Dario Argento: Where to Begin?
By Dan Margolis
Horror director Dario Argento has been hugely successful in his native Italy, though his movies there and across Europe have often me the wrath of censors. His 1982 Tenebre even landed on Britain’s notorious “video nasties” list, and wasn’t legally released in that country until 1999. In Italy, his name is so well known that he easily took his work off screen. In the late 1980s, he founded Profondo Rosso, a horror themed store located ironically close to the Vatican in Rome. Around the same time, from 1990-1991, Argento even put out a strange little comic, entitled Dario Argento Presenta Profondo Rosso. The comics, which are in Italian and have never been translated, were an anthology series, and included some writings by Argento. He wrote and directed for Italian television and even crossed over into fashion, albeit in his own style: in 1986 Argento directed a fashion show for Trussardi, which loosely recreated the opening of one of his films, replete with models “killing” each other on stage.
Still, for younger horror fans or those new to the genre, it is sometimes hard to understand why Argento’s name is held in such high esteem, especially for those in the U.S. This is due to a number of factors. In America, at the height of Argento’s career, it was difficult for fans to get ahold of his work. Sometimes, it barely made it over at all (as was the case with his Inferno, due to bad distribution deals). His movies were frequently cut dramatically and retitled both because distributors thought the cut versions would better suit American tastes, and because the gore often had to be trimmed to receive an R-rating. Thus, his Phenomena (1985) was shorn of nearly half an hour: partly to cut out some gore, and partly to cut out lengthy exposition. To add insult to injury, it was retitled and released under the silly moniker Creepers. Tenebre was changed to Unsane, and was cut to such an extent that the movie became simply incomprehensible. By the early 90s, fans were circulating uncut, or at least less cut, versions of his films on the black market. Often they went to great lengths: it was not uncommon to find bootleggers advertising something like a German-language dub of Tenabre with Japanese subtitles. You might not understand it, but it was the full version. And besides, you saw Unsane, so you had some basic idea of what the movie was supposed to be about. Things improved dramatically with rise of the DVD market, which saw a number of Argento’s films released in their full glory. Still, this confusion of different versions of the same film, and longtime lack of availability can add to the new (potential) fan’s confusion.
Another factor is a precipitous decline in the quality of Argento’s work. There is some debate as to where the decline began, but most would probably agree that by the time that The Stendahl Syndrome (1996) was made. While Argento has never produced a movie that was actually bad, his films from this period going forward were simply decent genre fare. Looking at a movie from two decades ago and finding something that is merely okay is also likely to add to questions as to why Agento has such a revered status.
So which movies put Argento’s brilliance on display? While those of us who have loved Argento for decades continue to wait for him to produce something that compares to his early and mid-career work, there are a few films that new viewers can turn towards to see his work in its full glory.
This is the first to watch – not necessarily because it’s the best, but because it’s about to be remade next year, and a television show based on the film is reportedly in development. These sorts of things tend to ruin the original, especially when viewed first, so watch quickly.
Suspiria’s plot has to do with a girl who attends a ballet boarding school in Berlin, which turns out to be run by witches. The plot is comprehensible, but, as is the case in many Argento films, does not add much. What really makes this film is its creepy atmosphere – and its stunning beauty. The scare factor is kept up especially well by the soundtrack, produced by the prog-rock band Goblin, frequent Argento collaborators. Of particular note on the soundtrack is a reworking of the Christian children’s song “Jesus Loves Me, This I know.” Visually, the film is stunning: European buildings and well placed red and blue lighting create a seemingly alternate reality. Argento paid particular attention to the color scheme, which he said was inspired by Disney’s Snow White. Like the plot, the look of the movie is completely unrealistic, but this clearly didn’t concern Argento.
In most ways, this movie is entirely different from Suspiria. This is very much a giallo (a horror version of a murder mystery), the type of film Argento first came to prominence with a decade or so earlier, while Suspiria was supernatural horror. Still, Argento’s attention to the look and feel of the film over the specifics of plot are on display here as well.
Tenebre tells the story of Peter Neal, an author of horror novels (themselves gialli), who goes on a promotional visit to Rome only to find that a murderer is on the loose, killing people in ways based on the author’s newest book (also called Tenebre), sometimes even stuffing their mouths with pages from the work. The movie is notable in that it is somewhat autobiographical of Argento’s work as an artist; even the criticism of Neal’s work (from a feminist perspective) paralleled critiques of Argento’s earlier works. A self-reflective film that seems to know it’s itself a movie, there are several nods to Hitchcock, Argento’s hero.
