14 Unforgettable Facts About Dario Argento's Suspiria

Anchor Bay Entertainment
Anchor Bay Entertainment

By 1977 Dario Argento was already on his way to becoming a cinema legend. He’d proven himself a master of the Italian giallo genre with thrillers like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) and Deep Red (1975), but for his sixth directorial effort he had something else in mind. A story about witches lurking in a boarding school from his co-writer and partner Daria Nicolodi became the seed of a landmark film, and Argento turned from violent thrillers to dreamlike supernatural terror.

With its vivid color palette, nightmarish story, and evocative score, Suspiria became an instant horror classic, elevating Argento and Nicolodi to iconic status and cementing the director’s reputation as a master of the genre. More than 40 years later, Argento’s fairy tale-inspired, ultraviolent masterpiece is still terrifying new audiences—even as a remake emerges.

1. IT IS PARTIALLY INSPIRED BY A TRUE STORY.

Though the phrase “fairy tale” is often thrown out to describe Suspiria’s unique Technicolor horrors, the original seed of the story apparently emerged from something quite real. According to co-writer Daria Nicolodi, her grandmother Yvonne Müller Loeb was once sent away as a young girl to a prestigious boarding school, only to find that Black Magic was actually being practiced there. When Nicolodi heard the story, she filed it away in her head, until she and Argento took a trip through various European cities with a history of witchcraft. She was reminded of the story, told Argento about it, and Suspiria was born.

2. THE MYTHOLOGY CAME FROM AN ENGLISH WRITER.

To add to the overall aura of Suspiria’s menacing witches, Nicolodi and Argento crafted an overarching mythology of the Three Mothers: powerful sorceresses each with their own imposing lair somewhere in the world. The film’s chief villain is Helena Markos, also known as Mater Suspiriorum, the Mother of Sighs. This term, and the overall concept of The Three Mothers, was borrowed from English essayist Thomas De Quincey, who discussed the mothers as Three Sorrows affecting humanity (metaphorically, of course) in his 1845 book Suspiria De Profundis.

3. IT WAS ALSO INSPIRED BY FAIRY TALES.

With Nicolodi’s initial tale about witches at a finishing school and the Three Mothers concept to anchor the story, Suspiria then needed its distinctive tone. Unsurprisingly when you look at the finished product, Argento and Nicolodi both turned to fairy tales. Nicolodi looked to Alice In Wonderland, Bluebeard, and Pinocchio as she wrote, and Argento was famously inspired visually by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs—so much so that he made sure cinematographer Luciano Tovoli saw the Disney film before making Suspiria.

“[In] Suspiria … we were trying to reproduce the color of Walt Disney’s Snow White," Argento said. "It has been said from the beginning that Technicolor lacked subdued shades, was without nuances—like cut-out cartoons.”

4. THE CHARACTERS WERE ORIGINALLY MUCH YOUNGER.

Because the film was so heavily influenced by fairy tales, the original screenplay called for the students at the dance school to be very young girls, aged eight to 10. This made producers nervous, not just because of the idea of brutally murdering little girls onscreen—which Argento thought could only improve the horror—but because Argento’s tendency toward perfectionism was not a good fit for child actors. The combination could have proved costly due to production delays.

Eventually, Argento relented and agreed to recast the students as teenagers. However, he and Nicolodi did not update the script to reflect this, hence the often unnerving childlike dialogue between the girls. To heighten the effect, Argento also reflected his original intention to use child actors in the set design. As Suzy makes her way through the film, you’ll notice that the doorknobs are usually at eye level, rather than waist level. Argento included this design element to heighten the subconscious effect of a fairy tale populated with little girls.

