It's 1977, and Berlin is still divided by eastern and western borders.
Lufthansa Flight 181, with several prominent Germans onboard, has been hijacked by the Commando Martyr Halima and the country is still bowing under the weight of the evils that many of its providing fathers had committed in World War II. This is the real-life, emotionally combative setting in which Academy Award-nominated director Luca Guadagnino has placed his reimagining of Dario Argento's popular, fantastical horror film Suspiria.
Keeping with this more naturalistic mood, Guadagnino replaces the rich, vibrant blues and reds of Argento's fairy-tale vision with earthier strands of green, brown and white. This muted landscape is also reflected in Thom Yorke's ( Radiohead ) soft score and keeps the Mennonite countryside, wherein heroine Suzy Bannion ( portrayed by Dakota Johnson ) was raised, as a constant touchstone in the film's design as well.
The story begins in earnest upon Suzy's not entirely expected arrival at the Markos Dance Academy. Nearly forcing her way into an audition for the company, Bannion's animalistic technique quickly gains the approval of the artistic staff. Soon Susie has earned the lead in the revival of one of the company's groundbreaking pieces and is working, forehead to forehead, with the troupe's enigmatic director, Madame Blanc ( Tilda Swinton ). But Blanc and the whispering tribes of women who rule the walkways and rehearsal halls seem to have darker, mysterious plans for Susie that have more to do with witchery than prima ballerina glories. As Dr. Klemperer ( Lutz Ebersdorf ), a concerned psychiatrist, begins to search for Patricia ( Chloe Grace Mortiz ), the missing woman who once held Blanc's prime attention, and other troupe members begin to disappear or suspect their mistresses' intentions, the naturally strong-willed Susie seems destined to alter the predestined courses of all within her reach.
Furthering the already Gaia-drenched source material, Guadagninoan openly gay man who has admitted to a long-term obsession with Argento's original movieadds shades of such odd, '70s femme-based horror films like Burnt Offerings and The Sentinel to the mix here as well. Meanwhile, a more modern, perhaps unwelcome, influence may be Darren Aronofsky's controversial 2017 offering Mother! Like Aronofsky, Guadagnino seems more concerned with exploring artistic, vaguely inscrutable notions of feminity, culminating in an orgiastic ending that either will set up deep contemplation or frustrated cries of bewilderment.
Fully using the power that he gained from last year's Call Me By Your Name for a totalitarian vision, Guadagnino creates a world far from the male gaze, a common attribute of mainstream horror. Even the Sapphic bonds that one may assume would be explored among a company of spell-weaving women in close quarters are defined by proud affection and mentoring gazes, not sheet-rolling lust. Themes of maternal omnipresence, the fight to escape from it, and the longstanding consequences of the bloodthirsty patriarchy all seep through the celluloid cracks here. Interestingly, the violence perpetrated against the victims here is more self-involved and personal than the swish of a serial killer's blade. It revolves, almost exclusively, around the more natural consequences of being a woman in the arts. The injuries inflicted upon the unfortunates are often gross exaggerations of the abuse that professional dancing can inflict upon the female body.
Nicely, unlike Argento's film, which had a handful of semi-prominent male cast members among the confines of the dance troupe, there are almost no men on display here. Their presence may be felt, but it is more of an emotional after effect than a controlled attention. Even Klemperer, in a stunning feat of acting prowess, is actually played by Swinton, who adopted the Ebersdorf moniker as a stage name. Thus, Klemperer's dreamy reunion with his/her supposedly long-dead wife, played in a heartfelt cameo by original Suspiria star Jessica Harper, takes on an almost non-binary, inclusive aspect.
Guadagnino works wonders with the rest of the cast as well. Johnson radiates with a quiet maturity, particularly in her final moments, that is miles beyond her work in the popular 50 Shades of Grey series; she is the granddaughter of Tippi Hedren, whose work with twisted auteur Alfred Hitchcock on The Birds and Marnie brought everlasting fame. With a skittering sense of mania, Moritz also does her finest acting thus far as the nerve ravaged Patricia. The showy presence of Golden Age movie queen Joan Bennett and savage European beauty Alida Valli in the original is also echoed here. RenÃ©e Soutendijk, a regular in Paul Verhooven's early films who aimed for American superstardom with projects like Eve of Destruction in the '90s, brings a creepy irresistibility to her Mrs. Huller. She is aided in atmospheric depth by such foreign indie superstars as Fassbinder collaborator Ingrid Caven and top Sudanese fashion model Alek Wek.
The presence of these fine performers' cinematic luster should appeal to even those who find fault with other aspects in this work of singular, dreamy feministic Gothicism.
After a special Halloween screening, Suspiria begins its regular run Friday, Nov. 2, at The Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave.; see MusicBoxTheatre.com .
Also see sidebar to this story, "Filmmakers reflect on original 'Suspiria,' LGBT appeal" at www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/SIDEBAR-Filmmakers-reflect-on-original-SuspiriaLGBT-appeal/64600.html .