Even though his work has generally gone downhill since the 1980s, there is no denying that Dario Argento is a pillar of horror. Between the 1970s and 1980s, Argento produced an unparalleled string of giallo films so iconic that Argento is synonymous with the genre. With a remake of his most famous movie Suspiria coming out next month and this being the month of October, it just seemed an entirely appropriate time to revisit and catch-up with most of the films that made up Argento’s golden age.
THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMMAGE (1970)
Like so many great directors, Argento’s debut film is illuminating in revealing the trajectory of his career. The Bird With The Crystal Plummage begins with an outsider who is plunged into a strange world after witnessing something sinister. While roaming the streets of Rome on night the American Sam (Tony Musante)witnesses what appears to be a man trying to stab a woman in her house. Though Sam manages to save the woman, he becomes embroiled with the police investigation first as a potential suspect and then as a targeted victim of the would-be killer. It is a very Hitchcockian plot, and the comparisons with the great master don’t end there. Argento shows such an assuredness and control in building up tension in the viewer that it is astonishing that this is his debut film. Nowhere is this more apparent than when the killer stalks the apartment of Sam’s girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall) and our dread slowly turns into terror as Julia tries in increasingly desperate and haphazard ways to keep the killer at bay as he slowly closes in on her. The movie works as a horror movie not because the killer does anything truly horrific (beyond the usual hacking and slashing), but because Argento makes us care about Sam and Julia’s plight, and so we fear for their lives. If there is one misstep in this movie, it is still one that keeps it in line with Hitchcock. Like Psycho, the movie mistakenly feels the need to explain to us the psyche of the killer once all is said and done, rationalizing what should just be a horrific story about a serial killer. But seeing as even Hitchcock fell for that same mistake, I can forgive the movie and instead acknowledge that this has to be one of the most impressive debuts I have seen.
THE CAT O’ NINE TAILS (1971)
The Cat O’ Nine Tails sees Argento disappointingly covering the same territory he traversed with The Bird With the Crystal Plummage. Once again there is a serial murderer on the loose, and it is up to a group of cops and reporters to try and bring him down, with another outsider plunged into the mix (this time a blind former reporter played by Karl Madden). Here we also get so many of the stylistic flourishes that characterize so much of Argento’s work (POV shot from the killer’s perspective, extreme close-ups, quick and brutal shots of killings etc.). But other than these aspects which characterize the movie as an Argento feature, there really isn’t much there. It is basically a whodunit story with nothing besides the mystery behind the identity of the killer to keep the story going as evidenced by the fact that the movie abruptly ends once that mystery is solved. This is famously the film Argento likes the least and it is easy to see why. However, don’t let this review fool you into thinking this isn’t worth your time because despite it being a minor Argento work, it is still pretty good.
DEEP RED (1975)
While Suspiria rightly earns all the plaudits for being Argento’s best movie, Deep Red is definitely a worthy contender that deserves to be in the conversation. Like the two movies above, it involves a serial killer and an ill-equipped witness who gets in over his head trying to catch the killer. However unlike the previous films, this is also the first that seems much less concerned about the plot and is instead more interested in providing us with a fantastic visual spectacle. Indeed there are several sequences in this movie that are masterpieces of tense build-up, each of them framed and shot masterfully by Argento’s crew; his skill behind the camera growing. As far as the horror is concerned meanwhile, there is no doubt that between the creepy dolls and some gruesome deaths that this is the most conventionally terrifying murder-mystery of the lot. In a perfect example of typecasting our hero is the musician Marcus who is played by David Hemming of Blow-Up fame. He is seemingly at the right place at the right time to witness a murder and unbeknownst to him he may have inadvertently uncovered the killer (although the clues are masterfully hidden in plain sight in the movie). Hemming is perfect in portraying a man who is quickly in-over-his-head as he tries to piece together what he knows of the murder in order to uncover the killer. Helping him along is the reporter Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi, in the first of many Argento roles for her) who at first causes problems for Marcus by publicizing his picture as a key witness in the investigation but quickly becomes an ally and eventual love interest. Their partnership is perhaps the most compelling we have seen thus far making it easy to root for, and be scared for them. This movie is also the perfect time to bring up Argento’s frequent musical collaborator, the prog-rock band Goblin who provides a propulsive and eclectic score that truly enlivens proceedings while providing a unique horror sound. While the movie is still firmly trapped in the conventions of the giallo genre, Deep Red is perhaps the perfect encapsulation of the best this genre has to offer.
