Dario Argento is the definitive pioneer for Italian Horror Cinema and one of the most influential genre directors of all-time. With a unique flair for utilizing vibrant colour, innovative plotting and extraordinary visuals, Argento’s talent and success is unparalleled. With a career spanning over 40 years, Argento is beloved by horror enthusiasts all over the world after he remarkably placed Euro-Horror on the map thanks to the commercial success of Suspiria (1977).
Renowned for his merging of the traditional giallo concept with elements of supernatural horror, Argento’s films are an outright visceral experience that cannot be replicated. Join me in my seventh anniversary article as I celebrate the movies that impacted me and affixed me into becoming a fully-fledged Argento fan as we look back on the most significant period of his career. Not only that, Argento will be making an appearance in the UK on the 19th and 20th May at Horror Con UK at Magna Science and Adventure Centre, Rotherham, so what better time to reflect on the maestro of Italy’s blood-laced cinema’s genre-defying films.
5. Inferno (1980)
Suspiria (1977) successfully placed Euro horror into the mainstream conscious; Argento’s uniquely masterful horror proved a hit internationally and gore hounds were thirsty for more of his take on the occult and the supernatural. The next logical step was to create a sequel which continued the mythology of the terrifying, ‘The Three Mothers’ premise, this time exploring the cruellest witch of them all, Mater Tenebrarum. Argento employed the same fairy-tale approach as Suspiria along with the deep, intense lighting and ethereal atmosphere which was instantly indicative that this film exists in the same universe as its predecessor. While the visual comparisons are in place alongside the visceral, heart pounding set pieces, Inferno is very much its own beast and a very worthy sequel at that.
Based on an original idea from actress and co-writer, Daria Nicolodi, derived from her own Grandmother’s personal experiences, Inferno features the dual locations of New York and Rome; with New York being most prevalent. Siblings Mark and Rose Elliot uncover a deadly secret connected to a coven of witches once they begin investigating their respective places of residence. Inferno serves up a tangled web of mystery and the macabre and is consistently intriguing in how it’s narrative unfolds. The method in which Argento elevates a sense of fear and intrigue is skilfully crafted. The threat itself is very much contained in the whole atmosphere of the film assisted by Keith Emerson’s unnerving, choral and operatic score. The enigma of what could be lurking in the darkness is far more unsettling than visualizing it in a physical sense. Argento expertly creates a sense of a deeply frightening presence in an amplified theatrical tone. The set piece that stands out the most is the claustrophobic sequence, which sees a brave, yet unsettled, young woman retrieving a personal item from an underwater coven and discovers more than she could ever have imagined. The tension is nail-biting with traditional genre conventions at play, but intensified that bit further with the watery, grotesque setting.
Inferno is noteworthy for several reasons; the film marked giallo cinema legend, Mario Bava’s final cinematic outing before his death in 1980. Bava served as second unit director on the film with his son Lamberto acting as Assistant Director. Despite recognizing it as a strong piece of his own filmography, Argento finds it difficult to reminisce about the film in a nostalgic fashion due to being severely ill when writing the script and during the production itself. Lamberto Bava stepped in to aid the direction, capturing the dark, grizzly underbelly of New York City. The enigmatic, other-worldly woman who appears in Mark’s music lecture was eventually revealed to be Mater Lachrymarum ‘The Mother of Tears’, the subject of what became the subsidiary third instalment in 2007. Maniac (1980) director, William Lustig served as production assistant for Inferno, but remained uncredited. While working alongside Argento, he gained valuable experience and exposure that he encompassed into his notable grindhouse work. When it comes to Argento’s filmography, Inferno seems underrated, it is however a strong contender for its profound imagery and ability to get under the skin. Inferno is a well-crafted sequel to a genre masterpiece.
4. Profondo Rosso (Deep Red) (1975)
Deep Red (Italian Title: Profondo Rosso) was a game-changer for Argento’s career. Following the commercial failure of his comedy feature, The Five Days (1973), Argento returned to the style he knew best, by creating one of the most iconic gialli’s ever put to film. Filmed primarily in Turin due to its mysterious connections to an actual Satanic cult; Deep Red follows musician Marc Daly (David Hemmings) who becomes the unfortunate witness to the horrific murder of medium, psychic Helga Ulmann (Macha Méril). Teaming up with buoyant journalist, Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi); the amateur sleuth puts himself in danger as he conspires to uncover the disturbing truth behind the ghastly crimes. Deep Red is highly notable for marking Argento’s first musical collaboration with the acclaimed progressive rock band, Goblin and for the first appearance of Argento’s muse, invaluable actress and collaborator, Daria Nicolodi. Nicolodi is of course, unbelievably superb in her role. Her carefree manner and comedic injection to the proceedings makes way for an unforgettable and striking performance.
