Starring: Tilda Swinton, Dakota Johnson, Mia Goth, Chloe Grace Moretz
Directed by: Luca Guadagnino
Running time: 152 minutes
On finishing this film actress Dakota Johnson apparently went straight into therapy, with myself right behind her. This remake of the 1977 Italian horror “classic” (which no one actually called it) is one of the daftest, silliest, most bonkers things you will see all year. It’s like The Red Shoes (now there is a classic) mixed with Black Swan, but turned all the way up to 11 and with a bucket of blood poured over it. Some horror fans will love it for those reasons, others may find it all too noisy, gory or just plain silly.
Johnson is Susie, the new arrival in a dance school in Berlin. The cold war is very much still on, the Baader Meinhof gang are hogging the dreary news, and the city itself is as grey, dreary, rain-soaked and colourless as it was when David Bowie made his famous trilogy there – spot the posters of him on the bedroom walls of the dancers. Susie has come straight from her amish home in America but passes her audition in flying style in front of the intimidating Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), who believes she has discovered the new star of her masterpiece work, Volk.
However as Susie enters the school another exits, in the form of Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz) who has been used up and thrown away once her talent started to diminish. She accuses Blanc and the other teachers of being witches and running a coven, and she may well have a point. As Susie starts to enter the lead part of Volk she befriends Sara (Mia Goth), and the two start to bond. Patricia meanwhile seeks help in the form of therapist Dr Klemperer (Swinton in heavy disguise) who believes she is delusional. He is actually rather more interested in finding the wife he lost during the Second World War, believing she is still alive somewhere.
It’s no spoiler to say that Susie gets more obsessed with the lead role as Madame Blanc eggs her onto ever more heights of physical and psychological demand, and that there are consequences for this Faustian pact. However it’s also important to say that at this point the story goes on a detour that rather stalls the suspense. Susie actually pretty much disappears for a good hour of the film, as Sara’s search for Patricia becomes the focal point along with the Doctor’s sub-plot. The tension is broken and the film never really recovers, despite a climactic public performance of Volk which is admittedly well shot and choreographed.
There’s perhaps a deeper problem than this though. A story involving witches and things that go bump in the night does not exactly sit perfectly with a plot involving Nazi atrocities. It seems in very poor taste actually, and the film never manages to resolve those two fundamentally very different strands of seriousness.
What is a success is the film’s design. Berlin is bleached of any colour whatsoever, it seems to be constantly raining and the dance school itself is a masterpiece of rotting grandeur, all art deco flooring and tiling but with the cracks showing through. The Berlin Wall itself is right next to the hall, casting a literal shadow over the dark goings on inside, and the border control is as grimly lit and washed out as the landscapes. There is plenty of colour in the last 20 minutes, but what is clearly meant to be a horror tour de force actually ends up being rather daft grand guignol. Thom Yorke’s score is an invasive irritant when it appears, which thankfully isn’t too often.
There are also some rather strange casting choices here. While Swinton is an obvious choice for a tall, skinny, overbearing dance teacher the idea of her playing an ageing male German Doctor misfires, her voice is a squeaky giveaway. Johnson, for all of the dance training she has clearly done, still looks like she is in one of those dreadful 50 Shades films, while Goth lives up to her name, although she is actually the best of the bunch.
Overall Verdict: An oddity of a movie, with much to recommend it in terms of mood, design and look, but which in the ends is less than the sum of its parts. Strangely it has missed the Halloween market that it would have been perfect for. With all thoughts turning to Christmas, it is about the least festive film you can imagine. It may well end up in the same bargain DVD bin the 1977 original can now be found in, in which case one wonders what was the point exactly? The Red Shoes did the art conquering love theme unbeatably, and Black Swan put the body horror into dance. This tries both and fails on pretty much both counts, leaving a long trail of blood along the dancefloor.
Reviewer: Mike Martin