How Disney's Snow White Influenced Suspiria –

From “Uncle Walt” to the master of Italian horror.
Name a parody or pop culture reference to the concept of a Disney Princess, and I’ll bet you good money that it’s really just a take-off on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. 58 animated feature films have followed Snow White’s premiere in 1937, many representing significant advancements in the craft, and many of the succeeding princesses significantly more fleshed out as characters. And yet it’s the woodland cottage, a parade of helpful woodland critters, and the wide-eyed and high-pitched heroine that has maintained a pervasive sway over the public’s image of a generic “Disney Princess.” Disney itself isn’t immune: the kingdom of Andalasia and Princess Giselle in Enchanted owe more to Snow White than to any other Disney movie. And between the bucolic imagery, the broad and cuddly comic relief from the dwarfs, and the naivety of Snow White herself, it’s very easy to remember the film – and by extension, in many minds, all of Disney’s fairy tales – as a very soft and light cinematic experience for young children.
And in many ways, Snow White is a soft, light film. But Walt Disney never intended that his films be only for children, and he wasn’t averse to turning a story away from the light when it needed to. “For every laugh, there should be a tear,” he used to say; for the better part of his film career, he liked to throw in a scream or two, too. Mickey Mouse went up against phantoms and mad doctors in his black and white days, and the Silly Symphonies – an ongoing experiment for techniques and ideas – touched on horror now and again. And if Grimm’s Fairy Tales aren’t quite as macabre as some analyses would have you believe, they frequently live up to their name. Snow White is no exception. Disney’s adaptation isn’t their darkest film, but it did retain much of that aspect of the tale and presented it with gusto.
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This side of the film becomes apparent straightaway after the credits. The Evil Queen’s castle has a touch more of the gothic to it than most royal abodes in Fantasyland, sporting blood-red spires atop its turrets. The queen herself is shrouded in dark fabrics and the shadows of her private quarters, lit only by the glow of the blank-faced slave of her magic mirror. Her initial designs on Snow White may be less overtly gruesome than in Grimm’s Fairy Tales – there’s no cannibalism in Disney – but coveting the princess’s heart, to be kept and displayed in an ornate box, is its own sort of grisliness and just as demented. And if Disney softened the Evil Queen in that respect, they intensified her depravity in other ways. Grimm’s only had the Queen disguise herself with face paint; Disney gave her a rat-infested dungeon that mashed together a witch’s lair and Frankenstein’s laboratory. Her transformation into a hideous peddler is given all the dramatic flair of one of Universal Studio’s werewolf transformations, and animation allowed a more spectacular metamorphosis than any make-up could achieve at that time. The Queen’s performance grows more melodramatic and unhinged the longer she stays in disguise, as does the musical underscore whenever she’s on camera. Her desperation to kill Snow White leads to her own demise; not quite the torturous execution the Grimm’s gave her, but being crushed under a crumbling mountain and devoured by two red-lipped vultures still seems a miserable way to go to me. And the Queen does succeed in poisoning Snow White; her salvation by love’s first kiss is only possible thanks to luck, not any act of valor by the prince or the dwarfs, or any effort by Snow White herself.
Besides the character and imagery of the Evil Queen, Snow White also has a scene of the huntsman looming over a child with a knife, Snow White’s delirium in her escape from the castle wherein she transforms the forest into a pit of monsters, and the aforementioned vultures looming with greedy smirks over the final third of the film. The cumulative effect of all these elements, and perhaps the surprise many critics felt at being so affected by a pack of drawings, made an impact. Snow White was a blockbuster before the term existed (and a critical darling), but if you were under 16 in the United Kingdom, you couldn’t get in to see it without a parent, so determined the ratings board. There were concerns across the pond too, during the initial release and after; as far out from the premiere as 1987, the New York Times ran an article on whether Snow White was too intense for young children.
