To best enjoy the work of Italian horror master Dario Argento, one must adhere to what’s commonly referred to as “nightmare logic.” This is the voluntary dismissal of such things as coherent plotting and the making of sense in favor of random atrocities presented in the director’s obscenely bright colors and operatic energy. In Argento’s craziest films, scenes of frantic brutality are heightened by exaggerated palettes. When the blood flows in an Argento movie, it doesn’t just ooze out in putrid rivers – it glistens like ocean water beneath a shining sun.
Indeed, there are many great directors within horror’s rich history. Whenever you see shambling, flesh-hungry zombie movies, we have George Romero to thank; for every nonsensical Italian movie with no discernible ending, we fondly remember Lucio Fulci; and for every low budget, zip-up monster, we tip our hats to Roger Corman. But when it comes to dream-like realities, black-gloved killers and violently gory deaths, there really is only one man to turn to. That man is Dario Argento.
Argento has always been a true auteur, a man who developed a visual style all of his own, worked outside of the studio system and who wrote everything that he directed. He helmed his first featured in 1970 and has released films every decade since. For some, he may be best remembered for his role as producer in the original Dawn Of The Dead and his work with the music band Goblin. But to most he is one of the first directors to introduce the “giallo” movie genre to audiences. Originally a form of crime fiction, the giallo genre derives its name from the yellow covers of the 1930’s pulp novels that inspired the cinema movement. The man is a legend, basically.
With that, we have picked out his 10 best films for your perusal.
10. The Cat O’ Nine Tails (1971)
Cast: James Franciscus, Karl Malden, Catherine Spaak, Pier Paolo Capponi
Franco Arno is a blind man that lives with his young niece and makes a living writing crossword puzzles. One night, while walking on the street, he overhears a weird conversation between two man sitting in a car parked in front of a medical institute where genetic experiments are performed. The same night someone breaks in the institute and knocks out a guard. Arno decides to investigate with the help of reporter Carlo Giordani.
The Cat O’ Nine Tails may not be the best giallo that Argento has made, but it is at least a fairly serviceable one. It was only his second feature-length movie, so the man was still playing around with all of the style/color/gore elements that would one day become his cinematic signature. He was experimenting with this one, and while that’s something that is made painfully obvious by the movie’s inconsistent tone and long-winded plot, it also gives a glimpse into the Master of Horror that Argento would become only a few short years later.
9. Trauma (1993)
Cast: Christopher Rydell, Asia Argento, Piper Laurie, Frederic Forrest
An anorexic young woman escapes from a psychiatric clinic and meets a young man who wants to help. She is caught and returned to her parents, who are soon beheaded by a garrotting stranger making the rounds about town, apparently striking only when it rains. The orphaned young woman and her new lover launch their own investigation and are endangered when a link is discovered with the victims and a particular operation performed years before.
Trauma was Dario Argento’s first full length movie of the ’90s and also his first made by an American production company. At the time of Trauma’s release a lot of the great horror filmmakers that got their start in the early ’70s were starting to decline and with the lack of younger filmmakers to emerge the horror genre began to hit a bit of a rut. Trauma is a movie by a filmmaker who may not be what he once was, but still hanging on to his old glory. Most Argento fans see Trauma as a middle of the road movie and while we can’t really defend it from being just that, it’s hard not to very much enjoy it. The mystery is genuinely intriguing in the true giallo sense and the feeling of uneasiness is suitably enhanced by Pino Donaggio’s intermittently brilliant soundtrack. The characters are among Argento’s best and this is by far his most character driven picture. Just to reiterate, Trauma is indeed a movie by a filmmaker that may not be what he once was, but still has enough left in the tank and is far better than given credit for.
8. The Stendhal Syndrome (1996)
Cast: Asia Argento, Thomas Kretschmann, Marco Leonardi, Luigi Diberti
Named after the 19th century French writer who first described the phenomenon, Stendhal Syndrome is a rare hallucinatory disorder characterized by dizziness, fainting and even hallucinations when a person is exposed to art. Anna, a police officer who suffers from the disorder, is sent to Florence in pursuit of a man who has raped over a dozen women, killing the last two. Lured into a trap inside the Uffizi gallery, she’s captured and raped by the sadistic psychopath she was sent to capture. She manages to escape, but the traumatic experience changes her irreparably.
