“You must push everything to the absolute limit or else life will be boring.” – Dario Argento
Since 1970, Italian filmmaker Dario Argento has carved an illustrious career delving into the area of graphic shocks. He created an art form of intense scares, ones where audiences become visually soaked. His earlier works fall into the category of giallo, an Italian term which describes a sub-genre of movies or literature focusing on suspense, mystery and horror. Argento ruled supreme in this area with his earlier works devastating for their time. Not only were the ideas original, the execution of them was masterful.
The 80s were not as fruitful for Argento, such as 1985 production Demons which he wrote and produced. Although it appears a cross between Night Of The Living Dead and The Warriors, in reality it is boring, badly acted and forgettable. Critically, his worked has slipped in the last three decades, with only brief glimpses of the man’s magnificence such as in the Max Von Sydow thriller Sleepless (2001). From a filmmaker who at one point was breaking new ground and hammering down boundaries it is slightly frustrating.
Regardless of his eventual decline though, Dario Argento has become one of the most influential directors in his field since the menacing work of Alfred Hitchcock. Indeed, even Peter Strickland’s In Fabric, out this week, is clearly indebted to the Italian filmmaker. Taking five landmark movies from Argento’s back catalogue of work, the genius of the man comes to the surface, displaying both guts and glory, in every sense.
#1. The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970)
Argento’s debut and first big hit outside Italy, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage or The Gallery Murders follows American author Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) vacationing in Rome. Seeking inspiration, and a cure for his writer’s block, he becomes embroiled in the case of a serial killer murdering numerous women across the city. Sam witnesses one of these deaths at an art gallery, and becomes emotionally invested in apprehending the ‘black gloved’ killer. This is giallo cinema at its best: suspenseful, entertaining, and the sense of dread is matched by the stylized horror Argento would perfect in later films.
#2. Deep Red (1975)
By 1975, Argento had begun to hone his craft, delving fully into horror. A clear example of this is Deep Red (Profondo Rosso). This is the work of the director that really showcases his visual style behind the camera as the pain felt in the victims is transmitted perfectly to the viewer.
Deep Red is a tale of myths, folklore and the all-important mysterious killer, along with a historic murder and a book entitled House of the Screaming Child. This movie is complex, suspenseful with plot twists and gruesome killings adding beautifully to the execution of Argento’s vision. The soundtrack by Italian progressive rock band, Goblin (who stepped in after Pink Floyd turned down the opportunity) only adds to the eerie atmosphere the filmmaker created to enslave the audience in a world of nightmares. This one stays with you long after the final credits.
#3. Suspiria (1977)
Remade in 2018 by Luca Guadagnino, the original from four decades previous is still the shiver-inducing masterpiece which cannot be equaled. It follows the tale of an American ballet dancer, Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), who travels to Germany to study at Tanz Dance Academy, and becomes snared within a world of murder.
It is visually compelling, a masterwork of gore versus suspense battling against a stylish backdrop. Given that the poorly dubbed English is a let down, the original subtitled cut is best. That said though, in Suspiria often words are not needed. Just Argento’s technicolor sets – drenched in bright reds, blues and greens – bring enough tension to traumatise the senses. Although his next project and thematic follow-up Inferno (1980), lacked the initial impact of this shocker, Suspiria is rightly cited in the same league as The Exorcist.
#4. Tenebrae (1982)
This release from 1982 sees the director revert to his original suspenseful best, at times coming on par with Hitchock’s finest. This thriller utilises the most picturesque of locations for the most blood soaked carnage.
Similar to The Bird With the Crystal Plumage. Tenebrae follows a writer. This time his name is Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa). While in Rome on a book tour, promoting his latest novel, ‘Tenebrae’, the author learns a killer is copying scenarios from his book – bringing Neal’s own violent visions to life.
The imagination and complexities that lie within Tenebrae – probing whether gory and sensationalist writing may stem from its creator’s repressed and hidden fixations – can at times be overwhelming. However, it results in a more thoughtful slasher. Here, it is not simply a matter of the cast being on screen simply to be killed. The gore may be plentiful, but necessary.
#5. Phenomena (1985)
Mysterious serial killers to one side, Phenomena hinges on psychic abilities and telekinesis. It follows a young girl, Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly) who discovers she can communicate with insects. This may seem on the surface, well useless. However, it does accomplish a lot when it comes to solving murders. Jennifer can locate the larvae which attach themselves to rotting corpses. As a psychotic killer is on the loose, she becomes key to his/her capture as her gifts can lead to those responsible.
The stylish backdrops are more toned down than in earlier movies, and the acting was criticized in reviews of the time. In retrospect, however, a gifted young girl who can solve mysteries through the bugs that attach to the remnants of cadavers is genius, proof that Argento even in the mid-eighties had not lost any of his unique imagination.