Review: Johnson, Swinton dance with the demons in ‘Suspiria’

"Suspiria" cast members Jessica Harper, from left, Chloe Grace Moretz, Mia Goth, Tilda Swinton and Dakota Johnson pose together at the premiere of the film at the ArcLight Hollywood, Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018, in Los Angeles. (AP)
By Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune (TNS)

“Suspiria” takes a good long while with everything: Its evocations of 1977 West Berlin, dominated by news and stray bombings of the militant Red Army Faction; its dance rehearsal and performance scenes, reminding the post-Holocaust world that words such as “beautiful” or “cheerful” no longer apply; and, as bookends, two protracted vignettes of spine-twisting, bone-crunching physical cruelty, scored to the sound of female screams.

It’s a crimson fairy tale about an American dancer who joins a fearsome avant-garde troupe. This gravely insane remake dallies with one idea and metaphoric reach after another, some of them inspired, some of them specious and offensive, all of them swirling around director Luca Guadagnino’s response to the 1977 Dario Argento original. For the record, the old “Suspiria” ran 52 minutes shorter than this two-and-a-half-hour entity.

The great, lasting impressions of Argento’s version are entirely visual. The deeply saturated reds and blues made Argento’s story of nubile innocence vs. the occult a unique retina-scorcher. Seen today, Argento’s splashes of gore come off as no less giddily extravagant than the wide-eyed delirium of Jessica Harper (as Suzy, the Yank with pluck) or the merry hamming of Alida Valli (the dance company’s drill sergeant with a bun).

The remake? Well, Guadagnino’s follow-up to his dreamy, rhapsodic romance “Call Me By Your Name” has different intentions. And “fun” isn’t one of them.

Screenwriter David Kajganich’s 1977 setting allows him to make connections to the militant Red Army Faction (aka the Baader-Meinhof Group) unnerving West Berlin at the time. Fleeing her harsh Mennonite family’s confines back in Ohio, Susie Bannion, played by a sly, catlike Dakota Johnson, has come to Germany to find her artistic home: the world-famous Markos Dance Academy, run by the mysterious and largely absent “Mother Markos.”

Day to day, cigarette to cigarette, the choreography belongs to the exacting Madame Blanc. Tilda Swinton plays this taskmaster as well as two other roles, the larger of which is a psychoanalyst haunted by his past, and Germany’s. It’s a male drag assignment involving a wonderfully convincing degree of facial prosthetics, and Swinton never winks at the camera. We begin with this man, Dr. Klemperer (credited to fictional actor Lutz Ebersdorf), and the disappearance of one of his patients (Chloe Grace Moretz), a member of the Markos troupe.

Unlike the old “Suspiria,” the new one foregrounds the occult trappings and makes no real riddle of what’s going on within the walls of the dance academy, its adjoining dorm rooms or in the after-hours rituals. The staff communicates by telepathy, and when a spell is cast, it’s done through the medium of dance (this is the movie’s most intriguing idea, even if it leads to its most vicious sequence). “Suspiria” devotes a misjudged amount of screen time to Klemperer’s journey to East Berlin, and into his own painful memories of WWII, sacrifices made, and loved ones perished. While Susie rises in the ranks of the company, screenwriter Kajganich heightens the notion of collective German guilt, and the “shame” of recent history that fanned the flames of this coven in tights.

The Holocaust element of “Suspiria” I find dubious, even galling. The new film makes no bones about its breadth: We’re told straight off by a title card we’re in for “six acts and an epilogue set in divided Berlin.” Guadagnino’s carefully controlled atmosphere, lent a jagged edge by Walter Fasano’s nervous editing, creates one gray, muted, rainy, murmuring, lugubrious scene after another.

I write this realizing, and hoping, many will disagree, and fall headlong into this vision. It’s some sort of achievement in any case, capped by a wildly bloody dance performance in the middle of an administrative reorganization (I’m trying to be spoiler-sensitive here). For all its digital effects work, though, the scariest thing in “Suspiria” is a shot of a dance academy employee running directly at the camera, screaming. It’s a moment cutting straight through all the gassy, attenuated additions built onto Argento’s original structure.


‘SUSPIRIA’ – 2 stars

MPAA rating: R (for disturbing content involving ritualistic violence, bloody images and graphic nudity, and for some language including sexual references)

Running time: 2:32