Almost certain to be the most polarizing film since “mother!” split audiences between rapture and embarrassment last fall, Luca Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” is a coldly violent seance for the evils of the 20th century, none of which are quite as dead as we might have once hoped. Based on the screenplay of Dario Argento’s giallo classic, Guadagnino’s radical new take is less a remake of the original than it is an estranged sibling — the fraternal twin sister who recognized herself as the black sheep of an already twisted family, ran away from home to become a fascist, and has dressed in gray every day since then. Only by drawing some blood can you tell the two are even related.
As grim and severe as Argento’s film was ecstatic and harlequin, this “Suspiria” offers a richer, more explicit interpretation of that old nightmare; it digs up the latent anxieties of that story like someone picking at a scab and watching with a queasy mix of horror and delight as the pus seeps out and makes everything literal. Those ideas don’t always have the emotional force to justify the degree of self-harm, but Guadagnino’s wicked opus ultimately cares more about the scars it leaves behind than it does the violence that caused them, or might cut them open again.
“Six acts and an epilogue set in divided Berlin,” according to the Lars von Trier-like title card that opens the film, this “Suspiria” relocates the action from the sleepy town of Freiburg to the brutal metropolis of the German capital. It’s 1977 (the same year of the original film’s release), and a wide-eyed American Mennonite named Susie (Dakota Johnson) arrives at the city’s renowned Helena Markos Dance Company just in time for the explosive death rattle of the Red Army Faction.
The Baader-Meinhof Gang, a radical group of young leftists whose violent tendencies were ostensibly part of an effort to purge German society of its lingering Naziism, is throwing molotov cocktails in the streets. And Patricia, a frantic Markos runaway played by Chloë Grace Moretz, is storming into her psychologist’s office, muttering that someone is “trying to get inside of her.” That’s distressing news for Dr. Jozef Klemperer (psychoanalyst Dr. Lutz Ebersdorf, a first-time actor who, um, bears a passing resemblance to Tilda Swinton under layers of brilliant makeup), a feeble widower who proves to be the last person to ever see Patricia alive.
David Kajganich’s script immediately departs from its source material. By the time we’re treated to the beguiling title sequence — a dream-like mesh of morbid imagery scored to one of several haunting songs commissioned from Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke — it’s clear that we’re in for a very different “Suspiria.”
From there, the story directs the brunt of its attention toward the gothic interiors of the Helena Markos Dance Company, a colorless stone kingdom that looks vaguely like a bank designed for depressions. Susie may be the least experienced student at the all-female academy, but she makes a quick impression on the famous Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton, channeling Marina Abramovic’s obsidian intensity to almost the same extent as her performance in “A Bigger Splash” channeled David Bowie’s alien mystique).
The other women on the faculty — who include o.g. “Suspiria” heroine Jessica Harper and Rainer Werner Fassbinder collaborator Ingrid Caven — all seem to agree with Madame Blanc’s high opinion of the new girl, even though the lot of them are engaged in a simmering power struggle behind the scenes. It’s not just the future of the company that’s at stake, but also that of the witch coven it exists to disguise.
The full extent of Susie’s talent and the true nature of Helena Markos’ legacy reveal each other in a bravura sequence that lays everything on the table far earlier than you might expect. As Susie performs the troupe’s signature piece (a convulsive dance put together by Belgian choreographer Damien Jalet), she unknowingly hijacks the body of a disgraced teacher in another room, hurling the poor woman across the mirrored studio and contorting her body in a mess of unnatural shapes. It’s a savagely beautiful feat of cross-cutting that galvanizes this bleak fairy tale world as a place in which movement is a form of conjuring, direction is an act of possession, and art is passed down from one generation to the next like an ideological doctrine.
In other words, anyone who thought the “Call Me By Your Name” guy was going to make a movie that felt like “The Conjuring” is going to be sorely disappointed with this orgiastic riff on “The Bitter Tears of Petra Van Kant.” Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” eschews the scary for the unnerving. It’s more gross than it is creepy, and more elegiac than it is gross. Things get twisted, and build to a delirious finale that’s debauched enough to satisfy even the most hardcore gore-hounds, but Guadagnino undercuts — almost sabotages — the scenes that threaten to privilege bloody spectacle over the river of sorrow that flows beneath it.
That approach can be frustrating in the moment, but it pays off on the whole. Light on jolts and “holy shit” moments, the film prefers to make your skin crawl through the dull terror of memory, the red stain of guilt, and the sickening historical truth that the members of a coven (or the people of a country) are more likely to absolve each other of their collective sins than hold themselves accountable. It’s grandiose stuff, even for a genre that’s recently been used as a scalpel to dissect the complex traumas of grief (“The Babadook”), family (“Hereditary”), and the African-American experience (“Get Out”), but “Suspiria” sustains a mesmeric hold for most of its 150-minute runtime.