Immediately from the opening chords of this movie you know that this is going to be a different kind of movie. While all of his earlier movies (and most of his subsequent ones) are decidedly murder mysteries dressed up in operatic violence and horror, Suspiria is the first that ventures into the supernatural and seeks to mess not just with the minds of the protagonists but with ours as well. What makes it stand out as not only the best Argento movies but as one of the great cult horror movies is that it is a suspenseful exercise in disorientation, confusion, and unnerving anxiety; it derives its horror not so much from anything that actually happens onscreen (even if there are horrific moments present) but by constructing a labyrinthine mystery that forces us to contemplate what horrors could be happening behind closed doors.
Suspiria also works because it understands that the key to great horror is the delicate dance it has to make between the poles of banal normalcy and terror. Nowhere is this most evident than right at the beginning when we first meet Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper) as she arrives at the Munich airport enroute to the prestigious Talz Dance Academy. The seemingly innocuous and boring airport is immediately transformed into something sinister by some well-timed lightning and music cues as she steps out into the dark and stormy night. Crucially however Argento frames this moment in a way that makes it apparent to us as the viewer that something is off, while keeping Suzy oblivious to this subtle change. Her obliviousness as she plunges deeper and deeper into the sinister goings-on at the dance academy is borne not out of her ignorance, but because every strange moment she encounters is surrounded by moments of boring normalcy. Much like a Grimm’s fairy tale Suzy doesn’t realize her world has become disturbingly strange until it is almost too late. The periods of banality, rather than detracting from the purely horror scenes, simply make the movie more unnerving for her, and for us.
While there are many elements of this movie that readily identify Suspiria as an Argento movie, it is the ways that set it apart that elevate it to its current status as a horror classic. Unlike the rest of his movies, Suspiria is almost claustrophobically self-contained to the dance academy. This affords the production team the chance to construct some truly surreal and hyper-stylized sets and, since we return to these same locales multiple times, it gives us the chance to soak in its inherent strangeness. The color palette of the movie is a delirious technicolor of deep reds and blues which unsettlingly makes the whole viewing experience feel like a fever dream. Similarly by keeping the movie to one locale Suspiria gains a level of focus not usually afforded to Argento’s more hyper-active movies. More than any of his other movies, Suspiria is an exercise in patient build-up and slowly mounting tension. While Suspiria remains narratively fuzzy, it has a thematic focus that for the first time invites the viewer to meditation of the movies darker themes instead of distraction by violence.
These changes has the added effect of making the usual Argento tropes feel fresh and new. As with every Argento movie, people die in gruesome and gory ways, but where in previous movies these deaths were played mostly as visceral thrills, here they take on a surreal and half-asleep quality so that it also messes with you cerebrally. Nowhere is this more apparent than when Suzy’s roommate Sarah gets stalked and chased through the dance academy’s dorms. The scene evokes the apartment scene from The Bird With the Crystal Plummage, but here plays more like a hallucinatory nightmare, as if the whole scene were set intentionally in uncanny valley.
Suspiria is such a welcome departure for Argento; a breath of fresh air that revitalizes his already established style and it should have been the leaping point for Argento’s future career. Yet as we shall soon see for some reason the movie also proves to be an aberration in Argento’s career as he soon abandons the surreal and creepy magic that propelled Suspiria to success in favor of his previous crutches. I simply cannot understand why.
Following the phenomenal achievement that is Argento’s high-water mark in Suspiria, Inferno cannot feel but a step down by comparison. However Inferno’s problems go far beyond merely failing to live up to the high quality of its immediate predecessor, but feels like the first time that Argento fails to bring anything truly new to the table. Argento describes the movie as the second in his so-called “Three Mothers” trilogy (the first of this trilogy being Suspiria) but rather than feeling like a continuation of Suspiria instead feels like the work of an inferior director trying to recreate the specific alchemy of that phenomenal movie and failing. The problems start at the beginning where a convoluted plot finds us first following a poet sister, and then her brother, and then his friend in a quest to discover the truth of the “Three Mothers”. We are never sure who we are supposed to root for and whose perspective matters most and so from the offset the viewer is automatically put at a distance. Even though it is true that Argento is a filmmaker who cares about style first and character second, each of his previous movies vitally gave us a clear lead character (or two) for us to care about – with all our interest in the other characters directly correlated to their relationship to the lead character. It takes until the first of these three is murdered for the narrative to develop any sort of focus, and even then only at a surface level. Surprisingly for a director who previously showed so much comfort in allowing a mysterious and opaque narrative unfold in Suspiria, here Argento resolves to provide a linear mystery that gets explained through lengthy exposition rendering the narrative that much less compelling. The movie is still an aesthetically interesting exercise in style and flair, and Argento proves himself ever the innovator when coming up with creative ways to kill his characters, but Inferno is ultimately disposable.
