Hollywood Flashback: 'Suspiria's' Witch-Filled Ballet School Terrified Audiences in 1977

Harper in a scene from 1977's 'Suspiria,' filmed at De Paoli studios in Rome.

A remake of Dario Argento's horror film premieres Sept. 1 at the Venice Film Festival and stars Tilda Swinton and Dakota Johnson. Recalls original star Jessica Harper, who has a cameo in the remake: "The filming wasn't bad. The maggots falling from the ceiling were really just rice."

Besides being an inspiration 
for Quentin Tarantino and Brian De Palma, Dario Argento has 
been called "the Italian Hitchcock" and "the Visconti of Violence" 
for his work with giallo films, a type of horror-thriller unique 
to Italy. (For his part, Argento has said he got his inspiration from early 1960s low-budget Roger Corman films.)

His best-known work is probably Suspiria, whose remake premieres Sept. 1 at the Venice Film Festival. The Amazon Studios release stars Dakota Johnson and is directed by Call Me by Your Name's Luca Guadagnino, who told an Italian newspaper that after he showed the film to Tarantino, the American filmmaker "was crying and he hugged me."

When the original opened in 1977, The Hollywood Reporter said its horror builds "to an almost unbearable intensity, despite an implausible plotline and ludicrous dialogue." THR said the film features "such gruesome sequences 
as maggots falling from the ceiling, a seeing-eye dog attacking its blind master, a rampaging bat and, finally, a coven of witches."

The primary object of this 
nastiness is a young American girl (Jessica Harper) enrolled in 
a witch-infested German ballet school. "The movie now seems kind of tame," says Harper, who has been married since 1989 
to Sony Pictures chairman Tom Rothman. "A lot of grotesque things happen in the film, but Dario also had an incredible visual sense. That's what sustains the movie."

Harper was 26 when she made the film and says she was 
"pretty much transformed by 
the experience. I lived in Italy for 
four months and got to work with Dario and Joan Bennett, who I remembered from the movies of the '40s and '50s." (Besides being a film star, Bennett was infamous for an incident in which her husband shot her agent, who 
he suspected was having an affair with her, in the groin. He survived.)

"I loved making the film," adds Harper, who has a cameo in the remake. "And the filming wasn't that bad. The maggots 
falling from the ceiling were really just rice."

This story first appeared in the Aug. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.