British censors and nervous parents didn’t arrest Snow White’s performance or dilute its reputation. Except for Mickey Mouse, no film was as pivotal to Disney’s future success, and its impact on animation and the broader fantasy genre remains immense. But Snow White hasn’t just spawned additional fairy tale musicals. With its horror-adjacent material, Snow White and Disney have had an influence on full-blown horror films. Peter Cushing put Disney alongside Shakespeare in assessing worthy predecessors to his approach to horror movies, and Francis Ford Coppola has acknowledged that Lucy’s glass coffin in Bram Stoker’s Dracula was an homage to Snow White. But a less obvious – though far deeper – debt is owed Snow White by Dario Argento’s Suspiria.
In the 1970s and 80s, Argento was to the Italian horror scene what Wes Craven and John Carpenter were to America. Beginning as a critic and screenwriter, Argento dove straight into the horror genre once he won a director’s chair. He specialized in a subgenre known as giallo, a precursor to the slasher subgenre heavily reliant on mystery and crime, psychological disturbance, and eroticism. Deep Red (1975), often hailed as among the best horror films of its kind, brought Argento to international attention. Its scenes of mutilation, decapitation, and insanity would seem a far cry from even the darkest Disney moments, and these elements continued into Suspiria.
But Suspiria is not a giallo film in the strictest sense. A thinly-plotted but sumptuously produced story of a hidden witch coven, the film had its roots in the essay collection Suspiria de Profundis by Thomas De Quincey, given to Argento by his partner Daria Nicolodi. Collaborators of Argento have implied that he truly believes in the existence of witches (though Argento himself has disavowed any belief in magic). Beyond the occult, however, was inspiration from fairy tales. Nicolodi co-wrote the screenplay for Suspiria with Argento, and she tapped into several children’s stories during the writing. But for the reluctance of distributors, Argento would have had the film feature young children. Denied that, the director used production design to suggest his original intent, scaling up set pieces to diminish the size of the actresses. And in casting the lead character of Suzy Bannion, actress Jessica Harper was ultimately chosen, in part, for her suggesting one of the fairy tale heroines that inspired the film’s story – Snow White.
And it was Disney’s Snow White in particular that influenced Suspiria, most evidently in the use of color. Among its many other virtues, Snow White was an early feature-length triumph for the three-strip Technicolor process. “It has been said from the beginning that Technicolor lacked subdued shades,” said Argento, “and was without nuances – like cut-out cartoons…we were trying to reproduce the color of Walt Disney’s Snow White.” Argento had cinematographer Luciano Tovoli review Snow White in preparation for Suspiria, and Tovoli tracked down an old Kodak film stock that would let them better replicate the Technicolor look. While the three-strip photographic process had long been retired by 1977, Technicolor still used its dye-transfer process to finalize color shot on other stock. Its system allowed for much greater control over the final look of the prints. Suspiria would be one of the last films processed by Technicolor.
Ironically, Snow White was a film with “subdued shades and nuances;” overcautious Technicolor advisors persuaded Walt to keep things conservative on his first feature. Its success left Walt sufficiently confident to ignore their advice for the rest of his career, and Argento and Tovoli were so heedless of caution that they took a protective border filter out of the Technicolor process to get as garishly saturated shades as they could. Paired with richly textured set designs, the result is one of the most striking uses of color in cinema since the heyday of the three-strip process. The vibrancy of Suspiria contrasts sharply with the horrific deaths of the students at the Tanz Dance Akademie who run afoul of the coven controlling it. But the color palette, odd choices in scale, and childish blocking and dialogue all work to support Nicolodi’s notion of Suspiria as a fairy tale, with Harper’s Suzy as its Snow White. There are no dwarfs to offer her protection, nor any princes to break evil spells. And a coven of witches can wreck far more evil than one Evil Queen with a talent for sorcery. On the other hand, Suzy isn’t so naïve as her Disney forbearer and ends her picture by walking away with a smile of triumph over the horrors that have faced her.
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William Fischer is a writer, artist, and filmmaker from Nebraska, currently studying animation in Ireland while writing for Collider. His art and short stories have appeared in “Intergalactic Medicine Show,” “Bards and Sages Quarterly,” and “Another Realm” e-zine. Outside the arts, William enjoys cooking, baking, and fencing (Olympic saber and rapier).


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