While much of Argento’s work is surreal, almost dreamlike, The Stendhal Syndrome is remarkably dark, gritty and realistic. Argento’s signature cinematography is present in some scenes, particularly at the start of the film and when Anna is in the presence of paintings and artistic masterpieces, but it’s not as stylized as his work usually is, and it’s all the more disturbing as a result. The film should be approached less as delirious exploitation and more as a maturing director’s next evolution…
7. Inferno (1980)
Cast: Leigh McCloskey, Irene Miracle, Eleonora Giorgi, Daria Nicolodi
1977’s Suspiria (which we’ll get to in a moment) was an extremely successful international hit for Dario, and he was faced with distributors wanting more of the same. The result is Inferno, another surreal journey through trippy colorful sets and stylish horror scenarios, to the heart of a profound evil hidden away in a threatening architecture. In the film, an American college student in Rome and his sister in New York investigate a series of killings in both locations where their resident addresses are the domain of two covens of witches.
Inferno is a sequel to Suspiria, but it was unlikely that a sequel was initially planned, so Inferno takes on the task of relating the two films at the start by accounting the legend of the Three Mothers through a male voice-over that sounds while protagonist Rose is reading a copy of an evil book titled, unsurprisingly, The Three Mothers. With that said, you don’t necessarily need to see Suspiria first to enjoy Inferno, in fact if there’s that little chance that you haven’t seen Suspiria yet, we’d recommend checking out Inferno first because there seems to be an inevitable comparison viewers make between the two that really ends up being an unfair fight for Inferno. This film is a fascinating and delightfully frustrating phantasmagoria of the mysterious and the unexplained, a strange journey into realms beyond human understanding, where events happen without rhyme or reason, and little or no explanation is given. Sound familiar?
6. Phenomena (1985)
Cast: Jennifer Connelly, Donald Pleasence, Daria Nicolodi, Fiore Argento
American-born Jennifer Corvino arrives at a boarding school in the Swiss Alps. Within minutes of the film’s opening, we learn that there’s a psychotic killer on the loose looking for girls like her. But there are no girls quite like Jennifer, because she has a secret of her own – a strange ability to communicate with insects and understand the world from their perspective. Unfortunately, she’s also a sleepwalker, which leads her straight into trouble. One night, Jennifer sleepwalks out of the school and subconsciously witnesses a brutal murder. When she snaps out of it, she comes face to face with Professor John McGregor, and learns that she can use her bug-communicating power to solve the identity of the murderer.
In short, Phenomena is by far Dario Argento’s most offbeat work. All of the director’s trademarks are on full display, but he cranks them up about a thousand notches here. The typical black-glove-wearing serial killer is present again, Argento’s love of animals shines through like gangbusters with the many insects and an angry chimp taking very active parts in the story. The theme of childhood also pops up, but this time it’s communicated through a pint-sized “demon” looking child. The atmosphere bursts through the screen with tree branches dancing in the wind, breathtaking scenery, eerie sleepwalking flashes and fairytale-like sequences. The gore is scaled-back but still quite plentiful, with heads crashing through windows in slow motion and one awesome surprise beheading. It’s great entertainment all the way through.
5. The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970)
Cast: Tony Musante, Suzy Kendall, Enrico Maria Salerno, Eva Renzi
In his debut feature, Dario Argento explores traits, themes and concepts now commonly associated with his blood-soaked body of film work: fetishised depictions of violence and death, identity, gender, Freudian psychoanalysis, paranoia, voyeurism and spectatorship; all played out in the “stranger abroad” story of an American writer who witnesses an attempted murder in an art gallery in Rome. When he begins his own investigation he unwittingly draws the killer’s attention and must recall a vital clue distorted by memory before his own life is taken.
Visually, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage is a marvelous intersection of the skills of director Argento and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. The attractive Cromoscope visuals make use of strong compositions emphasizing sinister shadows and menacing silhouettes, but the style is less German expressionism than it is Italian fetishism. The plot and characters arguably come second to the style and atmosphere, but the script, loosely adapted from Fredric Brown’s novel The Screaming Mimi, seductively uncoils as a truly engrossing murder mystery.
4. Opera (1987)
Cast: Cristina Marsillach, Ian Charleson, Urbano Barberini, Daria Nicolodi
A young opera singer gets her big chance when the previous star of a production of Verdi’s Macbeth is run over by a car. Convinced the opera is bad luck she accepts, and becomes the target (in Dario Argento’s unmistakable style) of a psychopath – a man she has been dreaming of since childhood.