5. DARIA NICOLODI WANTED TO PLAY THE LEAD.

In addition to co-writing Suspiria and being Argento’s romantic partner at the time, Nicolodi was also a very accomplished actress. She starred in Argento’s previous film, Deep Red, and when it became clear that adults, not children, would star in Suspiria, she planned to take a lead role again. Nicolodi initially hoped to play Suzy, the clear star, but financiers balked at the idea, arguing that an American lead would boost the film’s international box office potential. With Jessica Harper cast as Suzy instead, Nicolodi lobbied for the supporting role of Sara, but an injury before filming began forced her to bow out and she was replaced by Stefania Casini.

Nicolodi does still appear in Suspiria, though. In the film’s opening minute, as Suzy walks through the airport, you can see Nicolodi (in the video above) walking on the left side of the screen, wearing a red blouse and carrying a large bag.

6. DARIO ARGENTO ALSO MAKES A CAMEO.

Suspiria’s opening murder sequence, in which two women are assaulted and brutally killed by a phantom attacker, is one of the most memorable and visually stunning in all of horror cinema. It sets the tone for what’s to come and absolutely assaults the senses. It’s also where you can find Argento’s own cameo appearance. As he did in many of his films, Argento decided to be the hands of the killer.

7. THE SCORE WAS INNOVATIVE.

To craft the music for Suspiria, Argento turned to the Italian band Goblin, who he’d previously worked with on Deep Red. Argento wanted the score to sound otherworldly, like nothing heard in a film before, so the band developed innovative sounds using a variety of methods.

In addition to their standard rock instruments, Goblin brought in African drums and a Greek stringed instrument called a bouzouki (recommended by Argento), among other things. Then the band got even more innovative, squeezing plastic cups against the microphones to create echoing sounds, hitting metal buckets full of water with hammers, incorporating disembodied voices, and more. With Argento’s close collaboration, they produced an unforgettable, nightmarish score.

8. THE ICONIC SCORE WAS PLAYED ON SET.

    Suspiria’s visual delights are enticing and horrifying enough, but the film is absolutely put over the top by its haunting score from Goblin. The band had already composed early versions of many of the themes for the film by the time Argento began shooting, so he opted to play the score over loudspeakers on set to create a mood. Because all of the film’s dialogue would later be dubbed in post-production (a very common practice in Italian filmmaking at the time), Argento played the score as loud as he could in an effort to create tension among the cast. It seems to have worked.

    9. THE LIGHTING WAS INNOVATIVE, TOO.


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      “With Suspiria we left the natural behind us in order to achieve a totally artificial style,” cinematographer Luciano Tovoli later said of the film. And indeed his camera does create a sense of unreality, of living in a dark fairy tale world. Argento and Tovoli used numerous techniques to achieve this. Argento, for his part, insisted on keeping the camera almost constantly moving, employing numerous dolly and crane shots to give the film its dreamlike imagery. To create the vibrant blues and reds, Tovoli took massive carbon arc lights and stretched colored fabric, rather than the traditional gel filters, over them. This not only created vivid primary colors, but allowed him to put the lights closer to the actors, flooding the whole frame with color.

      10. IT’S THE FIRST IN A TRILOGY.

      Because the Three Mothers concept is at the heart of its mythology, Suspiria presented an opportunity to create a loose trilogy of horror films, each focusing on a different Mother in a different location. Argento wasted little time making the second installment. Inferno (1980), his next film after Suspiria, chronicles an encounter with Mater Tenebrarum, the Mother of Darkness. Though a third film was always promised, it took nearly three decades for Argento to get around to it. The Three Mothers trilogy finally concluded in 2007 with The Mother of Tears.

      11. ONE DEATH SCENE WAS PAINFUL IN REAL LIFE.


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        Though it’s hard to top the film’s opening murder, Suspiria delivered another unforgettable death scene when Sara dives into a room full of razor wire and becomes trapped. Actress Stefania Casini arrived on set that day aware that she was filming a death scene, but unaware of how her character would be killed. When she saw the wire, Argento told her to simply dive in and struggle to reach the window on the other side of the room. Buoyed by a positive mood on set, Casini eagerly obliged. While the barbs were, of course, removed from the wire, it was still real wire. As she struggled, Casini found that the wire kept tangling and wrapping itself around her limbs, pinching her flesh as she struggled. Luckily, the scene was shot in one take.

