‘Suspiria’: You can dance, you can die in convoluted horror remake
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Snap, crackle and pop.
As in: there’s a scene in which a dancer’s bones snap, and her innards crackle and pop, because that’s the kind of grotesquery commonplace in the ambitious, grandiose, occasionally compelling but far more often irritating and laughable “Suspiria.”
Even arthouses have garbage chutes. Despite some interesting performances and impressive art direction, director Luca Guadagnino’s take on the 1977, cult-favorite, supernatural horror film by Dario Argento is an arduous, overstuffed, convoluted and trashy piece — bloated and graphically blood-soaked, guaranteed to make you cringe at times, but not the least bit chilling or haunting.
There’s something crazy-great about the premise of “Suspiria”: an internationally renowned dance company/boarding school in Berlin is also the front for a coven of witches to recruit young women for the most nefarious of purposes.
Who hasn’t been there, right?
The story is set during the tumultuous “German Autumn” of 1977, with East and West Berlin separated by the wall, militant terrorists setting off bombs and an ongoing drama involving the hijacking of a Lufthansa airplane.
We also get a subplot about the Holocaust, and an elderly widower’s despair over the disappearance of his wife during the height of World War II. The efforts to connect these big-picture storylines to the madness happening within the dance company are strained and largely superfluous.
So let’s get to the meat of the matter.
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Dakota Johnson plays Susie, a talented but untrained and unqualified dancer from Ohio who shows up at the legendary Markos Dance Academy in Berlin for a long-shot audition.
Susie’s violently passionate routine is so impressive, the famously demanding lead dance teacher, Madame Blanc herself (Tilda Swinton), instantly welcomes Susie into the company and begins grooming Susie for the lead in the next production.
(Dakota Johnson is a gamer who trained hard for the role. She says she did the vast majority of the dancing in this film. I believe that — but there ARE some cutaway shots only slightly more plausible than the body double moments in “Flashdance.”)
The rehearsal/training sequences are masterfully executed, with the matriarchal Madame Blanc beginning each day by kissing and hugging each dancer, making them all feel special — and then cracking the whip in often cruel fashion as her teaching associates (played by Sylvie Testud and Ingrid Craven), who look as if they’ve been embalmed, nod and smile ominously at the proceedings.
Mia Goth plays Susie’s roommate Sara, an outwardly bubbly bundle of energy who is troubled by the disappearance of her LAST roommate, Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz).
When Sara starts asking questions, oh boy. Not good.
Oh, and about Patricia: She was a patient of the esteemed psychoanalyst Dr. Josef Klemperer, and she told him all about the secret witches’ coven at the dance school, and how Madame Blanc and her cohorts — whether living or dead but still hanging around — were capable of horrific, unspeakable deeds.
Of course, Dr. Klemperer believed poor Patricia was delusional — until certain events have him rethinking that position.
(Sidebar about the Dr. Klemperer character: As you might have heard, for a time there was a lighthearted but not particularly sophisticated campaign claiming one “Lutz Ebersdorf,” an elderly non-actor, portrayed Klemperer. In fact, it’s Tilda Swinton, in one of three roles she has in the film, playing Klemperer, and even though Swinton is one of the finest actors in the world and the makeup is impressive, Klemperer looks and sounds like Tilda Swinton playing an old man.)
Director Guadagnino (“Call Me By Your Name”) peppers in numerous callbacks to the original, including a late and rather bizarre cameo by Jessica Harper, the lead in Argento’s film.) As the story jumps timelines and careens from one storyline to the next, the shifting visual styles and the infectiously creepy score contribute to the unsettling tone. There ARE moments of inspired lunacy.
Alas, when the time comes for Susie to take center stage in more ways than one, and “Suspiria” pulls out all the stops and reveals itself to be nothing more than gory claptrap, Dakota Johnson’s line readings are so toneless and rote, even someone as one-dimensional as Anastasia Steele would call her out for faking it.
Amazon Studios presents a film directed by Luca Guadagnino and written by David Kajganich. Rated R (for disturbing content involving ritualistic violence, bloody images and graphic nudity, and for some language including sexual references). Running time: 152 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.