The vibrant and artistic visual style served as a prelude for the aesthetic he presented in his eventual masterpiece, Suspiria (1977) as well as many of his latter films. Argento has the skill for composing deeply visceral death scenes, and Deep Red is no exception. Alongside his co-writer, Bernadino Zapponi, Argento implemented methods of violence that would resonate effectively with the audience. The pain depicted on screen would provide an inherent effect, such as scolding boiling water, smashed glass or the bashing of teeth on a concrete surface. Argento wanted death scenes that would be outside of the realms of conventional stabbings; the killings in Deep Red certainly do this justice and remain gruesome and unnerving to this day. Deep Red’s most emblematic image is the creepy mechanical doll making an abrupt and creepy entrance, manically laughing before being bludgeoned to the floor while continuing to writhe on the floor. It’s a noteworthy instance of ‘the uncanny valley’ and albeit brief, it remains one of horror’s creepiest dolls. The overall writing and direction is skilful in how doubt is cast over each of the characters.
They all sustain disreputable qualities which keeps the viewer on the fence as to the culprit’s identity until the final showdown. Deep Red is a paragon of Argento’s career, alongside Suspiria and later Tenebrae (1982). It is beloved by fans and genre critics as an essential when it comes to Giallo and Argento’s movies as a collective. Through Deep Red, Argento continued to develop his distinctive cinematic style of vivid color schemes, intense atmosphere, a heart thumping score and intricate plotting. Deep Red is a pivotal film; however, the best was still to come…
3. Tenebrae (1982)
Tenebrae marked Argento’s return to the giallo movie, the genre that moulded his successful directorial career. Tenebrae enticed controversy as being one of the bloodiest films of his filmography at that point, even appearing on Britain’s notorious ‘Video Nasty’ list. Distancing himself from the supernatural themes he implemented in Suspiria and later Inferno, Argento placed the potential third instalment, ‘Mother of Tears’ on the back burner following the toll the latter took on his health during production. Tenebrae is a frantic, fast paced giallo that slickly updated the sub-genre Argento was famed for. Unimpressed by the abundance of imitators that had emulated his style over the years, Tenebrae was his bold return to the fold, with a film that is gorgeously gory while encompassing the artistic flair he is renowned for. Based on a deeply frightening personal experience at the hands of a stalker, the film is somewhat autobiographical for the auteur and with that a meta-narrative is injected into the proceedings.
An American author named Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) is terrorised while in Rome by a sick psychopath that murders a slew of beautiful women evocative of his novel titled, Tenebrae. The film makes a profound commentary on the link between Horror and screen violence enacted on blazingly attractive women, a criticism Argento has endured and unapologetically admitted that vanity and the physical appearance of female victims play a significant part in his films. In Alan Jones’s comprehensive guide to the director, he openly states that “I would much prefer to watch them [in reference to beautiful women] being murdered than an ugly girl or man. I certainly don’t have to justify myself to anyone about this”. Intriguingly, Argento chose to set, Tenebrae a few years into the future with the perception of a decreased population with only the wealthy having survived. It was his own snapshot into what the mid-late eighties would be like and it’s certainly interesting to pinpoint when revisiting the film.
Ferocious and fantastic, Tenebrae is one of the most superb giallo films of all time. The kills are at their most brutal and Claudio Simonetti’s electrifying theme composition remains iconic to this day. He brought back familiar giallo tropes and iconography while confidently challenging his own genre. Argento is at his giallo best with Tenebrae. It may be considered the last of his ‘greats’ however for me, that title goes to our next entry…
2. Phenomena (1985)
Phenomena (1985) is considered by Argento fans as one of the last of his highly regarded work; between the period of 1975 until 1987. Thematically, it is similar to his earlier work, a la Suspiria in its plot. Phenomena centres on a teenager Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly- in her first major role), the daughter of a famous actor who is sent to a Swiss boarding school in his absence. Jennifer is not like the other girls as she shares a curious affinity with insects which leads her into discovering a slew of heinous crimes. Facing peril around each corner and deemed as ‘crazy’ by her peers and teachers; Jennifer’s only comfort lies in her power to communicate with the trusty bugs and her friendship with wheelchair bound entomologist, Professor John McGregor (the fantastic Donald Pleasence) and his loyal chimpanzee, Inga. The closer Jennifer gets to identifying the killer, the more treacherous her path becomes as she homes in on a closely guarded, horrific secret that will leave her and the audience reeling.