        “I remember when we were done, I went home, I looked like I had been bitten by thousands of ants,” Casini said. “I will never forget that scene."

        12. IT WAS INITIALLY A CRITICAL FLOP.

          Today, Suspiria is universally regarded as a horror classic by audiences, critics, and filmmakers. It’s an essential genre film and Argento’s masterpiece, but not everyone thought so in 1977. Despite a strong box office showing in the United States, Suspiria was often critically savaged.

          “It is a horror movie that is a horror of a movie, where no one or nothing makes sense: not one plot element, psychological reaction, minor character, piece of dialogue, or ambience," wrote John Simon for New York Magazine.

          13. IT WAS THE FINAL FILM TO BE PROCESSED IN THREE-STRIP TECHNICOLOR.


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            Color is very important in Suspiria. It adds to the fairy tale vibe and creates an otherworldly look that no other horror film has. One of the reasons for this is Argento’s insistence that the film be processed in three-strip Technicolor (the same process that gave classics like The Wizard of Oz their vibrant colors), which by the late 1970s had become both expensive and arcane. It was so arcane, in fact, that Technicolor was throwing out its three-strip processing equipment as the film was being made. Argento persuaded the Technicolor processors in Rome to hold on to a single machine until he finished Suspiria. He got the processing he wanted, and the film got its iconic look.

            14. ARGENTO ISN'T THRILLED ABOUT THE UPCOMING REMAKE.

            A remake of Suspiria has been in the works for several years, and production finally began last year. Directed by Luca Guadagnino and starring Dakota Johnson, Chloë Grace Moretz, and Tilda Swinton, the film is planning a 2019 release. When asked about the remake in a 2016 interview, Argento revealed that he had not been consulted on the project in any way, and argued against the film being made at all.

            “Well, the film has a specific mood,” Argento told IndieWire. “Either you do it exactly the same way—in which case, it’s not a remake, it’s a copy, which is pointless—or, you change things and make another movie. In that case, why call it Suspiria?”

            Additional Sources:
            Suspiria 25th Anniversary , 2001
            Broken Mirrors: Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento, by Maitland McDonagh

             

            11 Fun Facts About Them!

            Joan Weldon and James Arness star in Them! (1954).
            Joan Weldon and James Arness star in Them! (1954).
            Warner Home Video

            In the 1950s, Elvis was king, hula hooping was all the rage, and movie screens across America were overrun with giant arthropods. Back then, Tarantula (1955), The Deadly Mantis (1957), and other “big bug” films starring colossal insects or arachnids enjoyed a surprising amount of popularity. What kicked off this creepy-crawly craze? An eerie blockbuster whose impossible premise reflected widespread anxieties about the emerging atomic age. Grab a Geiger counter and let’s explore 1954's Them!.

            1. Them!'s primary scriptwriter once worked for General Douglas MacArthur.

            When World War II broke out, the knowledge Ted Sherdeman had gained from his career as a radio producer was put to good use by Uncle Sam, landing him a position as a radio communications advisor to General MacArthur. However, the fiery conclusion of the war left Sherdeman with a lifelong disdain for nuclear weapons. In an interview he revealed that upon hearing about the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima, he “just went over to the curb and started to throw up."

            Shifting his focus from radio to motion pictures, Sherdeman later joined Warned Bros. as a staff producer. One day he was given a screenplay that really made his eyes bug out. George Worthing Yates, best known for his work on the Lone Ranger serials, had decided to take a stab at science fiction and penned an original script about giant, irradiated ants attacking New York City. "The idea appealed to me very much,” Sherdeman told Cinefantastique, "because, aside from man, ants are the only creatures in the world that plan to wage war, and nobody trusted the atomic bomb at that time.” (His statement about animal combat is debatable: chimpanzee gangs will also take organized, warlike measures in order to annex their rivals’ territories.)

