There's a wonderfully ghastly sequence in Luca Guadagnino's new Suspiria that is guaranteed a pedestal of distinction in the horror hall of fame. The movie is set in a modern-dance school in Berlin that is run by witches, and in this sequence we see a new student named Susie (Dakota Johnson) running through a series of foot-stamping, arm-flinging moves for her creepy teachers. Unbeknown to her, these exertions are having a supernatural effect on another student named Olga (Elena Fokina), who's locked in an empty rehearsal space elsewhere in the building. As Susie bounds around, we watch Olga being flung into mirrored walls and slammed onto bare wooden floors until she's reduced to a gasping bloody pretzel, her arms cracked, her back snapped, her exposed viscera dripping icky liquids all over the place. Even the most blasé gross-out fans are likely to find this pretty impressive.
Guadagnino (Call Me by Your Name) says he has maintained a primal connection to the original Suspiria—Dario Argento's 1977 batshit classic—ever since he first saw it, at age 10. In this renovation of that film, he has retained the armature of the story—the spooky school, the weird teachers, the endangered students—but has added a lot of stuff, too. Most notably, he has shifted the action from the West German city of Freiburg to the divided city of Berlin in 1977. This allows him some Cold War flourishes (the graffiti-coated Berlin Wall is located very near the school) and also enables him to insert another plot element he seems to think pertinent. It's the Baader-Meinhof Group—the left-wing terrorist gang whose years of kidnappings, bombings and murders had by 1977 brought West Germany to the brink of a civil crisis.
Baader-Meinhof was a fascinating cultural phenomenon (for a terrific recreation of it, see Uli Edel's action-packed The Baader Meinhof Complex); but the determination to drag it into this film (possibly to connect with a Holocaust allusion toward the end) is one of the reasons the movie has a runtime of two and a half maddening hours. (Argento's original Suspiria clocked in at a trim 98 minutes.) So no matter how delectable the horror effects that sometimes crop up here—the slit throats, the juicy black worms, the alarming meat-hook moves—you may find yourself wishing throughout that Guadagnino had hustled things along a little more briskly.
Still, he's done us the favor of hiring Tilda Swinton (who has appeared in three of the director's earlier films) to play Madame Blanc, the director of the school. Could anyone else look more ravishingly haunted as she glides around in floor-sweeping black gowns? (Since the movie is designed to have a main cast that's completely female, Swinton also plays a mumbly male psychiatrist named Josef Klemperer—and if I hadn't already heard about this impersonation, I don't think I ever would have spotted it.) The director also gets solid performances from Johnson (who appeared in his 2015 film A Bigger Splash).and from Mia Goth and Chloë Grace Moretz, who play freaked-out fellow students. And he commissioned a rich score from Thom Yorke.
Guadagnino has also taken a lot of trouble with the look of the movie. There are none of the blazing primary colors that everyone remembers from Argento's film; instead, the muted interiors here (shot at an abandoned hotel in the Italian Alps) and the unending rain we hear and see outside create a dismal atmosphere that seems, psychologically, very much of its time and place.
The movie is billed at the beginning as consisting of "Six Acts and an Epilogue," which already seems too long. After wandering the Art Nouveau corridors of the school with Johnson and Goth as they seek out hidden rooms and the source of the mysterious chanting they've heard, and after being instructed in the mythology of the three evil "Mothers" who run the world (or certain cities or something), and then actually meeting one of them (Jabba the Hag, you might call her), and then checking our watch for the second or third time—well, we're very happy to see the finish line heave into view. And since the picture ends in a really demented blood orgy, please be advised that it's almost worth waiting for.