As premises for horror movies go, you absolutely cannot go wrong with “haunted ballet school run by witches.” It’s one reason why the original Suspiria, released in 1977, is such a classic, but it’s also why it’s hard to get mad at Luca Guadagnino for wanting to remake it. Even if you believe Dario Argento’s version is sacred, we’ll all benefit from a new addition to the witch ballet school genre, right?
Unfortunately, the answer is...sure. Don’t get me wrong—sure is fine. But sure is not exactly what the marketing for this movie promised. Audience members walked out at the Venice Film Festival! Dakota Johnson had to go to therapy after filming was over! Tilda Swinton wore a prosthetic penis to play Dr. Klemperer! In theory, this should all mean that Suspiria is a haunting insta-classic, but in reality, it just ends up being kind of a letdown.
Plotwise, the new Suspiria retains the basic framework of the original. Aspiring American ballerina Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) enrolls at a mysterious German dance school, only to find that it’s run by a coven of witches led by a statuesque instructor named Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). This thread, for the most part, is delightful. Swinton is simultaneously ridiculous and fantastic, while Johnson is great at projecting the coy naiveté of a striver.
The problems begin when Guadagnino takes the movie in his own direction, adding context and mythology that don’t really need to be there (and also make his run time almost a full 90 minutes longer than Argento’s). There are flashbacks to Susie’s life in America. There are tangents about the Baader-Meinhof terrorist group that a generous reading would characterize as a metaphor, but that reading would also assume that you know what the Baader-Meinhof terrorist group did. There are many lengthy scenes following Dr. Klemperer (also Tilda Swinton) as he investigates the disappearance of his patient Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz). The first time Klemperer appears, it makes sense—it’s a framing device, and a pretty scary one thanks to Patricia’s paranoid ravings about the teachers at the academy. But when he keeps coming back to poke around the school long after the audience already knows what’s going on, you can’t help but hope the witches will dispatch him sooner rather than later.
Of course, being this extra is what makes Guadagnino movies a treat, and in some areas, the overload works. The costumes are a perfect example of this—one line of my notes from the screening I attended just reads, “THE CLOTHES!!!” Giulia Piersanti, who also worked with Guadagnino on Call Me By Your Name and A Bigger Splash, is responsible for those, and deserves every accolade she can get this awards season. There’s also the score, composed by Thom Yorke, who takes the music in a totally different direction from the iconic Goblin soundtrack of the original without compromising on the level of sheer terror evoked by one or two notes. And finally, there’s the blood. There are only a few truly gory scenes, but they are intense (and a lot more realistic-looking than that neon-red blood they used in 1977). As a person who went in to this movie wanting it to keep me up at night, I didn’t mind this, but even I had to close my eyes a couple of times.
Still, no amount of—minor spoiler alert—blood geysers can quell the feeling that the whole of Suspiria doesn’t add up to the sum of its witchy parts. But hey, at least you get to add Tilda Swinton as Madame Blanc to your costume repertoire. It’s a very good look.
top image: Suspiria
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