Like all of Argento’s best films, Tenebre takes place in a world of its own, just slightly different from our own. The main setting is Rome, though the film opens in New York. In each, there are far fewer people than in the real world, and the film’s Rome is super modern, with not a single shot of any of Rome’s signature historic architecture. Some flashback sequences, involving a seductive woman and several boys, seem themselves to be in their own, very creepy, world.
The soundtrack was composed by members of Goblin, but was far different from Suspiria’s. It had something of an early 1980s rock/electronic sound, not at all common to horror films, but Argento and the musicians made it work. Also notable was the camerawork, in particular a scene depicting the murder of a lesbian couple. The two were on different floors of their building, and the camera scales the outside walls of the building, moving back and forth, allowing the viewer access to the inside and outside of the building, as if crawling along the walls. This is also Argento’s bloodiest film, especially because of a scene in which a character’s arm is dismembered.
After Suspiria, Argento’s next work was this (as a director; he worked as an editor in between on the European cut of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead). Here, Argento seems to have thrown out entirely any rules of coherence in plot, as the movie barely makes any sense. Instead, the movie, though it has a loose plotline that runs through it, operates more as a dream than an actual narrative. Characters say things that are not logical, do things that are not logical. Who the main character actually is changes several time throughout the movie. There is not a clear cause and effect relationship to much of the film at all, though no one in the film seems to take notice – nor should the viewer. Simply go along for the dreamlike ride.
The surreal tone is set early on in the film when the (first) protagonist is searching a basement because she read that there is a clue to whether the building was constructed for a witch there. She drops a key into a puddle and, trying to retrieve it, finds that the puddle is a whole. She reaches in and can’t quite grab what she dropped so, inexplicably, she jumps right into the hole…and finds herself submerged in an underwater room. She swims around looking for dropped key, until a body floats out of another submerged room, causing her to flee.
Again, the soundtrack is a key character. This time, Keith Emerson is tasked with creating it, and, at Argento’s request, work by Verdi was included. Emerson actually remixed a Verdi piece, to good effect. As in Suspiria, the red and blue color scheme is on display, though to a lesser extent. This connection between these films is likely intentional: it was announced by Argento that the two movies were actually part of a trilogy, based on the “Three Mothers” (the witch in Suspiria was the “mother of signs,” while Inferno’s was the “mother of darkness.” The long awaited, but disappointing, Mother of Tears (2007) completed the trilogy.
This film, also known as Terror at the Opera, focuses on Betty, an understudy for the main role in (again) Verdi’s Macbeth, who becomes the lead after the main actress is injured. A series of murders occurs, and the murderer forces Betty to watch most of them. In order to force her to keep her eyes open, the murderer tapes pins to Betty’s lower eyelids, an image that has become iconic in studies of Argento’s films, making it impossible for her to close her eyes.
The plotline for this film is, especially by Argento’s earlier standards, very coherent. Still, the camerawork and atmosphere, as well as gory murder scenes, take center stage. Argento’s cinematographic acrobatics (executed by Ronnie Taylor, who worked again with Argento on 1998’s Phantom of the Opera) reach new “heights” when the camera takes the point of view of a crow disturbing the actors in the opera house. Also, watch for an absolutely incredible “bullet through a peephole” scene.
The soundtrack here is far different than Argento’s earlier efforts. It incorporates wildly different genres, from opera, all the way to heavy metal: Iron Maiden’s “Flash of the Blade” is the soundtrack to one of the kill scenes.
The above movies are by no means a complete list of Argento’s greats. While Opera is widely considered to be the last of Argento’s best, several films afterwards are still quite good. Most obviously missing on the list are the three films that put Argento on the map, Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971), and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971). While they are all extremely well-executed giallo films and each contain elements that Argento would later develop more fully, they don’t reach his later heights, and can be viewed as secondary (but nonetheless should still be viewed!) Profondo Rosso (1975, a.k.a. Deep Red or The Hatchet Murders), which gave its name to Argento’s store, is a classic, but is something of a transition between these early gialli and Suspiria. Phenomena, Jennifer Connolly’s second film, is a great horror film – and is one of the few films I’ve seen with a heroic monkey – but it doesn’t quite match up to Argento’s other work.
Also missing from this list is anything Argento didn’t direct, including the Argento-produced Demons (1985), Demons 2 (1986), directed by frequent collaborator Lamberto Bava, and The Church (1989), directed by Michele Soavi.
Again, Argento continues to produce work that is good, if not compared to his earlier work, and it’s worth viewing.
Still, many of us continue to hope that Argento will really return to his glory days’ form.