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

             

            Ira Aldridge: The Black Shakespearean Actor Who Broke Theater's Color Barrier

            Ira Aldridge as Othello circa 1830
            Ira Aldridge as Othello circa 1830
            Henry Perronet Briggs, Wikimedia // Public Domain

            It's easy to forget that before the dawn of film, stage actors were power players; many of them carried just as much clout as modern Hollywood stars. In 1880, Sarah Bernhardt earned $46,000 for a month of performances on her first New York tour alone (which would be well over $1 million today). In 1895, English actor Henry Irving made enough of a name for himself to become the first actor in history to receive a British knighthood. And way back in 1849, two rival Shakespearean actors, William Macready and Edwin Forrest, caused such a stir with their competing productions of Macbeth that their fans ended up rioting in the streets of Manhattan.

            But before all of them, there was Ira Aldridge. Born in New York in 1807, Aldridge made such a name for himself in the theaters of the mid-19th century that he went on to be awarded high cultural honors, and is today one of just 33 people honored with a bronze plaque on a chair at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. But what makes Aldridge’s achievements all the more extraordinary is that, at a time of widespread intolerance and racial discrimination in the U.S., he was black.

            Young, Gifted, and Black

            The son of a minister and his wife, Aldridge attended New York’s African Free School, which had been established by the New York Manumission Society to educate the city's black community. His first taste of the theater was probably at Manhattan’s now-defunct Park Theatre, and before long he was hooked. While still a student, Aldridge made his stage debut—at the African Grove Theatre, which had been established by free black New Yorkers around 1821—in a performance of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s adaptation of Pizarro. According to some accounts, his Shakespearean debut followed not long after, when he took on the title role in the African Grove Theatre's production of Romeo & Juliet.

            These early performances were successes, as was the African Grove Theatre, which quickly proved the most renowned of the few theaters in New York staffed mainly by black actors and attended mostly by black audiences. But despite these early triumphs, both Aldridge and the Grove had their fair share of hardships.

            Shortly after its opening, the Grove was forced to close by city officials, supposedly over noise complaints. The project was relocated to Bleecker Street, but this move took the theater away from its core black audience in central Manhattan and planted it closer to several larger, more upmarket theaters, with which it now had to compete. Smaller audiences, coupled with resentment and competition from its predominantly white-attended neighbors, soon led to financial difficulties. And all of these problems were compounded by near-constant harassment from the police, city officials, and intolerant local residents.

            Eventually, the situation proved unsustainable: The Grove closed just two years later (and was reportedly burned to the ground in mysterious circumstances in 1826). As for Aldridge, having both witnessed and endured racist abuse and discrimination in America, he decided he'd had enough. In 1824, he left the U.S. for England.

            The African Tragedian

            Ira Aldridge in the role of Othello, 1854
            Ira Aldridge as Othello in 1854
            Houghton Library, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

            By this time, the British Empire had already abolished its slave trade, and an emancipation movement was growing. Aldridge realized that Britain was a much more welcoming prospect for a young, determined black actor like himself—but what he didn’t know was that his transatlantic crossing would prove just as important as his decision to emigrate.

            To cover the costs of his travel, Aldridge worked as a steward aboard the ship that took him to Britain, but during the journey he made the acquaintance of British actor and producer James Wallack. The pair had met months earlier in New York, and when they happened to meet again en route to Europe, Wallack offered Aldridge the opportunity to become his personal attendant. On their arrival in Liverpool, Aldridge quit his stewardship, entered into Wallack’s employ, and through him began to cultivate numerous useful contacts in the world of theater. In May 1825 Aldridge made his London debut, becoming the first black actor in Britain ever to play Othello

            The critics—although somewhat unsure how to take a "gentleman of colour lately arrived from America"—were won over by Aldridge’s debut performance in a production of Othello at the Royalty Theatre. They praised his "fine natural feeling" and remarked that "his death was certainly one of the finest physical representations of bodily anguish we ever witnessed." Astonishingly, Aldridge was still just 17 years old.

            From his London debut at the Royalty, Aldridge slowly worked his way up the city’s playbill, playing ever-more-upmarket theaters across London. His Othello transferred to the Royal Coburg Theatre later in 1825. A lead role in a stage adaptation of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko followed, as did an acclaimed supporting turn in Titus Andronicus. To prove his versatility, he took on a well-received comedic role as a bumbling butler in an 18th-century comedy, The Padlock. Aldridge’s reputation grew steadily, and before long he was receiving top billing as the “African Roscius” (a reference to the famed Ancient Roman actor Quintus Roscius Gallus) or the renowned “African Tragedian”—the first African-American actor to establish himself outside of America.

