Run for the exits in disgust or fall for this manic pixie dream girl of a campy, supernatural thriller. Luca Guadagnino — director of “Call Me by Your Name” and “A Bigger Splash” — rebranded Dario Argento’s 1977 cult classic, “Suspiria,” in an exercise in Hollywood world building that’s about as polarizing as listening to your mate’s stories about gap year.
American Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) journeys from Amish Ohio to pursue her dance career with a troupe of witch-like, all-female professionals, led by the ever-imperious Tilda Swinton (Madame Blanc). Pent up in a brutalist mansion in punky West Berlin, things quickly take a turn from the mundane: Chloë Grace Moretz speaks German to a tired old man, girls go missing and Johnson turns out to be a shockingly proficient dancer.
Given the back-on-trend signature neon lighting of Argento’s original, this year’s offering opts for washed-out, grayish browns and blues that make “Suspiria” into more of a “Call of Duty”-looking, 20th-century, war-torn period piece. We’re in West Berlin, too — not Munich, if the spiked, black-leather punks on the subway as Johnson arrives didn’t make things painfully clear enough. You can be forgiven for forgetting, as everyone in the academy seems to speak in an English accent. “I live in Berlin now,” Johnson says to her British roommate, Sara (Mia Goth). So far, so gap-year hostel.
As our lead first enters the academy doors, the camera quickly remembers to pan up, mimicking the aerial view from the art-nouveau balcony that marks Argento’s original. But it feels like the film is playing catch-up — the gaudy, campy horror is mournfully remembered in these all-too-fleeting allusions.
Further to the point, any attempt at building suspense is broken by subplot interjections from outside the academy. As criminal suspicion builds to demonic conspiracy, seemingly mundane formalities are superseded by magical forces. The 1977 version is genuinely scary because it keeps us trapped in this unravelling academy, constantly building terror and suspense. Guadagnino favors constant drama, with every line of dialogue seemingly pivoting the narrative. It’s unfortunately unbelievable — by the time we reach the film’s denouement, the audience has probably already seen too much to be shaken by its vulgar conclusions.
This Amazon Studios film is also packed full of historical, contextual references. The tale of the hijacking of the 1977 Lufthansa Flight 181 and the imprisoned Red Army Faction leaders, told through background radio play, TV screens and banners lining the buildings of West Berlin, leaves you desperate for a college seminar explanation. Its relevance to the storyline seems tangential at best, yet its constant interference feels as if the film got stuck on the History channel instead. It’s hard to say what it adds, beyond the pseudo-intellectual posturing of a pretentious postgraduate essay.
Thom Yorke is handed the forlorn task of following Italian prog-rock outfit Goblin’s creepily psychedelic 1977 soundtrack. Eerie at best, his typically somber electronic piano ramblings might pass on their own, but are ruefully out of place alongside the film’s sinewy dancing and gorier moments. Given the high number of female leads, it’s hard to see quite why the Radiohead frontman was chosen, if only to cultivate an indie-head audience for this more mainstream remake.
The problem is, for a story so rich in allusion (and illusion), it never really comes together into anything remotely coherent. Guadagnino has added almost an hour to the original, and it shows, as the plot bulges into a more than 2 ½-hour, contorted monstrosity that only briefly chills as it jerks and flails about onscreen. Only the wonderfully spooky, abstract dream sequences offer a terrifyingly horny Arca-like interlude from the demonstratively un-unsettling action. Hollywood films seem to demand such overexpository plots and touristy settings that after all 152 minutes of Guadagnino’s film, Argento’s cult classic feels all the more delightfully extravagant at 41 years old.