It is hard not to see something autobiographical in Tenebrae in which a celebrated horror author (Peter Neal, played by Anthony Franciosa) finds himself stalked by a killer who offs the people around him because his latest violent novel is considered a moral aberration. After more than a decade of beautifully framed but horrific violence mired in stories that are decidedly from the darker side of life, Argento doubtless had his moral critics and Tenebrae seems very much a reflection and rebuttal of said criticisms (at least in a middle-finger to said critics sort of way). Employing the tried and true formula of doing what you are good at but providing more, Argento manages to outdo himself again with his violent killings as he gives his killer the classic horror axe to work with; ironically however it was his pushing the boundaries of portraying a functional homosexual relationship that got him in the most trouble with censorship boards. It returning to the familiar Argento ensures at least a consistently entertaining experience for fans of his work. Unfortunately it also doesn’t take us anywhere new.
Listen, nobody’s ever going to accuse Argento of not being out there with his artistic vision. But even by Argento’s wild standards, Phenomena is absolutely insane. Without spoiling too much, the central premise that Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly) is a schoolgirl who has the ability to psychically communicate with insects represents one of the least crazy things about this movie (after all, this is a movie that has a knife-wielding chimpanzee that we just accept as plausible given the narrative). This is a ludicrous movie, in which the narrative at any point literally can go anywhere and frequently ends up in the least likely of situations. Goblin once again provides a highly genre-inappropriate prog-rock soundscape which simply adds to this movie’s strangeness. Argento seemingly still hasn’t run out of creative ways to kill his characters, and his eye for framing everyday sets and scenarios to make them look otherworldly is still top notch. However you can see in Phenomena the beginnings of Argento’s problems that has left most of his most recent work near unwatchable. While Argento is an aesthetic formalist with a clear visual style, there is an unmistakable sameness to his aesthetic that gets less interesting the more times you see it and that is definitely the case here. Similarly it is hard at this juncture not to notice Argento’s weakness in developing characters. If it wasn’t for the fact that I recognize Jennifer Connelly, I would have a hard time distinguishing her character from the slew of similarly ill-defined characters Argento has introduced to me this week. Meanwhile the other great strength of Argento’s work is his ability to shock with his violent imagery and even that strength is dulled even if the violence is as brutal as anything he has put onscreen so far, if not more so. What was once a shock that came out of nowhere in his earlier movies now evolves into something that is expected; rather than being viscerally shocked, I find myself cerebrally wondering how Argento is going to shock us which unsurprisingly robs the violence of its power. Increasingly his movies are becoming predictable for their unpredictability and without that much distinctive separating Phenomena from his earlier work, there is little reason to check this out if you have his earlier movies available to you (unless if for some bizarre reason, you are a Connelly completist). It’s a strange movie for me to review because if Phenomena was my only Argento data point I doubtless would have loved it and declared it a must-see; it is truly different from anything else horror movies were doing then or have done since. But now I have seven more Argento data points, and in light of that Phenomena is merely average and barely so.
Perhaps nothing better encapsulates what it feels like to watch a Dario Argento scene than when the opening credits features an opera rehearsal that for some reason is shown through the point-of-view of ravens who are onstage, and it barely registers as odd when compared to the rest of his work. While some may see the pairing of the over-the-top operatic stylings of Argento’s work with a story centered around the opera just a little on-the-nose, it also is a pairing that undoubtedly works. Trading in the prog-rock soundtracks that characterized his previous work for a more classical soundscape adds a new dimension to Argento’s usual tried-and-true murder mystery formula, and arguably enhances his camera’s ability to portray foreboding and dread. Meanwhile employing a new cinematographer (Ronnie Taylor) proves to be a good decision as the camera is much less kinetic than in previous films but also more inventive (a POV shot of the killer eerily prowling through the opera during a performance as well as creative use of a peephole particularly stand out). The story is typically a twisty one as here we have a soprano named Betty (Christina Marsillach) who finds herself suddenly thrust as the lead singer in a Macbeth play, which naturally attracts the attentions of the killer. If it sounds exactly like the plot of The Phantom of the Opera it is because the parallels are probably intentional, but with Argento’s distinctive flourish. As with most of his 80s flicks, there are hardly any surprises with Argento’s work and it is easy to see why after this movie his career took a big tumble into obscurity as there is much evidence here that he was quickly running out of ideas (evoking Hitchcock’s The Birds being only one of the more desperate moves he makes). Still the change in visual style, camera work, and soundtrack is enough to give this movie a sense of newness, making Opera one of his best from the 1980s.
ONE FINAL THOUGHT
There is no way that I couldn’t have known this going in, but Dario Argento is a poor candidate for doing a retrospective. Unlike other directors who tend to bring more variety to their work, Argento’s oeuvre showcases the workings of an artist who is more interested in perfecting the one style he employs. Like the prog-rock band Goblin that he employed for most of his movies, his movies are probably best digested in small doses. If you really insist on doing a similar retrospective, just make it a Deep Red / Suspiria double feature.