            Even in the more-accepting society of abolitionist Britain, however, Aldridge still had mountains to climb. When his portrayal of Othello later moved to Covent Garden in 1833, some reviewers thought a black actor treading the boards on one of London’s most hallowed stages was simply a step too far. The critics soured, their reviews became more scathing—and the racism behind them became ever more apparent.

            Campaigns were launched to have Aldridge removed from the London stage, with the local Figaro newspaper among his vilest opponents. Shortly after his Covent Garden debut, the paper openly campaigned to cause “such a chastisement as must drive [Aldridge] from the stage … and force him to find [work] in the capacity of footman or street-sweeper, that level for which his colour appears to have rendered him peculiarly qualified.” Fortunately, they weren’t successful—but the affair temporarily ruined the London stage for Aldridge.

            "The Greatest of All Actors"

            Portrait of Ira Aldridge by Taras Shevchenko in 1858
            Portrait of Ira Aldridge in 1858
            Taras Shevchenko, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

            Instead of accepting defeat, Aldridge took both Othello and The Padlock on a tour of Britain’s provincial theaters. The move proved to be an immense success.

            During his national tour, Aldridge amassed a great many new fans, and even became manager of the Coventry Theatre in 1828, making him the first black manager of a British theater. He also earned a name for himself by passing the time between performances lecturing on the evils of slavery, and lending his increasingly weighty support to the abolitionist movement.

            Next, he took his tour to Ireland, and on his arrival in Dublin became a near-instant star. With the island still locked in a tense relationship with Britain at the time, he was welcomed with open arms when Irish theatergoers heard how badly he had been treated in London. (In one flattering address in Dublin, Aldridge told the audience: “Here the sable African was free / From every bond, save those which kindness threw / Around his heart, and bound it fast to you.”)

            By the 1830s, Aldridge was touring Britain and Ireland with a one-man show of his own design, mixing impeccable dramatic monologues and Shakespearean recitals with songs, tales from his life, and lectures on abolitionism. As an antidote to the blackface minstrel shows that were popular at the time, he also began donning “whiteface” to portray roles as diverse as Shylock, Macbeth, Richard III, and King Lear. When the notorious Thomas Rice arrived in England with his racist “Jump Jim Crow” minstrel routine, Aldridge skillfully and bravely weaved one of Rice’s own skits into his show: By parodying the parody, he robbed Rice’s performance of its crass impact—while simultaneously showing himself to be an expert performer in the process.

            Such was his popularity that Aldridge could easily have seen out his days in England, playing to packed theaters every night for the rest of career. But by the 1850s, word of his skill as an actor had spread far. Never one to shy away from a challenge, in 1852 he assembled a troupe of actors and headed out on a tour of the continent.

            Within a matter of months, Aldridge had become perhaps the most lauded actor in all Europe. Critics raved about his performances, with one German writer even suggesting that he may well be “the greatest of all actors.” A Polish reviewer noted, "Though the majority of spectators did not speak English, they did, however, understand the feelings portrayed on the artist's face, eyes, lips, in the tones of his voice, in the entire body." Celebrity fans were quick to assemble, including the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, and the renowned French poet Théophile Gautier, who was impressed by Aldridge's portrayal of King Lear in Paris. Royalty soon followed, with Friedrich-Wilhelm IV, the King of Prussia, awarding Aldridge the Prussian Gold Medal for Art and Science. In Saxe-Meiningen (now a part of Germany), he was given the title of Chevalier Baron of Saxony in 1858.

            Aldridge continued his European tours for another decade, using the money he earned to buy two properties in London (including one, suitably enough, on Hamlet Road). But by then, the Civil War was over and America beckoned. Now in his late fifties—but no less eager for a challenge—Aldridge planned one last venture: a 100-date tour of the post-emancipation United States. Contracts and venues were hammered out, and the buzz for Aldridge’s eagerly-awaited homecoming tour began to circulate.

            Alas, it was not meant to be. Just weeks before his planned departure, Aldridge fell ill with a lung condition while on tour in Poland. He died in Łódź in 1867, at the age of 60, and was buried in the city’s Evangelical Cemetery.

            After his death, several theaters and troupes of black actors—including Philadelphia's famed Ira Aldridge Troupe—were established in Aldridge’s name, and countless black playwrights, performers, and directors since have long considered him an influence on their work and writing.

            In August 2017, on the 150th anniversary of Aldridge's death, Coventry, England unveiled a blue heritage plaque in the heart of the city, commemorating Aldridge's theater there. Even this long after his death, the extraordinary life of Ira Aldridge has yet to be forgotten.

