Dakota Johnson’s artsy ‘Suspiria’ remake falls short

November 1, 2018 GMT

Some film disappointments send you out of the theater flustered, others indignant. “Suspiria” had me perplexed. This artsy reinterpretation of horror maestro Dario Argento’s 1977 danse macabre is creepy, violent and, at points, outright appalling. But it isn’t frightening. It is a case of wasted arterial spray.

Running 2 ½ hours — almost an hour longer than its hallucinatory predecessor — the new “Suspiria” aims for an aura of eerie anxiety, one slow, bloodstained footstep at a time. The source material, the experiences of a new American ballerina at a creepy German dance academy/witches’ coven, remains the same. But it is expanded to cumbersome lengths by director Luca Guadagnino and his writing partner David Kajganich (collaborators on the rock ’n roll love tragedy “A Bigger Splash”).

Opening in 1977 with the pedantic subtitle “Six Acts and an Epilogue Set in a Divided Berlin,” Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz) runs through an ominous rainstorm to the office of her psychotherapist, Dr. Klemperer (Tilda Swinton, although the role, one of three handled by Swinton, is credited to the fictitious Lutz Ebersdorf).

A former member of Berlin’s renowned all-female Markos dance troupe, Patricia is all jittering nerves and obsessive babblings. The troupe, overseen by Helena Markos (Swinton again) has messed with her head, she insists. Then she’s gone, leaving behind a diary full of scribbled rants and occult symbols, alchemical designs echoed by mosaics on the cavernous dance school’s floors, just so you notice.

Arriving to fill the opening that Patricia’s disappearance has caused is Susie (Dakota Johnson), who has run away from her Mennonite roots in Ohio to follow her instinctive calling to join the dance ensemble that has fascinated her for years. Her raw energy fascinates the school’s choreographer, Madame Blanc (Swinton one more time). Susie is given a full scholarship and is moved into the school’s on-site dormitory with a friendly roommate, Sara (Mia Goth).

Through half-overheard dialogue and hinting implications from the female faculty, we learn that someone is going to be inducted to the school’s very exclusive inner circle. Others will be expelled in appallingly violent ways.

The troupe’s lead dancer angrily announces that she will follow Patricia’s departure from the academy. In a sequence shared in the film’s trailers — no spoiler — the deserter is more or less possessed by Susie’s dancing one floor above, being thrown around a deserted rehearsal room with her writhing body being contorted and snapped like Silly Putty. After much squabbling over the school’s internal politics, the entire staff shares similar experiences.

What does it all add up to? A dreamy, unreal film engorged with cryptic complexities, red herrings, twisty turns and Easter eggs but few of the first edition’s devilish, pulpy thrills. It’s not that Gaudagnino is a careless filmmaker. I suspect that he genuinely wanted us to feel uncertain and unnerved but went too far down a zigzag narrative path.