It makes perfect sense when you think about it. After three artsy prestige projects (Call Me by Your Name, A Bigger Splash, I Am Love), Oscar nominated Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino decides to let his freak flag fly. And what better way than to pay homage to his fellow countryman Dario Argento’s 1977 surreal cult classic Suspiria, which featured a blinding color palette, obtuse camera angles, and enough schlock-horror (in a good way) to remain a midnight movie favorite for more than 40 years? While both movies are batshit crazy, we can’t help but think a filmmaker of Mr. Guadagnino’s caliber should have done better.
Dakota Johnson (Fifty Shades of Grey) stars as Susie, a Bambi-eyed self-trained dancer raised in Ohio by her Mennonite parents. Following her dream, she shows up for an audition at the world renowned Markos Dance Company in Berlin. The film is set in 1977 (the same year as the original was released) and Susie sufficiently impresses the company director Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) to be invited to join.
A title card informs us that we are about to undertake “Six Acts and an Epilogue set in divided Berlin.” It should have added the run time of two-and-a-half hours (it seemed longer). For those of us who would pay to watch Tilda Swinton in any role, this one does deliver bonus value. The enormously talented actress who has disappeared into numerous characters over the years, plays two other roles here – disguised by heavy make-up in both. The trade-off is that Ms. Johnson is the lead, so not only are we subjected to the limitations of her acting, but also camera-trickery when it comes to her dance scenes. A bushy bushy red hairdo conceals her face during the most physically demanding dance sequences…think Cousin It from “The Addams Family.”
An almost entirely female cast features some interesting choices from across generational and geographical boundaries. Angela Winkler and Ingrid Caven have long been familiar faces on the big screen, and Mia Goth and Chloe Grace Moretz are fine choices for the younger company members. As an added bonus, Jessica Harper appears in one segment towards the end. Ms. Harper played the lead role of Suzy in the original. Other fun comparisons between the two films are the original score by Goblin compared to the updated (and more serene) score by Thom Yorke of Radiohead, and the muted color palette chosen by Guadagnino and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom for this updated version.
The reason there is an open spot in the company for Susie is that Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz) has disappeared after unloading her ‘coven of witches’ theory on an aged psychiatrist Dr. Josef Klemperer. Dr. Klemperer initially thinks the hysterical Patricia is delusional, and would prefer to wallow in his grief over his beloved wife Anke – missing since WWII. When Susie gets her shot at the lead in what is to be the company’s final performance of its most famous dance piece Volk, we get the film’s best sequence and one of a few WTF moments. A mirrored dance studio is the site of unexplained violence, and some terrific editing shoots us back and forth between art and mayhem. It’s difficult to watch but exceedingly well done.
Unfortunately, the truly bizarre and horrific moments are much too rare. In fact, some of the segments come off as unintentionally funny, which is not a good thing for a horror flick. The primal dancing never seems sensual, the bloodbath finale is too far over the top, and the political subtext with the Baader-Meinhof terrorist group just never seems to fit. While watching this, a few films came to mind: Black Swan, The Wicker Man, Mother!, and Rosemary’s Baby, though this one doesn’t reach the level of any of those…