Staff Picks: The Devilish Dario Argento

Today marks the birth of the Master of Horror himself, the seminal Italian director; Dario Argento. To commemorate this occasion, we at A Fistful of Film have chosen to examine some of our favourites out of his filmography, from his early Giallo work to his later, more experimental, horror features.

The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970): By David Alkhead

In the summer of 2018, my naive 18-year old self had very little experience with international genre cinema. I had certainly heard of the name Dario Argento but the only work of his I could directly associate him with was his turn as co-writer on Once Upon a Time in the West. And I certainly had virtually no idea what a giallo was. Then, through a library streaming service, I noticed a collection of Argento films available. Even though I could’ve chosen to watch one of his more acclaimed and polished films like Deep Red, Suspiria or Tenebre, I chose to watch The Bird with the Crystal Plumage first because it just made sense to me to start at the beginning of a director who was obviously a big deal. Although I tend to be quite self-critical, I am so glad I took the leap of faith and watched it because not only did it open my eyes to a new subgenre of horror, it also introduced me to a man who very rapidly and very quickly became one of my favorite directors, so much that I turned my high school thesis into an Argento-inspired murder mystery.

So what was it that struck me about Bird? Stuff like Argento’s shot compositions that are just as beautiful to look at as the several featured artworks themselves, his sense of humor and his use of Morricone’s music naturally helped. But what really took me by surprise was the mystery and the final twist of the film. I was so struck by it when I first saw it, and was amazed at how Argento was able to take such a small and somewhat inconsequential piece of information and completely turn it on its head and make us question our own perceptions and subjective reality.

Although I think Argento has gone on to make better films, with Deep Red being my personal favorite, Bird will always hold a special place in my heart and I truly love it. Thank you Dario!

Deep Red (1975): By Amos Lamb

When I think of Giallo my mind instantly thinks of the image of the gloved hand shrouded in shadows, penetrating a woman’s body with a knife. It’s the quintessential image that, roughly, captures the essence of the traditional giallo film, and one of the main reasons why Deep Red is not only my favourite giallo, but also my favourite Dario Argento film, is how the film expertly subverts the expected masculinity of the genre. Throughout the film the traditional expectations of sexuality are toyed with; from subtle moments like David Hemmings seat breaking while driving with Daria Nicolodi and for the rest of the film he is always sitting lower than his female counterpart, to having a woman play Gabriele Lavia’s gay lover. This idea of subversion and transgression reflects the fragile masculinity of Hemmings’s protagonist, he’s a headstrong, rash character who walks freely into danger under the guise of being the traditional male hero. But this is juxtaposed with his timid and frightened nature that contrast with Nicolodi’s character which not only allows for Nicolodi to create a memorable and admirable female character ina  genre generally reserved for male heroes, but it also adds an extra layer of depth to Deep Red which elevates it among the already rich tapestry of giallo films.

Of course it would remiss to talk about any Argento film without highlighting his signature use of style. While Deep Red isn’t quite as stylish as something like Suspiria, the way it utilises it’s style, from the Christmas Day opening scene, to the POV sequence in the theatre, Argento purposefully plays with the audience. Throughout the film the cinematography really excels in both exciting the audience and playing into the themes of transgression. The use of movement with the camera, as well as the interesting angles in which shots are composed only help further stylise the film. So too can Argento’s work with Goblin for the film can only be described as iconic, the title theme is one of the most chilling and memorable pieces of music in any film I’ve seen. But not just the title song, but the whole soundtrack only adds to the ambience and the atmosphere of the film, heightening tension in the most pivotal moments. All these reasons and so many more are why I absolutely love Deep Red, the murders are iconic, it’s got an absolutely fantastic ending that ties the whole film together, as much as I enjoy the other Argento films I’ve seen, none have managed to come close to Deep Red.

Suspiria (1977): By Saoirse Selway

What is there to be said about Suspiria that hasn’t been said before? As it turns out quite a lot as it was the centrepiece for my University dissertation which received a first by 14%. 

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Suspiria more successfully than any other film makes cinematic form fear. I think the story is there and solidly told but the stripping back of narrative as the cinematic focus allows Dario to focus more on sheer terror through the cinematic language without needing to respond to the needs of the narrative. In a way he is accidentally recreating the origins of surrealism. In Suspiria, Argento is freed from the cage of narrative and gets to explode across the screen like a supernova of primary color paint. Some people see this rejection of narrative as a flaw and I have to believe that they just don’t know what they’re talking about and need their cinematic third eye opened with repeated plays of Lost Highway on downers while being kept from sleeping for days at a time. 

That’s how it works right? We all did that? Not just me?

Jessica Harper is iconic and charismatic as the central Suzie Banion, Udo Kier’s turn is charming, and Alida Valli as the most overtly villainous character, witch underling Miss Tanner, just leaps off the screen especially in the scene where she has to fire the blind pianist. The score from prog rock band Goblins & Dario himself is well stories but everytime I watch the score just help sme get lost all over again the mephitic, eerie, somehow spiritual power that is Dario Argento’s original, milestone of cinema, Suspiria

Tenebrae (1982): By Jacob Calta

When I think of Dario Argento, one phrase comes to mind: supreme stylist. “Il Maestro” earns his title as a master of crafting not only suspense and pure terror, but a fully formed aesthetic. And though many from across the globe adore the man for his more garish efforts, like the immortal 1977 classic Suspiria, my all-time favorite is the coldest film the man ever made: Tenebrae.

Released in the golden year of cult cinema that was 1982, Tenebrae was Argento’s return to the giallo, the Italian niche in the world of murder mysteries, where provocative, expressionistic excess is the name of the game. Argento himself had made his debut as a director with the genre-redefining classic, 1970’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, before diving deep into this labyrinthine world of violence with films like The Cat o’ Nine Tails, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, and genre staple Deep Red. Having spent a half-decade away from the genre, he once again revitalized it with Tenebrae.

The story is that of author Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa), who is oversees in Rome promoting his latest book, Tenebrae, that delves into the mind of a criminal. What he could not anticipate is a “fan” pulling pages from his book (figuratively and literally) in a series of vicious murders. What results is a tremendously twist murder mystery that goes into all sorts of insane directions and is unpredictable right until its final moments. It utilized a brilliant dreamlike approach to nonlinear narrative, and was armed with an engaging cast including Franciosa, Daria Nicolodi, the late great John Saxon, Giuliano Gemma, & John Steiner.

But there comes a moment where you have to pull back and just admire the look and feel of it all.

From camerawork of Luciano Tovoli (including the dazzling crane shot around the apartment complex) to the glassy, sleek modernist production design of Giuseppe Bassan to the electrifying Italo-disco soundtrack by three-fourths of the prog rock band Goblin, what Argento pulled together was nothing short of a futurist masterpiece. A barren, depopulated Rome, decked out in modernist architecture and an ice-cold palette, only punctuated by one color: red. Red heels and red blood. The blood flowing in some of the most brutal and effective set pieces in the man’s storied career.

If there is any point to my ramblings, then it is simply this: watch this movie. It is a tense juggernaut of the senses, a film that thrills as both a brutal murder mystery, but as an atmospheric time capsule of the early 80s. It is my favorite film of Argento’s, my favorite giallo, and one of my all-time favorite films period. Viva Il Maestro! 

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