The original "Suspiria" did a lot with a little. A prime example of the Italian horror genre known as "giallo," Dario Argento's 1977 film featured cheap-looking sets, badly dubbed dialogue, laughable overacting, blood that looked like it came from a Sherwin-Williams can, and a gossamer-thin plot about a young American student at a German dance academy who discovers that the school is a front for an ancient coven of murderous witches.
And yet that film, which is now considered a cult classic, managed to create and sustain a mood of psychological terror through the use of stylized violence, luridly lit scenes and an aggressively unsettling score by the Italian rock band Goblin.
The new remake of "Suspiria," by the Italian director of "Call Me by Your Name," Luca Guadagnino, does the exact opposite. It takes every resource available to a recently minted Oscar nominee – cash, big Hollywood stars, handsome cinematography (by "Call Me by Your Name's" Sayombhu Mukdeeprom), music by Radiohead's Thom Yorke, and a screenplay (written with Guadagnino's "A Bigger Spash" collaborator David Kajganich) that is stuffed with ideas about Nazis, the political terrorism of the late 1970s, art, religion and Freudian psychology – but does almost nothing with it.
Worst of all, it isn't even especially scary.
Guadagnino has said in interviews that he's less interested in cheap jump-scares than in building a relentless mood of suspense. But "Suspiria" doesn't even really do that – not unless you count checking your watch every few minutes to see when this 2 1/2-hour film will be over. (The movie is distributed by Amazon Studios. Amazon chief executive Jeffrey Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
As in the original, "Suspiria" begins with the arrival of American dance student Susie (Dakota Johnson) at a venerable German dance academy, just as Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz), a traumatized current student, is seen fleeing from it in a fugue state. Unlike the original, however, the new film actually acknowledges the existence of the outside world. Set in a divided Berlin, the story takes place against the backdrop of the October 1977 hijacking of Lufthansa flight 181 by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a group that sought the release of members of the Red Army Faction (aka the Baader-Meinhof Gang). Patricia may or may not have had associations with that collective of militant leftists.
But put that question right out of your head.
You'll need room in it to accommodate other characters that come and go here, like poltergeists, in a haunted house of a script that includes, to name only a few: Patricia's Jewish psychiatrist – and Holocaust survivor – Josef Klemperer; the school's demanding artistic director, Madame Blanc (both played by Tilda Swinton); and Susie's Mennonite mother (Malgosia Bela), who is seen in creepy if inscrutable deathbed flashbacks. The theme of motherhood and its discontents gets chewed on like a vulture tearing at carrion, but so does the topic of ethnic nationalism.
Blanc's magnum opus is a dance, said to have been created in 1948, called "Volk" (German for "the people"). Neither subtext goes much of anywhere and only overburdens a story that is no more substantial than the 1977 original, despite being loaded up with heavy-sounding gobbledygook.
There's also a disturbing, if unintended, undercurrent of misogyny, epitomized not only by the theme of witchcraft (a manifestation of men's fear of women's power, if ever there was one), but in the film's frequent nudity and violent objectification of women's bodies. Two scenes feature female characters being grotesquely contorted by supernatural forces. There's a thin line between indicting the male gaze, as Guadagnino claims to have intended, and reveling in it. "Suspiria" culminates in a climax so bloody, gross and confusing that you may feel like you need an explainer just to understand the several explainer articles that have cropped up online, like flies on a corpse, to help viewers process the over-the-top ending.
That said, there are some things to admire ("enjoy" seems the wrong word) about "Suspiria." Blanc's dance, choreographed by Damien Jalet, features a muscular sequence of angular thrusts and jerks, convincingly delivered by Johnson and the other actresses. In the context of the film, in which movement functions as a form of nonverbal spell-casting, it works beautifully. And Swinton (who also does triple-duty in a third role, late in the film) delivers her usual tour de force performance, one that is never less than spellbinding in its own right.
As for the look of the film, Mukdeeprom's cinematography is muted where the 1977 film was garish. It's handsome to look at, even if Guadagnino sometimes apes Argento's jumpy, quick-cut style of storytelling to a fault.
It's hard to know who "Suspiria" is for. Arguably too radical a reimagining for fans of the first film, it's also likely to be too pretentious for aficionados of workaday horror. Call it an arthouse slasher film. Call it a beautiful mess. Just don't call me with questions about what any of it means.
Two stars. Rated R. Contains disturbing material involving ritualistic violence, bloody images and graphic nudity, and for some coarse language, including sexual references. 152 minutes.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.