            8 Enlightening Facts About Dr. Ruth Westheimer

            Rachel Murray, Getty Images for Hulu
            Rachel Murray, Getty Images for Hulu

            For decades, sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer has used television, radio, the written word, and the internet to speak frankly on topics relating to human sexuality, turning what were once controversial topics into healthy, everyday conversations.

            At age 90, Westheimer shows no signs of slowing down. As a new documentary, Ask Dr. Ruth, gears up for release on Hulu this spring, we thought we’d take a look at Westheimer’s colorful history as an advisor, author, and resistance sniper.

            1. The Nazis devastated her childhood.

            Dr. Ruth was born Karola Ruth Siegel on June 4, 1928 in Wiesenfeld, Germany, the only child of Julius and Irma Siegel. When Ruth was just five years old, the advancing Nazi party terrorized her neighborhood and seized her father in 1938, presumably to shuttle him to a concentration camp. One year later, Karola—who eventually began using her middle name and took on the last name Westheimer with her second marriage in 1961—was sent to a school in Switzerland for her own protection. She later learned that her parents had both been killed during the Holocaust, possibly at Auschwitz.

            2. She shocked classmates with her knowledge of taboo topics.

            Westheimer has never been bashful about the workings of human sexuality. While working as a maid at an all-girls school in Switzerland, she made classmates and teachers gasp with her frank talk about menstruation and other topics that were rarely spoken of in casual terms.

            3. She trained as a sniper for Jewish resistance fighters in Palestine.

            Following the end of World War II, Westheimer left Switzerland for Israel, and later Palestine. She became a Zionist and joined the Haganah, an underground network of Jewish resistance fighters. Westheimer carried a weapon and trained as both a scout and sniper, learning how to throw hand grenades and shoot firearms. Though she never saw direct action, the tension and skirmishes could lapse into violence, and in 1948, Westheimer suffered a serious injury to her foot owing to a bomb blast. The injury convinced her to move into the comparatively less dangerous field of academia.

            4. A lecture ignited her career.

             Dr. Ruth Westheimer participates in the annual Charity Day hosted by Cantor Fitzgerald and BGC at Cantor Fitzgerald on September 11, 2015 in New York City.
            Robin Marchant, Getty Images for Cantor Fitzgerald

            In 1950, Westheimer married an Israeli soldier and the two relocated to Paris, where she studied psychology at the Sorbonne. Though the couple divorced in 1955, Westheimer's education continued into 1959, when she graduated with a master’s degree in sociology from the New School in New York City. (She received a doctorate in education from Columbia University in 1970.) After meeting and marrying Manfred Westheimer, a Jewish refugee, in 1961, Westheimer became an American citizen.

            By the late 1960s, she was working at Planned Parenthood, where she excelled at having honest conversations about uncomfortable topics. Eventually, Westheimer found herself giving a lecture to New York-area broadcasters about airing programming with information about safe sex. Radio station WYNY offered her a show, Sexually Speaking, that soon blossomed into a hit, going from 15 minutes to two hours weekly. By 1983, 250,000 people were listening to Westheimer talk about contraception and intimacy.

            5. People told her to lose her accent.

            Westheimer’s distinctive accent has led some to declare her “Grandma Freud.” But early on, she was given advice to take speech lessons and make an effort to lose her accent. Westheimer declined, and considers herself fortunate to have done so. “It helped me greatly, because when people turned on the radio, they knew it was me,” she told the Harvard Business Review in 2016.

            6. She’s not concerned about her height, either.

            In addition to her voice, Westheimer became easily recognizable due to her diminutive stature. (She’s four feet, seven inches tall.) When she was younger, Westheimer worried her height might not be appealing. Later, she realized it was an asset. “On the contrary, I was lucky to be so small, because when I was studying at the Sorbonne, there was very little space in the auditoriums and I could always find a good-looking guy to put me up on a windowsill,” she told the HBR.

            7. She advises people not to take huge penises seriously.

            Westheimer doesn’t frown upon pornography; in 2018, she told the Times of Israel that viewers can “learn something from it.” But she does note the importance of separating fantasy from reality. “People have to use their own judgment in knowing that in any of the sexually explicit movies, the genitalia that is shown—how should I say this? No regular person is endowed like that.”

            8. She lectures on cruise ships.

            Westheimer uses every available medium—radio, television, the internet, and even graphic novels—to share her thoughts and advice about human sexuality. Sometimes, that means going out to sea. The therapist books cruise ship appearances where she offers presentations to guests on how best to manage their sex lives. Westheimer often insists the crew participate and will regularly request that the captain read some of the questions.

            “The last time, the captain was British, very tall, and had to say ‘orgasm’ and ‘erection,’” she told The New York Times in 2018. “Never did they think they would hear the captain talk about the things we were talking about.” Of course, that’s long been Westheimer’s objective—to make the taboo seem tame.

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