audition.
That’s a lot of story even for a two-and-a-half-hour-long movie to manage, and each of those strands contains flashbacks on multiple timelines, along with dreams, fantasy sequences, slo-mo, snap zooms, and quite possibly a partridge in a pear tree. Guadagnino is in cinematic maximalist mode, strewing references and demonstrations of technique everywhere: He’ll frame and light one shot in a way that recalls Fassbinder, then compose the next with a nod to Visconti.
I don’t mean to suggest that this approach is emptily imitative, “all style and no substance.” The assured fluidity of Guadagnino’s camera (the cinematographer is Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, who also shot Call Me by Your Name) is a pleasure to behold, and the images it captures are never less than beautiful. And certainly no movie could be more easily accused of coasting on its style than the original Suspiria (which, full disclosure, I adore). That version’s tale of dance mentorship gone very, very wrong (the script was written by Argento and his then-partner and frequent leading lady Daria Nicolodi, the mother of Asia Argento) provides the flimsiest of pretexts for a visual phantasmagoria of magenta arterial sprays and a relentlessly nerve-jangling prog-rock score by the Italian group Goblin. This Suspiria’s softer, more emo, but still plenty spooky score comes from Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke. And the color palette is no longer all lurid crimsons and purples, but instead more of a Cold War–era ash gray—at least until the Argento-esque deep reds start to come gushing out in the gory final act.
For a movie that takes place in a dance school, Guadagnino’s Suspiria demonstrates little interest in the process of studying, teaching, or performing dance. Damien Jalet’s choreography seems to have been designed around the limited dance experience of the film’s leading lady; though Johnson studied movement for about a year before filming started, she is a stretch as a prodigy so impressive she immediately lands a plum spot in a world-renowned company. The dances themselves involve lots of tortured floor-writhing and sudden, angular contortions of head and shoulders. Justin Chang of the L.A. Times, who liked the movie much more than I did, aptly and hilariously characterized the style of choreography as “Hieronymus Bausch.”
The movie’s most effective horror set piece, though, directly involves dance. While Susie demonstrates her knowledge of the company’s signature repertory piece, the Holocaust-themed Volk, another dancer who’s been locked into a separate studio seems to be magically controlled by Susie’s movements. Each momentary contortion of one dancer’s body becomes a permanent disfiguring of the other’s, so that as Susie’s passionate performance builds to its climax she’s unwittingly torturing her poor colleague into a twisted, broken heap. The editing by Walter Fasano is as important as the special effects in convincing us of this awful telekinetic puppetry. I watched that scene with a hand half-shielding my eyes—but I wish I hadn’t, because as it turned out, the movie would never again be that viscerally scary, and I should have enjoyed it while it lasted.
In one early scene, as Dr. Klemperer is off to a lecture on the other side of the divided city, he calls over his shoulder the name of the speaker whose talk he’s about to attend: “Lacan!” That difficult and sometimes deliberately cryptic French psychoanalyst is clearly an influence in the script by David Kajganich. Susie and Madame Blanc’s punishing rehearsal sessions together, often conducted with the rest of the company standing by, unroll at first like psychoanalysis sessions and later like BDSM flirtations. We’re used to seeing Dakota Johnson in blank-faced naïve sub mode after the Fifty Shades of Grey movies, and Tilda Swinton certainly makes for a more interesting dom figure than Jamie Dornan. But while both women are excellent in their roles, the intricacies of this sick teacher-student relationship are never explored. Buried in the elegant production design and gruesome body horror of Suspiria is a meditation on the dangers of pedagogy and the perils of placing your art above all else, but it never quite fights its way to the surface.
I admit that when a title card promising “Six Chapters and an Epilogue” flashed up at the beginning of Suspiria, I shifted in my overly reclined seat and sighed. It’s a word I seldom use as a lifelong art-film aficionado, but this remake’s fussy, overthought structure occasionally struck me as pretentious, and I found myself counting down the chapters with dismay as they passed: Still three to go and an epilogue? Guadagnino is now talking about making a prequel that would follow the company’s founder, Helena Markos (also played by Swinton, unrecognizable beneath prosthetics) centuries back in time to before the establishment of the coven. The director has said that a “companion piece” might be a way to investigate the concept of “different layers of time.” I’m not averse to the notion, especially if Swinton is involved. But I hope the next time around Guadagnino also adds a few more layers of fun.