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Suspiria ***1/2

by Ruben Rosario

Yes, it's too long and bites off more than it can chew, but Luca Guadagnino's brilliantly staged and impeccably acted reimagining of Dario Argento's giallo staple is a slow-burn marvel, a witches' brew haunted by all-too-real demons. 

Is it worth $10? Yes 

It doesn't look like much from the outside, just another unremarkable building in Stasi-era West Berlin during a particularly turbulent time. Behind the doors of the Markos Dance Academy, however, malevolent forces dwell in plain sight. Yes, we all know dance instructors are evil incarnate put in this world to inflict pain and misery, but the teachers in this school are real witches. No, really, they're bonafide sorceresses. Dark magic, dastardly spells, naked rituals, the ability to invade your dreams. You get the picture.

But to new arrival Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson, a revelation), Markos marks an escape from her devoutly rigid upbringing in a Mennonite family in rural Ohio that always resented her being the malcontent misfit. The wide-eyed ingenue becomes our eyes and ears into this walled-off world of spooky hallways, power plays and retaliatory mayhem, but part of what makes “Suspiria,” an ambitious spellbinder based on Dario Argento's 1977 influential supernatural tale, stand out is director Luca Guadagnino's insistence in tying the disturbing events at the school with the political realities of the time period.

The year is 1977, and the German government is in the middle of negotiating with radical terrorists who have hijacked a plane and demand the prison release of leaders from the Baader-Meinhof Group, aka the Red Army Faction. Meanwhile, the battle lines are being drawn within Markos, as Susie quickly wins the favor of the dance company's lead choreographer, Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton, in top form), causing rifts between her fellow instructors and putting her at odds with Mother Markos herself, who mysteriously remains out of sight.

The dancing is no mere window dressing here. The dance pieces, expertly choreographed by Damien Jalet and edited with razor-sharp precision by Walter Fasano, make viewers feel every inflection. They're a little Martha Graham, more than a little Pina Bausch. (Swinton's performance appears to channel Bausch.) If you ever wondered what would happen if Roman Polanski ever decided to remake “Fame,” wonder no more. The sustained aura of unease is reminiscent of “Rosemary's Baby,” but it's also unsettling in the way that recalls his 1965 psychological thriller “Repulsion.” Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom opts against the saturated reds that dominated the screen in Argento's film, going in the other direction to create a more muted look. Susie's long auburn hair, however, appears to pay subtle tribute to the original's loud color palette.

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As “Suspiria” unfolds in episodic, leisurely fashion, horror junkies will probably start asking themselves when the carnage is going to begin, but Guadagnino, working from a literate, character-driven screenplay by David Kajganich, is in no hurry to go for the jugular. In a separate narrative strand, the film follows Dr. Jozef Klemperer (Swinton, her face covered in pounds of makeup and prosthetics), an elderly psychologist who begins looking into the dance school when one of his patients (a strong cameo by Chloë Grace Moretz) vanishes, something the academy attributes to her leftist political leanings. But Guadagnino and Kajganich are also interested in Klemperer's grief over his wife Anke, who went missing during World War II. The commitment to this storyline is commendable, but it ends up weighing the movie down. At two and a half hours, the film could have most definitely used a trim. The Klemperer scenes could have been somewhat reduced without losing the film's potency.

But even as it juggles too many balls in the air, “Suspiria” methodically wraps its tendrils around you. The film's bursts of graphic bloodletting, punctuated by eerie nightmare sequences that feel like something out of a queasy art installation, are isolated and relatively brief, but all the more effective because Guadagnino slowly builds up to them. The film rewards viewers' patience by delivering brutal satisfaction capable of slaking the thirst of the most hungry gore junkie.

The film continues its inexorable crawl to a climactic blood orgy that subverts the original's more conventional denouement by forcing viewers to confront their own inner demons. Flesh is torn into with unblinking abandon, but “Suspiria” becomes a transcendent unholy communion because it worms its way into those deeper recesses that house one's anxieties and long-dormant fears. This sinister yarn might be overlong and bulky, but to this convert never less than mesmerizing. It pulls off a cathartic exorcism, as it takes you by the hand and invites you to surrender to its danse macabre.

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