Phenomena explores telekinesis, schizophrenia and the supernatural wrapped inside an intricate giallo-esque plot, with the sub-genre being defined as ‘giallo-fantstico’, a phrase coined by renowned critic, Kim Newman. Among the masses, Phenomena doesn’t secure the same appeal previous Argento, ‘masterpieces’ did, but it’s not detested either unlike some of his later work. Phenomena lies somewhere in the middle ground. There is something magical and special about Phenomena and it is definitively one of my favourites from Argento’s body of work. From the cut throat opening sequence to the nauseating finale, Phenomena is a pulsating, high octane fantasy horror with a poignant coming of age story on the surface. The film’s score heightens it’s thrilling nature, with an amalgamation of Goblin’s progressive rock sounds combined with operatic vocals alongside, heavy metal icons Iron Maiden and Motorhead. The music aids a dreamlike, music video feel especially during Jennifer’s sleepwalking scene. The Phenomena soundtrack is one of the most exciting of Argento’s work to date and once again Argento incorporates the music to feel like its own entity in the film.
While there are distinct elements of giallo and some real nasty kills, particularly Fiore Argento’s opening murder sequence and the viscous mutilation of Frau Brückner (Daria Nicolodi) at the hands of Inga, the typical ‘giallo’ conventions are not in place. We don’t see a black gloved maniac slashing up his victims, instead the camera focuses on the weapon, leaving the whole film equivocal. There isn’t just one sole villain in Phenomena, either, there are in fact two, possibly three if you take Inga into consideration. This is what works in Phenomena, tonally it feels familiar however Argento experiments with expected tropes and offers up something slightly different to his previous work. Jennifer Connelly is sublime in the lead role and holds her own next to the more experienced, older actors. She is a heroine that teenage girls can identify with as she experiences a confusing and formative time in her life. Phenomena is a stunning film, it amalgamates imagery of both beauty and the grotesque to a hypnotic effect. In summary, Phenomena is an entrancing, grown-up fairy-tale nightmare. It’s Argento’s underrated effort and I urge you to see it its full glory, courtesy of Arrow Video’s 2017 4K restoration Blu-ray release.
1. Suspiria (1977)
The top pick on this list may be a glaringly obvious choice, but there is no denying that Suspiria is a masterful piece of work that is unequalled. Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) faces unimaginable terror when she begins studying at a prestigious Ballet Academy in Germany which she suspects is harbouring an evil coven of witches. Suspiria is an extraordinary horror movie experience; a lurid yet striking attack on the eyeballs! Like a darker, bloodier version of Snow White or Alice in Wonderland, Argento was inspired to write Suspiria thanks to his partner at the time, Daria Nicolodi who had informed him of a terrifying experience her own Grandmother encountered at a piano academy. Nicolodi’s grandmother was said to have stumbled upon the practicing of black magic while there with the whole encounter completely petrifying her. Nicolodi’s influence and contribution to the film is not acknowledged enough.
The frightening finale which sees Suzy encounter an invisible witch, Mater Suspiriorium who she then thwarts and the image of the exploding ceramic panther was allegedly derived from a nightmare Nicolodi had. Following a turbulent time in which Nicolodi was not credited for her role in the screenplay or the formation of the film’s premise, she is not praised enough for the fact, Suspiria may not have happened if it wasn’t for her input. Suspiria is a wonderland of the macabre, it grabs the audience’s attention from the opening moments and doesn’t loosen its grip until the very end. Suspiria is one of the most visceral pieces of horror ever created with its enthralling and intense atmosphere. There is a sense of a sinister presence lurking throughout the entire film with Goblin’s powerful, ethereal score aiding this.
The score is very much its own entity and is foregrounded inside the main action of the film, rather than just being employed in the background. There’s an uncomfortable weirdness to it that effortlessly gets under the skin. If it is ever argued that horror cannot be artistic then this film is the prime exception. Each shot is beautifully composed to convey the absolute horrific nature of the events that unfold. The assault of vivid colour through the lighting and cinematography supplies the film with an uncompromising unsettling tone that refuses to let up. Suspiria is genuinely nerve-shredding, scary and has stood the test of time in its resonating impact on audiences. While not for the faint-hearted, Suspiria may well be the best introduction to Argento’s work with it being his most well-known and the most fascinating.
Which Argento titles have struck a chord with you? Comment below or tweet @WelshDemoness to reveal your favourite frightening films from the ‘Master of the Macabre’s filmography? Thank you for reading and for all your support in the seven years of writing about all things horror.