It was impossible not to have high expectations for Luca Guadagnino’s remake of “Suspiria.” Dario Argento’s original is, after all, a one-of-a-kind horror freak-out, the kind of mesmerizingly bizarre cinematic experience so sui generis that any remake would have to represent an aggressive reimagining.
And who better to take on this seemingly impossible assignment than Guadagnino, coming off the impressive troika of “I Am Love,” “A Bigger Splash” and “Call Me By Your Name”? The cinema’s greatest sensualist wasn’t going to make us smell the rosemary or taste the apricot juice this time; the idea of his gifts being applied to blood-drenched horror promised a uniquely terrifying experience.
So what does Guadagnino’s version convey? Boredom, mostly, with confusion and a dollop of disappointment and irritation.
The original was set at a creepy dance academy in 1977 Berlin, so Guadagnino and writer David Kajganich (“A Bigger Splash”) have decided to lean into that time and place: There is constant discussion on TV about terrorism and the Baader-Meinhof group, and one of the plot points revolves around lingering survivor’s guilt in the post-Nazi era. What do either of these ideas have to do with a dance academy that’s a front for a coven of witches? The new “Suspiria” doesn’t seem to know.
(It’s not unlike Jonathan Demme’s decision to remake the early-’60s classic “Charade” as the nouvelle vague-influenced “The Truth About Charlie,” since the French New Wave was happening in Paris as Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn strolled by the Seine. An interesting idea on paper, perhaps, but historical context only works in a remake if there’s an actual point to it.)
The 1977 setting also allows the filmmaker (and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” “Call Me By Your Name”) to go hard on the Fassbinder kitchen-sink miserabilism, which certainly could, in other circumstances, make a great, grim backdrop to an atmospheric horror movie. But the result here is to put an unappealing visual sheen on an already dreary film.
Dakota Johnson stars as Susie, a young woman raised by Mennonites but longing to dance with Berlin’s Helena Markos Dance Company. She travels to Berlin, and her first audition blows away choreographer and former lead dancer Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), who accepts her on the spot.
There’s an open room in the dormitory due to the disappearance of another dancer, Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz). Some whisper that she has run off to join the terrorists, but the film opens with her in a ranting panic, telling her psychiatrist Dr. Klemperer (Lutz Ebersdorf) that the Markos instructors are witches who plan to destroy her.
Klemperer at first dismisses her fears as a delusion, but after Patricia disappears, he begins to investigate more closely, even though he’s got his own problems; years after the end of the war, he still holds out hope that his wife, from whom he was separated as they tried to flee Berlin, will return to him safe and sound. Meanwhile, Susie quickly climbs the ranks, and Madame Blanc selects her to take the lead role in the company’s most famous dance piece, “Volk.”
The actual performance of “Volk” immediately ranks alongside “Goddess” in “Showgirls” and the fertility dance from “Lost Horizon” as one of the screen’s most unintentionally hilarious pieces of choreography. The ludicrous terpsichorean display isn’t helped by the costuming; the dancers all wear bright-red ropes tied in what appear to be Japanese Shibari bondage knots, a provocative choice undercut by the big white granny panties that they sport underneath.
To be fair, there’s at least one legitimate scare to be found here; as Susie learns the new dance steps, her motions are mirrored in the basement of the studio, where an unseen force pillories a young woman to near-death using the exact same moves. But by the time “Suspiria” reaches its blood-soaked, all-of-them-witches climax, I was suppressing church giggles. The frights aren’t frightening, the political subtext never connects with the rest of the movie, and even Guadagnino’s generally unfailing visual sense isn’t enough to put this over.
Swinton (playing more than one role, for no apparent reason) and Johnson give the material more than it deserves, but even they can’t put helium into a lead balloon. The other ballet instructors are played by a fascinating ensemble of performers (including 1970s Euro-stars like Fassbinder’s wife Ingrid Caven, German New Wave icon Angela Winkler, and onetime Paul Verhoeven leading lady Renée Soutendijk, as well as Sudanese supermodel Alek Wek), but they’re given very little to do.
It’s tempting to say that Guadagnino treats them like furniture, but in one of his better movies, he would actually shoot the furniture in a meaningful way.
As for Thom Yorke’s score, it’s decidedly unobtrusive, which for some is the mark of good film music. Apart from a song under the opening credits and another under the closing credits, very little of it announces its presence. Given how little subtlety “Suspiria” otherwise displays, that’s an admirable sign of restraint.