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.


      Anchor Bay Entertainment

        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.


          Anchor Bay Entertainment

            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

             

            21 Fun Facts About Elf

            Warner Home Video
            Warner Home Video

            Everyone knows the best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear! But the second best way is to enjoy Elf. Revel in the giddy glow of this modern holiday classic with a slew of secrets from behind the scenes.

            1. Jim Carrey was initially eyed to play Buddy the elf.

            When David Berenbaum's spec script first emerged in 1993, Carrey was pre-Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and attached to front the Christmas film. However, it took another 10 years to get the project in motion, at which time Saturday Night Live star Will Ferrell was signed to star. Carrey would go on to headline his own Christmas offerings—the live-action How The Grinch Stole Christmas and the CGI animated A Christmas Carol.

            2. Will Ferrell worked as a mall Santa.


            Warner Bros.

            And his A Night at the Roxbury co-star Chris Kattan was his elf. This was back when the pair were pre-Saturday Night Live, and part of the comedy troupe The Groundlings. Ferrell recollected to Spliced Wire, "I have some experience playing Santa Claus … Chris Kattan was my elf at this outdoor mall in Pasadena for five weeks, passing out candy canes. It was hilarious because little kids could care less about the elf. They just come right to Santa Claus. So by the second weekend, Kattan had dropped the whole affectation he was doing and was like (Ferrell makes a face of bitter boredom), 'Santa's over there, kid.'"

            3. Director Jon Favreau favored practical effects.

            Inspired by the Christmas specials he grew up with, Favreau explained in the film's commentary track that he employed “old techniques” instead of CGI whenever possible. This included stop-motion animation, and using forced perspective to make Buddy look like a giant among his elf peers. For North Pole scenes, two sets were built—one larger scale for the actors playing elves, the other smaller to make Buddy and Santa look big. These elements where then carefully overlaid in camera, using lighting to blend the seams.

            4. Snow was often computer-generated.


            Warner Home Video

            Some effects just couldn't be practical. These included the snowflakes that drift over the opening credits, and many of the snowballs in Buddy's pivotal fight scene. It's probably not much of a shocker that much of these were added in post, considering Buddy's perfect aim. But to further underscore the drama that is a snowball fight in frosty New York, Favreau asked composer John Debney to give this section a Western vibe that would recall The Magnificent Seven.

            5. Elf's production design was heavily influenced by Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.

            The classic stop-motion Christmas special from 1964 gave a memorable presentation of Santa's winter wonderland to which Favreau wanted to pay tribute. The elves' costumes in Elf were inspired by those worn by Hermey and his peers in the animated film. And Elf's workshops were modeled after the Rankin/Bass designs, as were the stop-motion animals of the area. The production did secure permission for these allusions, and was even granted the privilege of using the company's signature snowman.

            6. There's a Christmas Story cameo.

            Peter Billingsley, who memorably played the Red Ryder-wanting Ralphie in the 1983 holiday classic, popped in to play Ming the elf. It's an uncredited role, but between the glasses and those bright baby blue eyes, Billingsley stands out as an A Christmas Story Easter egg. This marks just one of many Billingsley and Favreau's collaborations. Billingsley has been a producer on several of Favreau's film and television projects.

            7. Jon Favreau played multiple parts in Elf.

            Jon Favreau directs Will Ferrell in 'Elf' (2003)
            Alan Markfield, New Line Productions

            As a writer/director/actor, Favreau has often appeared in his own films. He fronted Made with friend Vince Vaughn, and later found a sweet supporting role for himself in Iron Man. You may have picked him out as the doctor in Elf, but on the DVD commentary, Favreau revealed he also tapped in to his inner narwhal and provided the voices for some of the stop-animation critters who see Buddy off from the North Pole. He also voiced the rabid raccoon Buddy encounters.

            8. Baby buddy was fired.

            To play the bubbly baby version of the titular elf, Favreau had initially cast twin boys whose blonde curly hair made them great little doubles for the mop-topped Ferrell. However, the production ran into a problem when the boys couldn't perform. Instead of smiling and crawling as needed, they cried relentlessly. To replace them, brunette triplet girls were brought in, who were far perkier and more playful, and thereby ready for their close-ups.

            9. Buddy was bullied in an early version.

            In first drafts of Berenbaum's Elf script, Buddy's decision to seek out his dad was in part because he was being hassled by the actual elves for being different. Favreau pushed to take out this element. He preferred to keep the North Pole characters warm, even when Buddy bugs them. In the DVD commentary, Favreau offers, “It explained why Buddy was doing all these good things in New York if he grew up in a world where everybody was so sweet even when he’s obviously screwing everything up and doesn’t fit in at all.”

            10. Elf hockey hit the cutting room floor.

            Poor Buddy accidentally wreaks all kinds of havoc on his elf community because of his ungainly size. One such scene of his well-meaning mayhem featured Buddy playing hockey on a frozen pond. The friendly game becomes unintentionally violent when the too-big Buddy takes to the ice. Though it was shot, it ended up being chopped from the finished film.

