Dakota Johnson Suspiria
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Film Review: Suspiria

Remake of ’70s horror masterpiece ‘Suspiria’ less than spellbinding

Dakota Johnson stars as an American ballet star who joins a German dance academy that doubles as a coven in ‘Suspiria.’

It’s not hard to figure out why the new Suspiria—a remake of the 1977 horror masterpiece by Italian director Dario Argento that had languished in development hell for a decade—finally got made.

From Netflix’s new The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina series to American Horror Story’s latest season, Apocalypse (which is basically a sequel to its popular third season, Coven), witches are cool again. And they’ve gotten a makeover for the modern age, evolving from the old-crone templates to hip symbols of liberated female power.

The problem with remaking Suspiria in that vein is that it’s difficult to imagine a more pointless movie than Argento’s Suspiria to throw a pussy hat on. A story about a coven operating in the secret halls beyond the façade of a German dance academy, the original was steeped in dread powered by a sense of ancient evil.

The climax of that film, in which new American student Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) finally confronts Helena Markos, the terrifying embodiment of Mother Suspiriorum, scared me more than any movie I’d ever seen the first time I watched it. With nearly the whole film set inside the dance academy, removed from the outside world, the story took on a fairy-tale quality, with Suzy piecing together the mysteries of the Tanz Dance Academy and youthful innocence standing up to the corruption of the establishment. It was a feminine story, but also an old one, drawing power from the way it tapped into our cultural archetypes.

The new remake from director Luca Guadagnino tries to be the opposite of Argento’s original in every way, and there’s something to be said for that. The flood of scary-movie remakes that have already come and gone in this young century have proven that if a great (or even marginally notable!) horror movie can be remade, it will be. The least they can do is try a different approach.

So while Argento layered on famously vivid bursts of color, Guadagnino sticks mostly to bleak winter tones. While Argento set his film to the bombastic goth-metal of Goblin, Guadagnino uses whispered rhythms from Radiohead’s Thom Yorke.

Those changes actually work really well. But for a director who seems keen on fashioning a bold artistic statement with this remake, Guadagnino chases way too many trends. Socio-political horror à la Get Out and Hereditary is in? Let’s pull this story (still set in 1977) into the real world and obsess over the hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181 and the post-World War II division of Berlin!

Hmm, maybe let’s not. Unlike other recent horror movies that made a powerful gut-punch of a social statement, the new Suspiria approaches its historical element like a college thesis, and every time it ventures outside the walls of the academy, this way-too-long-and-slow film flatlines.

But the worst change is a new layer that’s been nonsensically tossed on top of Suzy’s story arc; with the way it pays lip service to the notion of female empowerment, it seems desperate to latch on to the zeitgeist, but there’s no there there. I suppose perhaps a better actress than Dakota Johnson might have pulled it off, but I actually don’t even think it’s her fault. It’s just a stupid twist that I won’t spoil here; suffice it to say that it pushes a story that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to begin with into infuriatingly random territory.

The original Suspiria was a horror film that transcended into art. This remake is an art film that occasionally descends into gory horror. When it does, it’s way more Ken Russell than Dario Argento, a sea of writhing nude bodies and flashy symbolic montages.

This Suspiria remake will have some fans; like mother! last year, its extreme mix of high and low art can be as tantalizing as it is polarizing. But ultimately, besides a great Tilda Swinton performance as the director of the academy—she also plays, much less convincingly, Helena Markos and an old man (!) whose story doesn’t belong in this movie at all—there’s nothing here to make Guadagnino’s Suspiria feel like anything beyond a failed experiment.

SUSPIRIA

Directed by Luca Guadagnino. Written by David Kajganich. Based on Suspiria by Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi. Starring Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton and Mia Goth. R, 152 minutes.

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