Suspiria review – Luca Guadagnino’s horror remake has sex and style but fails to bewitch

The Italian director reunites his A Bigger Splash leading stars Dakota Johnson and Tilda Swinton for a curiously muted update of the Dario Argento classic

More an MA thesis than a remake, Luca Guadagnino’s sincerely intended new version of Dario Argento’s brash horror masterpiece Suspiria is beautifully made and laboriously classy — as well as longer by about an hour, and there’s even a languorous post-credits sting. No-one can doubt his reverence for the original, or indeed his reverence for his own reverence. The eyeball-frazzling blocks of colour in the first film, the ketchuppy reds, disco-light blues and bile greens have been muted into something restrained, largely wintry hues of anxiety and misery, although the orgiastic big finish does give the colour-dial a clockwise twist.

There are smart moments of fear and subliminal shivers of disquiet, the dance sequences are good and of course Guadagnino could never be anything other than an intelligent film-maker. But this is a weirdly passionless film. The spark of pure diabolical craziness of Argento has gone, together with his brash streak of black comedy, and in its place is something determinedly upscale and uppermiddlebrow, with indigestible new layers of historical meaning added. The narrative focus is muddled and split and Tilda Swinton is a bit wasted; her character is anti-climactically written so that she delivers neither a payload of evil, nor a redemptive moral rescue, nor anything interesting in between.

Dakota Johnson now takes the role of Susie Bannion, a brilliantly talented young dancer from a deeply religious family in Ohio who has come to 1977 Berlin (the Wall is up, but there is still not much graffiti on it) to audition for a globally prestigious female dance company led by the formidable and demanding Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). From her early youth, Susie has been drawn to this city by powers she could never understand. Her tryout deeply impresses the strange gallery of company officials, and Madame Blanc herself casts an approving eye. Susie is in — and she can even have a place in the school’s creepy but rent-free girls’ dorm, located above the rehearsal rooms, because another dancer, Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz) has quit, suffering from some kind of breakdown, combined with incipient paranoid schizophrenia. Patricia visits a Berlin psychoanalyst, Dr Klemperer — whose odd-looking face looks like prosthetic make up. He is deeply worried, and his concern deepens into a grave investigative suspicion, to be shared by the audience: the dance school is in fact a front for a coven of witches, who intend to induct Susie into their number.

The growing sense of dread and disorientation is interestingly managed, and there is a great scene in which Susie’s athletic and sexy solo dance performance delivers a kind of telekinetic beating up to a dancer in the next-door rehearsal space, a parodic choreography of violence, which leaves its victim horrifyingly mangled and violated. There are in fact many individual vignettes of fear, but worrying longueurs in between in which narrative tension slackens.

We hear a lot about terrorism on the news; there are demos on the streets and an off-camera bomb: members of the internally feuding Red Army Faction are engaging in violence, and the quasi-familial dysfunction of this revolutionary group is brought into parallel with what’s happening with the witches. And the evil ones’ discord resonates with the schismatic conflict between Amish and Mennonites that Susie grew up with, and which may have been simply an occult precursor to the new and terrible theology of evil which now surrounds her. There is also the question of what was happening in Germany decades before.

There are lots of pertinent ideas in this film, and Dakota Johnson herself is very good — although oddly she is just not in the film as much as she could have been: lots of key things happen elsewhere, to other, less interesting characters. Tilda Swinton herself always has charisma and elegance and she has some shrewd, mordant lines. She considers herself to be something of a revolutionary leader herself, an overturner of accepted values. “We must break the nose of every beautiful thing,” she tells Susie, an astringent maxim, which becomes more sinister in context.

This Suspiria is undoubtedly a labour of love for Guadagnino, an interesting variation on a theme, a cerebral act of connoisseurship. Yet storytelling pulse is missing and so is the scream of fear.

• Suspiria has premiered at the Venice film festival and will be released in the US on 26 October and in the UK on 16 November

• This article was amended on 1 September. The original said the film was set in the late 1960s; in fact it is set in 1977.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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