FILM REVIEW – SUSPIRIA. With Tilda Swinton, Dakota Johnson, Chloë Grace Moretz, Mia Goth, Jessica Harper. Written by David Kajganich. Directed by Luca Guadagnino. Rated R for disturbing content involving ritualistic violence, bloody images and graphic nudity, and for some language including sexual references. 152 minutes.
How do you remake SUSPIRIA? Dario Argento’s legendary 1977 Technicolor freakout about a German dance academy secretly run by a coven of witches is hardly the kind of timeless tale that can be repurposed throughout the generations. This isn’t “A Star Is Born.” It’s one dude’s wild fetishes running amok in a symphony of eyeball-searing hues, spectacular extravaganzas of gore and a rattletrap buzzsaw soundtrack by Goblin that sticks your head for years. The things that make “Suspiria” a classic can hardly be peeled off and passed down. They’re so abstract and embedded in the psychosis of their creator you might as well try remaking David Lynch’s “Eraserhead” while you’re at it.
Plodding literal-mindedness seems to be the solution favored by director Luca Guadagnino, who has chosen to parlay the critical and commercial success of his much beloved “Call Me By Your Name” into the most inexplicable no-win remake scenario since Gus Van Sant followed “Good Will Hunting” with “Psycho.” Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajagnach have added about an hour’s worth of exposition to “Suspiria,” attempting to somehow ground Argento’s witches’ brew within Germany’s real-life political strife circa 1977. The result is baffling when it’s not busy being flat-out offensive.
The always-appealing Dakota Johnson steps in for Jessica Harper as young Susie Bannion, the doe-eyed American girl swept up and bound for stardom in this strange school run by the mysterious Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton, lackluster here in several roles). A student played by Chloë Grace Moretz has recently gone missing. Some think she’s joined up with the Red Army Faction, as Baader-Meinhof fashions are rocking that particular summer of ‘77 in Berlin. But the missing Moretz recently told her elderly psychiatrist that the whole campus is rotten with witches.
Oh, about that shrink, Dr. Klemperer. Credited as “Lutz Ebersdorf,” he’s actually played by Swinton in some not-particularly-convincing old man makeup that kept reminding me of Spike Jonze’s cameo in that first “Jackass” movie. It’s a real wet blanket or a performance, pokey and lacking in Swinton’s usual eccentricities, and it’s downright bizarre just how much screen time is given over to Klemperer’s snail-paced investigation of stuff we’ve already had explained to us by the witches in preceding scenes. There’s no mystery here for us, so why are we watching him try to solve it?
The movie is logy and feels interminable. Guadagnino and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom avoid Argento’s vivid palette in favor of a dreary beige blur. This “Suspiria” is awfully ugly to look at, and replacing Goblin’s manic prog rock score with Thom Yorke’s droning and moaning is another energy sap that makes these two-and-half hours drag like five. A couple of decent dance numbers culminating in surprise gross-outs aren’t enough to compensate for the overall vibe of vampiric boredom, and even the film’s final, orgiastic ritual is stifled by sloppy wide shot coverage and weirdly stilted camera distances. (After “Mandy” this all kinda looks like kids’ stuff.)
Credit Johnson for being an actress who’s game for anything, bringing a light touch otherwise missing from this dolorous dirge. But not even she can salvage the film’s insanely misguided final monologue, which attempts to drag the horrors of Theresienstadt into this silly story. In films like “I Am Love” and “A Bigger Splash” Guadagnino has impressed me as a lusty sensualist who knows how to have a good time without necessarily being the sharpest knife in the drawer. “Suspiria” is cut off from the aesthetic pleasures of his previous pictures, suffocated in the self-serious stupidity of trying to make his sexy witch movie into a statement about the Holocaust.
Except “Suspiria” doesn’t actually have anything to say about the camps, nor the Lufthansa hijacking nor any of the other terrorist attacks strewn about this silly movie like Easter eggs. They’re simply decorative atrocities, which at any other time might just seem tacky but right now feels especially gross.•••
Over the past nineteen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.