            11. Elf was shot on location in New York when it counted.

            Like many productions, this one took advantage of the financial benefits of filming in Canada, and much of Elf was shot in sound stages in Vancouver. However, when Buddy comes to New York, it was important to Favreau to shoot on location whenever possible. This includes all the Manhattan exteriors, as well as scenes shot at Rockefeller Center, Central Park, and Central Park West, where Buddy's dad lives.

            12. Some of Elf’s sets were built in a horror factory.

            Okay, technically it was an abandoned mental hospital, where the production team constructed the interior sets for Walter's Central Park West apartment, Gimbels's lavish toy department, and that grim prison cell. The facility is called Riverview Hospital, and it has played host to a long list of film and television productions, including The X-Files, Final Destination 2, Jennifer's Body, and See No Evil 2.

            13. Macy's stood in for Gimbels.

            The sprawling department store that takes up a whole block in Manhattan was digitally altered to transform into Elf's Gimbels. A bit awkward: Gimbels was once a real department store, and a noted rival of Macy's. Though immortalized here and in the 1947 classic Miracle on 34th Street, the department store closed its doors in 1987, its 100th year of operation.

            14. Will Ferrell broke James Caan.


            Warner Home Video

            The Academy Award-nominated star of The Godfather was hired to play Walter in part because Favreau wanted a stern persona to play against Ferrell's giddy Buddy, and Caan took the comedy of Elf seriously. He knew it was crucial for Walter to be annoyed—never amused—by his supposed son's antics. But when it came to the blood test scene where Buddy bellows when pricked by a needle, Caan cracked. Watch closely and you'll see he turns away from the camera so as not to ruin the take.

            15. The studio didn't get a joke from the mailroom sequence.

            This was the last set piece shot for Elf, and one that filmmakers were wavering on from its conception late in production. Grizzled Mark Acheson's casting as Buddy's drinking buddy concerned execs because of the line, "I'm 26 years old." The studio noted the actor does not look 26, to which Favreau—who had previously cast Acheson in a small role that had been cut before production—responded that this disconnect was part of the joke.

            16. Will Ferrell went method with those jack-in-the-boxes.

            In the scene where Buddy suffers as a toy tester, he's subjected to popping open an endless stream of menacing jack-in-the-boxes. The anxiety etched on Ferrell's face in these scenes is real. Rather than standard jack-in-the-boxes that would pop at the song's end, these were remote controlled by Favreau, who purposely manipulated their timing to toy with his star and get authentic reactions.

            17. Will Ferrell frolicked all over New York City in character.

            The final day of Elf's New York shooting was pared down from a massive crew to just three people: its star, its director, and one cameraman. Together, this trio traveled around the city, looking for mischief for Buddy to get into with random passersby turned background extras. This included him leapfrogging across a pedestrian walk, happily accepting flyers, and getting his shoes shined, all of which made it into the movie's cheerful montage.

            18. That epic burp was real, but overdubbed.

            Though uncredited, that lengthy belch came not from Ferrell, but from noted voice actor Maurice LaMarche, who might be best known for Brain of Pinky and the Brain. LaMarche shared his secret to such an impressive burp with The A.V. Club, saying, "I’ve always been able to do this weird effect, where I turn my tongue, not inside out, but almost. I create a huge echo chamber with my tongue and my cheeks, and by doing a deep, almost Tuvan rasp in my throat, and bouncing it around off this echo chamber, I create something that sounds very much like a sustained deep burp."

            19. Elf made its star stick.

            In the movie, Buddy is happy to gobble down an endless supply of sweets, including maple syrup-coated spaghetti and cotton balls made of cotton candy. But this sugary diet played havoc on Ferrell, who told About Entertainment, "That was tough. I ingested a lot of sugar in this movie and I didn't get a lot of sleep. I constantly stayed up. But anything for the movie, I'm there. If it takes eating a lot of maple syrup, then I will—if that's what the job calls for."

            20. Will Ferrell refuses to make Elf 2.

            Though the comedian reprised the role of Ron Burgundy for Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues and returned as Mugatu in Zoolander 2, he flat out rejected the possibility of bringing back Buddy, even after being offered a reported $29 million. In December of 2013, he told USA TODAY, "I just think it would look slightly pathetic if I tried to squeeze back in the elf tights: Buddy the middle-aged elf."

            21. Elf became a hit Broadway musical.

            From November 2010 to January 2011, Elf the musical ran on Broadway, boasting songs like "World's Greatest Dad," "Nobody Cares About Santa," and "The Story of Buddy The Elf." This run was a huge success, taking in more than $1.4 million in one week, a record for the Al Hirschfield Theater where it debuted. Plus, The New York Times called it, "A splashy, peppy, sugar-sprinkled holiday entertainment." A revival hit in time for Christmas 2012, and national tours have been recurring.

            Can You Guess J.K. Rowling's Fantastic Beast From Its Magical Power?

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