DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. A year after his Oscar-winning romantic drama, "Call Me By Your Name," the Italian director Luca Guadagnino returns with "Suspiria," a remake of Dario Argento's 1977 horror film of the same title. The new version is set in 1977, at a Berlin dance academy. It stars Tilda Swinton and Dakota Johnson. Film critic Justin Chang has this review of "Suspiria."
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: In the 1977 Italian slasher movie "Suspiria," a young American woman joins a German dance academy that turns out to be run by witches. Dario Argento turned that threadbare story into an art nouveau fever dream, drenched in candy apple blood and a demon-possessed music box of a score. Once reviled as camp but long since embraced as a horror classic, "Suspiria" has haunted the dreams of many moviegoers, none more so than Luca Guadagnino, who has spent more than 30 years trying to remake it.
You can understand why the director of such viscerally erotic romances as "Call Me By Your Name" and "I Am Love" would respond to "Suspiria" for its lush, stylistic possibilities alone. So it's surprising that this new movie departs from the original in every way imaginable. The visual palette is cold and gray. Guadagnino has drained away the bright, lurid colors and most of the shocks and crowded the story with historical detail.
At two and a half hours, this "Suspiria" runs a full hour longer than the original. And it takes its time creeping into your veins. But creep it does. The movie is a hoot and a folly. But it's also a marvel, a magnificently obsessive vision that comes to feel less like a remake than a rebirth. It's 1977, the year of the deadly German autumn. And the still-divided city of Berlin is reeling from the violent acts of the radical Red Army Faction, also known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang. Into this chaos comes Susie Bannion, a strikingly self-possessed young woman from Ohio who has just joined the prestigious Helena Markos Dance Company. Susie is played by Dakota Johnson, who starred in the "Fifty Shades Of Grey" trilogy and is thus no stranger to subjecting herself to extreme physical exertions.
The company specializes in a form of modern dance notable for its forceful, aggressive choreography, which expresses and embodies the traumas of Germany's war-torn past and present. The director, Madame Blanc, is played by Tilda Swinton, an actress with natural sorcery in her veins. She begins preparing Susie for the lead role in an upcoming piece, working especially on her jumps. But Madame Blanc is also clearly grooming her for a darker purpose.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SUSPIRIA")
TILDA SWINTON: (As Madame Blanc) When you dance the dance of another, you make yourself in the image of its creator. You empty yourself so that her work can live within you. Do you understand?
DAKOTA JOHNSON: (As Susie) Yeah.
SWINTON: (As Madame Blanc) You're in a company now. You have to find your right place. You have to decide what is it you want to be for this company. Is it the head, the spine, the sex, the heart?
JOHNSON: (As Susie) The hands. I want to be this company's hands.
SWINTON: (As Madame Blanc) Higher. Higher. Higher. Higher. Higher. Higher. Higher. Higher. Higher.
CHANG: It's no spoiler to note that this dance is a form of witchcraft. Any doubts will be laid to rest early on by a hideously gruesome set piece in which Susie dances a solo, unaware that her body has been magically conjoined to that of a dancer in another room. As Susie dances, the other woman is mercilessly tossed about, her bones cracking as her limbs twist like a pretzel. Such grisly moments aside, it's almost perverse how little the "Suspiria" traffics in overt scares. Guadagnino and his screenwriter, David Kajganich, generate plenty of unease. But they seem disinclined to build suspense.
At times, the movie draws you right into the witches' inner circle, as if it were trying to get you on their side. These witches may be wicked, luring young women into their ranks and punishing those who disappoint them. But are they more evil than the horrors of war? Could the dance academy perhaps be a stronghold against those horrors - an all-female enclave passing down its dark arts from generation to generation in an effort to ward off an even greater darkness? I can't decide if this notion is brilliantly audacious or completely pretentious. Maybe it's brilliantly pretentious.
Either way, Guadagnino commits to it entirely and with an astounding level of craft. The dance choreography by Damien Jalet is mesmerizing. And the music by Thom Yorke of Radiohead strikes discordant notes of beauty and longing. Perhaps the most shocking thing about Guadagnino's "Suspiria" is how moving it becomes as you realize how deeply these women are enslaved by the past, and also by the powers they've summoned to escape it.
On a lighter note, one of the most significant characters is an elderly psychotherapist who starts investigating the bizarre goings on at the academy after one of the students seeks his counsel. He's played by an actor named Lutz Ebersdorf, though as a New York Times story recently revealed, Ebersdorf is, in fact, an alias for Tilda Swinton buried under layers of old-age makeup. It's an ingenious piece of prosthetic sorcery that makes an odd sort of sense in context. Outside this witches coven, the only man of note turns out to be a woman in disguise.
DAVIES: Justin Chang is a film critic for The LA Times.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROBERTO GRELA'S "MILONGA TRISTE")
DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROBERTO GRELA'S "MILONGA TRISTE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.