'Suspiria' remake is all about the witchcraft

Ritual in red

Suspiria Opens Friday, Nov. 2 4 out of 5 stars

The remake of Suspiria, Dario Argento's 1977 cult horror classic, has been the subject of much speculation and anticipation. After his romantic feature Call Me by Your Name was received with such adoration, it seemed odd that director Luca Guadagnino would tackle such a high-profile horror reboot. The wait is finally over, and from the looks of the critical landscape, opinions are already sharply divided. Dear Reader: I loved it. But I did not love all of it.

I've been an ardent fan of the original Suspiria for years, even with its awkward dubbing and confusing storyline. I find it chilling and beautiful and always capable of eliciting that visceral shudder that I think many horror fans seek out but find to be elusive (especially now, when the offerings are so prolific but mostly mediocre). What makes Suspiria so effective for me is its simplicity: the candy-colored mise en scène; the repetitive, haunting score. The film doesn't follow a typical narrative structure; rather, it seems to craft lush, moody segments of a story that takes place in a dreamy nether realm. Ostensibly set in Berlin, the city feels awfully like Rome (because it was mostly shot there). This might explain why Guadagnino felt compelled to anchor the remake firmly in place: Apart from a short eerie prologue set in rural Ohio, the remaining "six episodes and an epilogue" (as the opening titles tell us) take place in "a divided Berlin." The specific political context, including references to Baader-Meinhof and the Red Army Faction, is intriguing, but it's not entirely clear what it has to do with witches.

In the first prologue, a young dancer named Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz) is nervously pacing during a session with her psychiatrist, Dr. Klemperer (Tilda Swinton, playing an elderly man), babbling about witches who are threatening her. Then we see a pastoral scene set in a Midwest farmhouse where an Amish woman is dying, surrounded by her many children. Then the first of six episodes begins with Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), a dancer whose arrival at the elite Markos Dance Academy causes ripples when her demanding instructor, Madame Blanc (also Tilda Swinton), is immediately captivated by her talent. Her classmate Sara (the excellent Mia Goth) tells her about the disappearance of her friend Patricia, and when she is not rehearsing the demanding lead role she nabbed on her first day, Susie helps Sara snoop for clues to Patricia's whereabouts. Amid an atmosphere of suspicious gossip, several dancers are brutally murdered, and Susie and Sara's searching leads them closer to the evil at the heart of the school.

Unlike the rather clumsy expository dialogue in Argento's screenplay (co-written with Daria Nicolodi), this reboot, rewritten by David Kajganich (A Bigger Splash), is subtle and complex. At its center are the "matrons," the cabal/coven of dance academy instructors (played by a fantastic assortment of European actresses) who live and socialize together. The scenes where they prepare food together or go out to a local bar, cackling and smoking, are casually intimate and captivating. The witches' sub-story is told in non-linear ways, with voice-over dialogue unrelated to the action, as in a dreamy segment where the matrons cast votes related to their next magic ritual: a resurrection of their matriarchal leader (again, played by Tilda Swinton). The ritual occurs alongside the climactic dance performance and Susie finds herself at the center of the horror. I won't give more away, but the film's climax is an outrageous bacchanalian spectacle unlike any I've ever seen (though some snippets of the X-rated version of Caligula come close).

The newly imagined Suspiria looks and feels worlds apart from the original. Guadagnino's low-key color palettes work just fine, until all hell literally breaks loose and glows red. This first foray into horror is impressive: bold and often perverse, although the intricate, somewhat inscrutable story feels a bit long. Apart from Dakota Johnson's bland performance, the cast is excellent (Swinton's triple tour de force will be talked about for years). Thom Yorke's haunting score is a moody psych-folk odyssey that almost has a life of its own. Where Argento's film derived its power from artful set pieces of violent murder, Guadagnino crafts a compelling atmosphere that suffuses every scene with dread and intrigue.

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