Philip Carroll’s review published on Letterboxd:
"It's all a mess. The one out there...
The one in here... the one that's coming. Why is everyone so ready to think the worst is over?"
This is the latest remake of a classic from Hollywood. The setup is basically the same as the original film but the outcome is very different. An American girl enrolls in a prestigious dance school in Berlin where the owners are hiding a dark and sinister secret. The first half mostly feels like the original with a less exciting opening of the student that runs away and then spoils the big secret of the film to her therapist that the school is run by witches. He of course, doesn't believe her and then she disappears. American dancer, Susie, shows up and is immediately recognized by the teachers as being an exceptional dancer and gets the lead part in the upcoming performance. She makes a friend named Sara who lives in the room next to her. Meanwhile, we get scenes of the instructors meeting in their private lunch room discussing their sinister plot, right from the beginning. Where is the mystery?!
Dakota Johnson plays Susie, the seemingly innocent girl from Ohio that's thrilled to get into the famous school. Unfortunately, that's pretty much the extent of her character throughout the film. Her friend Sara, who plays a key role in the original film for discovering the school's dark secret, is also completely unaware of what is happening behind the scenes in this film. At least, until the missing girl's therapist walks up to her and informs her of his suspicions, based off the missing girl's accusations of the school. Shortly after that, she begins snooping around and almost immediately discovers some secret passageways that lead to rooms with relics and other strange activity. She then tells Susie, who immediately blows her off and that is the end of that. So all there is to our main character is that she only cares about dancing and is completely ignorant to the horrors around her? <sigh>
Frankly, I was very disappointed with this one. Almost everything is revealed in the first five minutes until that twist at the very end, which was pretty dumb. While the original had the two girls snooping around and discovering many dark secrets about the place along with us in the audience, this one just had Sara discovering things we already knew about, while Susie was too busy training with Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). Susie's arc doesn't happen until the very end, which does explain her one note performance throughout the film, but that doesn't change the fact that she was a dull and forgettable protagonist. There's also a lot of other themes and subplots shoved in here that don't really amount to anything by the end. Such as, the news footage of the cold war that's intercut throughout the film and feels very distracting and out of place. We also keep cutting back to the old man therapist with the most irritating voice (who I had no idea was also played by Tilda Swinton), that seems to be the only person with a clue as to what the school is on about. He also has a backstory of losing his wife a few years back during the war (though, that actually does pan out). But again, we already know what's going on, so to watch Tilda Swinton in some ridiculous old man body suit, wobbling around and playing detective, is extremely tedious. Honestly, we didn't even need that character in the movie, but it's trying to be different from the original, and I'm sure Swinton wanted to play an old man, so whatever.
As for the 152 minute runtime, this movie was as bloated as Mother Markos (also played by Swinton). They could have easily cut out all the excess news footage scenes. I get that they're trying to establish the world and time period that they're in, but we don't need a constant reminder every ten minutes. They should also cut out the multiple scenes with the instructors discussing their diabolical plans. At least that would give us some mystery of what's to come. While we're at it, give us a protagonist that's somewhat interesting and has some flaws and not one that's so self absorbed that she doesn't know or care what is going on at her school. The therapist spends the majority of the film, outside of the school, so he has no idea what's going on and we don't need to waste time, laying out all the clues to get him up to speed. After trimming down all the fat, I think this could have been a solid 2 hour movie.
This film did do some things that I liked. For instance, it bothered me in the original film that they are killing off students left and right and seem to have no big dance performance that they are preparing for. This one does actually have a performance that they are training for and perform in. And whether I liked her characters or not, Swinton is excellent at playing 3 different roles and it's always great to see her talents on full display. I also appreciated that the filmmakers went a different route instead of making a direct copy of the original, but by the end of it, it sort of reminded me of "The Last Jedi" where it subverted my expectations (which is fine), but went a way that I didn't really want it to go. Taking out the mystery and throwing in one lousy twist at the end, is also not a great trade, in my opinion. Especially, when it's a 2 and a half hour movie, so you can really feel it's length. The absence of the vibrant colors was very disappointing as well, since the film was so dark and dismal. Though, we do eventually get that deep red lighting at the very end when things go nuts. I also couldn't help but feel like the film was going for shock value more than making a lasting impression. The flashes of horrific images when Susie is dreaming are the equivalent of a series of jump scares and are forgotten by the next scene (though, that's how dreams tend to work, so I suppose I'm nitpicking there). Whereas, the voodoo scene where Susie's eradic dance movements are causing another dancer's body to twist and snap in unnatural directions was effective. But then they repeat a similar scene later to where it already felt redundant. There is one scene that gave me genuine chills with the therapist's realization at the end, which was a nice wake up call after being 2 hours into the movie. I should mention the dance choreography that I would describe as a mix of being seductive and demon possessed. It's really bizarre and I was not a fan of it, which is pretty much how I would describe this film.
To sum it up, I'm sort of on the fence with this one. It is a competently made film with a lot of talent behind it and certainly leaves a lot of room for discussion afterwards, so for that I will probably lean towards a positive rating. I just didn't like the liberties and direction they took it in. I'm sure it's one of those films that's more rewarding with repeat viewings, but for my first, I can't say that I enjoyed it.