Opera is a masterful giallo of the more modern ’80s age. The sub-genre, of course, had been around for a few decades prior, but by the time films like A Blade In The Dark, Opera, and Stage Fright were made, they seemed to draw a heavier influence from their American “body count” slasher cousins than they did the original pulp Italian detective films that started the giallo. Opera features a much stronger emphasis on the murders and the stalking by the killer, and less emphasis on the investigation. In fact, the one detective on the case is given very little to do from Dario and Franco Ferrini’s script. The mystery aspect of the film is actually one of Dario’s weakest, but to those who have never seen it, it does work well enough to pass. The killer’s presence is chilling enough to keep you on edge. Agento’s killers are often ghost-like in their movements and execution of murder sequences, and the masked and black gloved assailant in Opera is just as good as any of the killers in his other more recognizable films. With its grand scale and brooding themes, the art of opera fits neatly with Argento’s lavish stylistics and dark preoccupations as a filmmaker.
3. Tenebre (1982)
Cast: Anthony Franciosa, Mirella D’Angelo, Veronica Lario, John Saxon
Tenebrae was Dario Argento’s return to giallo after a series of fantasy works. Facing endless criticism and questions about his perceived misogyny and love of brutally violent scenes, the film is a playful middle-finger to his detractors. Peter Neal, a successful American murder-mystery author, visits Rome to promote his new novel, Tenebrae. Shortly after his arrival a string of murders takes place that seemingly imitate scenes from the book. Beautiful women with their throats slashed by a cutthroat razor are discovered, and Neal becomes involved in a spiraling descent into murder and mystery as yet more deaths occur and he begins to receive letters from the killer.
Given Tenebrae’s content, it is unsurprising that it found itself on the UK’s infamous “Video Nasty” list. Throughout its duration, buckets of blood spurt from every human orifice all over the screen, accompanied by the oh-so-common motif of a helpless, shrieking young female, and wide-eyed cover art that suggested misogynistic violence was on the way.
2. Deep Red (1975)
Cast: David Hemmings, Daria Nicolodi, Gabriele Lavia, Macha Méril
A psychic who can read minds picks up the thoughts of a murderer in the audience and soon becomes a victim. An English pianist gets involved in solving the murders, but finds many of his avenues of inquiry cut off by new murders, and he begins to wonder how the murderer can track his movements so closely.
Deep Red was Dario Argento’s first full-fledged masterpiece, a riveting thriller whose secrets carefully unravel via a series of carefully calibrated compositions that become not unlike virtual gateways into Freudian pasts. Through occasional insert shots of marbles and toy dolls, we see a disturbing glimpse into the killer’s mind. The killings in the film are particularly eerie, due to the killer’s insistence on playing a tape of a bizarre children’s song before each crime. The killer’s appearance is stereotypical of the giallo sub-genre, coming complete with a rain slicker, black leather gloves, and a fedora. The film is also, one could argue, Argento’s most grounded in reality. There isn’t as much loopy logic to follow, as most of the clues, motivations, and suspects are somewhat plausible. Its power lies in both its ability to unsettle and the unpredictable course of events that take you to the edge of your seat in a truly gripping finale.
1. Suspiria (1977)
Cast: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci, Miguel Bosé
Suzy Bannion is a naïve young American ballet student who arrives in Munich one ominously windy night to enroll in a prestigious dance academy. At the entrance of the academy, she briefly crosses paths with one Pat Hingle, an expelled student seen leaving in fear. When Pat is gruesomely murdered that same night, it provokes Suzy and fellow student Sarah to investigate. As they piece together the many shady occurrences in and around the academy, Suzy gradually comes to the realization that the school is in fact a cover for a particularly evil coven of witches.
Dario Argento’s kaleidoscopic classic Suspiria is not set in our world. It takes place in a world of vibrant expressionism – of harsh reds, blues, yellows and greens; of imposing and fantastical architecture and labyrinthine interiors. It’s a world where a heavy rainstorm means that sinister forces are at work and maggots in the attic mean that something ugly is lurking just beyond the pretty surfaces. Making only as much sense as it needs to, the film is a modern-day fairy tale of the darkest variety and more than earns its reputation as one of the creative peaks of Italian horror, as well as horror in general.
Let us know your favorite Dario Argento movie in the comments below.