            Although he loved the basic concept, Sherdeman felt that the script needed something more. Screenwriter Russell S. Hughes was asked to punch up the script, but died of a heart attack after completing the first 50 pages. With some help from director Gordon Douglas, Sherdeman took it upon himself to finish the screenplay. Thus, Them! was born.

            2. Two main ants were built for the movie.

            Them! brought its spineless villains to life using a combination of animatronics and puppetry, courtesy of an effects artist by the name of Dick Smith. He constructed two fully functional mechanical ants for the production, with the first of these being a 12-foot monster filled with gears, levers, motors, and pulleys. Operating the big bug was a job that required a small army of technicians who’d pull sophisticated cables to control the ant’s limbs off-camera. These guys worked in close proximity and often crashed into each other as a result, prompting Douglas to call them “a comedy team.”

            The big insect mainly appears in long shots, and for close-ups, Smith built the front three quarters of a second large-scale ant and mounted it onto a camera crane. During scenes that required swarms of ants, smaller, non-motorized models were used. Blowing wind machines moved the little units’ heads around in a lifelike manner.

            3. Them! features the Wilhelm Scream.

            Fifty-nine minutes in, the ants board a ship and one of them grabs a sailor, who unleashes the so-called "Wilhelm Scream." You can also hear it when James Whitmore’s character is killed, and the sound bite rings out once again during the movie’s climax. Them! was among the first movies to reuse this distinctive holler, which was originally recorded three years earlier for the 1951 western Distant Drums. Since then, it’s become something of an inside joke for sound recording specialists. The scream has appeared in Titanic (1997), Toy Story (1995), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Batman Returns (1992), the Star Wars saga (1977-present), all three The Lord of the Rings movies (2001-2003), and countless other films.

            4. Leonard Nimoy makes an appearance.

            In one brief scene, future Star Trek star Leonard Nimoy plays an Army man who receives a message about an alleged “ant-shaped UFO” sighting over Texas. He then proceeds to poke fun at the Lone Star State, because, as everybody knows, insectile space vessels are highly illogical.

            5. Many different sounds were combined to produce the screeching ant cries.

            Throughout the movie, the monsters announce their presence with a haunting wail. Douglas’s team created this unforgettable shriek by mixing assorted noises, including bird whistles, which were artificially pitched up by sound technicians.

            6. Sandy Descher had to sniff a mystery liquid during her signature scene.

            Like Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Them! has a deliberate pace and the massive insects don’t make an onscreen appearance until the half hour mark. Douglas took credit for this restrained approach, saying, “I told Ted, let’s tease [the audience] a little bit before you see the ant. Let’s build up to it."

            So instead of showing off the big bugs, the opening scene follows a little girl as she wanders through the New Mexican desert, listlessly clutching her favorite doll. That stunning performance was delivered by child actress Sandy Descher. Later, in one of the most effective title drop scenes ever orchestrated, a vial of formic acid is held under her character’s nose. Suddenly recognizing the aroma, the traumatized youngster screams “Them! Them!” Descher never found out what sort of liquid was really sloshing around in that container.

            “They used something that did smell quite strange. It wasn’t ammonia, it was something else,” she told an interviewer. Still, the mysterious brew had a beneficial effect on her performance. “They tried to create something different and it helped me a lot with that particular scene,” Descher said.

            7. Them! was originally going to be filmed in 3D and in color.

            To hear Douglas tell it, the insect models looked a lot scarier in person. “I put green and red soap bubbles in the eyes,” he once stated. “The ants were purple, slimy things. Their bodies were wet down with Vaseline. They scared the bejeezus out of you.” For better or for worse, though, audiences never got the chance to savor the bugs’ color scheme.

