Putting a label on director Luca Guadagnino’s “Suspiria,” a singularly disturbing remake of horror master Dario Argento’s 1977 cult classic, seems to be an exercise in futility.
It’s not really a horror movie, though there are scenes of bloody gore. It’s not really a thriller, because thrillers don’t usually move at such a languid pace and clock in at over two-and-a-half hours. It’s got moments of suspense, but as often as not what gets suspended is never allowed to fall to earth.
Maybe “psychological drama” is closest to the mark, but that doesn’t factor in the supernatural elements or the moments of complete weirdness Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich have devised that make this “Suspiria” such an unsettling delight.
It’s 1977 — funnily enough, the year Argento’s movie was released — in the divided city of Berlin. One of the few constants here is the Markos Theatre Company, which survived World War II and continues to draw female dance students from around the world. And if one is to believe Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz), the psychologically damaged dancer visiting her psychologist, Dr. Josef Klemperer, there’s a dark secret lurking within the dance company that needs to be stopped.
Dr. Klemperer is played by Lutz Ebersdorf, according to the credits, but that’s a bit of a lie — because, as was revealed shortly after the movie’s debut at the Venice Film Festival, Ebersdorf is really Tilda Swinton in male drag and old-age make-up. It is, as always with Swinton, an amazing performance to watch, and not the only one she gives here.
Swinton also plays Madame Blanc, the head teacher at the Markos troupe’s academy. Blanc, the audience learns early, is in something of a power struggle with the unseen Madame Markos over the troupe’s direction — with Blanc graciously accepting defeat in a faculty vote.
As this is happening, a new student has arrived amid the imposing Cold War architecture: Susie Bannon (Dakota Johnson), a self-taught dancer from Ohio whose natural instincts intrigue Blanc and fire up her choreographic passion. Blanc and her colleagues also see something else in Susie: A possible vessel to perpetuate Madame Markos’ hold on the troupe.
If that sounds vague, that’s by design. Explaining further would be a bit of a spoiler, but also would make no sense without context — because it barely makes sense with context. Guadagnino, shifting gears radically after his languid sun-dappled films “Call Me By Your Name” and “A Bigger Splash,” is after a darker tone here, a vibe of menace and impenetrable mystery.
It’s also a women’s-only space. Besides Swinton’s Dr. Klemperer, there are only two male speaking roles in “Suspiria,” two police detectives who don’t realize how much they’re in over their heads. The women are in charge, with Swinton’s Blanc serving as the imperious mother hen to them all.
Blanc may be in command, but in performance Swinton shares the crown with Johnson, who takes over the movie by slow seducing the audience. Johnson has been dismissed as an actor because of her involvement in the “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy, but those who don’t conjure with her ability to command the screen need to see this and “Bad Times at the El Royale” for a refresher.
From its captivating first moments to its mind-bending conclusion, “Suspiria” shows Guadagnino is deliberate in his desire to unsettle the audience and rewrite the rules of supernatural horror. His movie messes with a viewer’s mind; it just takes its sweet time doing it.
Opened October 26 in select cities; opens Friday, November 2, at the Cinemark Jordan Landing (West Jordan). Rated R for disturbing content involving ritualistic violence, bloody images and graphic nudity, and for some language including sexual references. Running time: 152 minutes.