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.
“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.
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.
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?”
Suspiria 25th Anniversary , 2001
Broken Mirrors: Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento, by Maitland McDonagh