            At first, Warner Bros. had planned on shooting the movie in color. Furthermore, to help Them! compete with Universal’s brand-new, three-dimensional monster movie, Creature From the Black Lagoon, the studio strongly considered using 3D cameras. But in the end, the higher-ups at Warner Bros. didn’t supply Douglas with the money he’d need to shoot it in this manner. Shortly before production started on Them!, the budget was greatly reduced, forcing the use of two-dimensional, black and white film.

            8. The setting of the climactic scene was changes—twice.

            Yates envisioned the final battle playing out in New York City’s world-famous subway tunnels. Hughes moved the action westward, conjuring up an epic showdown between human soldiers and the last surviving ants at a Santa Monica amusement park. Finally, for both artistic and budgetary reasons, Sherdeman set the big finale in the sewers of Los Angeles.

            9. Warner Bros. encouraged theaters to use Them! as a military recruitment tool.

            The film’s official pressbook advised theater managers who were screening Them!& to contact their nearest Armed Forces recruitment offices. “Since civil defense in the face of an emergency figures in the picture, make the most of it by inviting [a] local agency to set up a recruiting booth in the lobby,” the filmmakers advised. Also, the document suggested that movie houses post signs reading: “What would you do if (name of city) were attacked by THEM?! Prepare for any danger by enlisting in Civil Defense today!”

            10. The movie was a surprise hit.

            Studio head Jack L. Warner predicted that Them!, with its far-fetched plot, wouldn’t fare well at the box office. So imagine his surprise when it raked in more than $2.2 million—enough to make the picture one of the studio's highest-grossing films of 1954.

            11. Them! landed Fess Parker the role of TV's Davy Crockett.

            When Walt Disney went to see Them!, he had a specific objective in mind: Scout a potential Davy Crockett. At the time, Disney was developing a new television series that would chronicle the life and times of the iconic frontiersman, and James Arness, who plays an FBI agent in Them!, was on the short list of candidates for the role. Yet as the sci-fi thriller unfolded, it was actor Fess Parker who grabbed Disney’s attention. Director Gordon Douglas had hired Parker to portray the pilot who ends up in a psych ward after an aerial encounter with a gargantuan flying ant. And while his character only appears in one scene, the performance impressed Disney so much that the struggling actor was soon cast as Crockett.

            By the Texan’s own admission, his good fortune may’ve been the product of bargain hunting. “Walt probably asked, ‘How much would Arness cost?’ and then ‘This fellow [Parker], we ought to be able to get him real economical,” Parker once said.

            George R.R. Martin Doesn't Think Game of Thrones Was 'Very Good' For His Writing Process

            Kevin Winter, Getty Images
            Kevin Winter, Getty Images

            No one seems to have escaped the fan fury over the finals season of Game of Thrones. While likely no one got it quite as bad as showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, even author George R.R. Martin—who wrote A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series upon which the show is based, faced backlash surrounding the HBO hit. The volatile reaction from fans has apparently taken a toll on both Martin's writing and personal life.

            In an interview with The Guardian, the acclaimed author said he's sticking with his original plan for the last two books, explaining that the show will not impact them. “You can’t please everybody, so you’ve got to please yourself,” he stated.

            He went on to explain how even his personal life has taken a negative turn because of the show. “I can’t go into a bookstore any more, and that used to be my favorite thing to do in the world,” Martin said. “To go in and wander from stack to stack, take down some books, read a little, leave with a big stack of things I’d never heard of when I came in. Now when I go to a bookstore, I get recognized within 10 minutes and there’s a crowd around me. So you gain a lot but you also lose things.”

            While fans of the book series are fully aware of the author's struggle to finish the final two installments, The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring, Martin admitted that part of the delay has been a result of the HBO series, and fans' reaction to it.

            “I don’t think [the series] was very good for me,” Martin said. “The very thing that should have speeded me up actually slowed me down. Every day I sat down to write and even if I had a good day … I’d feel terrible because I’d be thinking: ‘My God, I have to finish the book. I’ve only written four pages when I should have written 40.'"

            Still, Martin has sworn that the books will get finished ... he just won't promise when.

            [h/t The Guardian]

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