Hues out of hell: how Dario Argento uses colour

In his artful giallo thrillers and deliriously stylised supernatural horrors, Argento pushed filmic colour to its limits, producing pigments not quite of this world.

Inferno (1980)

On all that he does, Dario Argento leaves his stamp in blood. It covers his debut feature The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) with garish Pollockian spatters, the Karo syrup thinned and dyed to a high scarlet a few shades more brilliant than actual haemoglobin. 

Along with a voyeuristic thesis statement for Argento’s viscera-strewn oeuvre, the film’s inciting incident also supplies a primer on his preferred visual scheme. Writer Sam (Tony Musante, his casting typical of Argento’s frugal aversion to big-ticket stars) notices a woman getting attacked in an art gallery across the street, and when he rushes to help her he’s trapped between a pair of glass doors. He’s rendered powerless and helpless, able only to watch as she writhes in agony, the expanding patch of red on her stomach a tragic stain against her white clothes and the white interior. The contrast suggests an inverse to the close-ups minutes earlier, in which the stainless glint of the killer’s knives stands out against the velvety ruby-tone of the cloth he uses to store them. 

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)

In its malleable ability to freely reassume dream-logic significances, colour proves a productive, seductive way into the filmography of a card-carrying Freudian who codified a crafty new breed of psychothriller. Few filmmakers can claim the degree of ownership over their chosen genre that he holds over the sensuous lineage of slasher flicks identified as giallo – so termed for the yellow pages of the pulp novels from which they drew inspiration. He wasn’t the first to break ground on it (Mario Bava beat him to the punch with his black-and-white The Girl Who Knew Too Much in 1963), but he did more than any single figure to situate giallo’s aesthetic template at the meeting point between the arthouse and the grindhouse. Once at the vanguard of violence, still on the cutting edge of good taste, his vivid stylistic assaults apply refined methods to our species’ basest instincts.

Suspiria (1977)

Between his parents working in glamorous creative fields (Dad produced films, Mum modelled until she pivoted to photography) and the Roman Catholic upbringing they provided him with, Argento was born into opulence. His macabre tastes manifested early on in boyhood fascinations with Edgar Allan Poe and the Brothers Grimm, and he took to the arts as his birthright. As he vowed to make his own movies at age 30 after a string of successful scripts written for other people, he reconciled his reverence for classical art forms with his predilection for a lurid modernism, synthesising the ideal mix of pleasures high and low. Focus on the particulars of his finely honed technique, and his appetite for skin – both bared and lacerated – sneaks up on you like a knife to the spine. Scuzz aficionados sitting down with an expectation for high-grade trash will be taken off guard by the sophistication with which he conjures dizzying, intoxicating atmosphere.

His first three features comprise the ‘animal trilogy’, which is named for their vaguely metaphorical word-salad titles – one of the more endearing idiosyncrasies common to the giallo. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971) and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) introduced a handful of others, including the colouration conferring the modish cool Argento admired when he saw Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (1966) a few years earlier. We follow a laconic leading man in a right-brained profession – in these instances an American novelist on holiday, a cool-customer reporter, and a rock band’s drummer, respectively – through a hip demimonde stalked by a killer sporting ubiquitous black leather gloves. The odd banana-hued raincoat or Canadian tuxedo denim ensemble contributes a chic pop of colour against the drabness of the grey-and-beige Roman metropolitan area, though it’s all given a grimy lustre by the Technicolor film Argento eagerly embraced. 

The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971)Cinecittà

These early works followed the example of Alfred Hitchcock in their teases of kinky complicity, but, when asked, Argento would single out Ingmar Bergman as his favourite filmmaker – a choice less surprising in light of their shared preoccupation with the dark potential of psychology. In 1975’s id-crazed Deep Red, a murder glimpsed via flashback turns a child’s Christmas into a primal scene of trauma, still lodged in their subconscious as a grown homicidal maniac with a chilling whisper. Symbols of repressed dysfunction – a disturbing mural hidden under sheet rock, a mouldering corpse sealed in a walled-off room – point to a corrupted pathology, its Oedipal undercurrent echoed by the demonic lullaby theme courtesy of prog-rock outfit Goblin in their first of many cult-classic soundtracks for Argento.

As hinted by the title, colour also offers an inroad to the hotbed of mental unrest: a psychic sits onstage before a crimson curtain that triggers the onlooking killer by evoking the formative sight of blood, and hearing his tormented thoughts marks her for death. Red haunts him like a ghost, embodying the buried yet unrestful pain he couldn’t bear to acknowledge.

Deep Red (1975)

Argento pushed Technicolor to the limit of its capabilities as he took a detour from giallo into the supernatural, first with Suspiria in 1977. By that point, the company had begun to phase out manufacturing of their stock as lower-cost alternatives grew more accessible and popular, so Argento rented out the last processing facility in Italy for his demented, phantasmagoric attempt to approximate Snow White’s palette. His cinematic descent into madness sent ballerina Suzy Bannion (scream queen Jessica Harper, earning her rep) into a hive of witches, their stronghold in the Tanz Akademie studio a fever dream of black, white, pink and red.

Suspiria (1977)Cinecittà

The ornate haywire-checkerboard pattern on the floor in their main hall puts the first whiff of the oneiric in the air, a vibe that only grows more palpable as Suzy digs deeper into the mythology all around her. Venturing out of reality and into the building’s bowels, she’s enwreathed by fogs of brightest red and blue without discernible origin. Argento took less interest in the resolving of narrative than spectacle for its own sake, dropping in a neon-lined peacock statue or a pit of barbed wire glowing electric cerulean without rational explanation.

Suspiria (1977)

Shedding the laws of physics occasioned some of Argento’s most expressive formal experiments, 1980’s Inferno also throbbing with colours too vibrant to be of this earthly plane. The spiritual sequel to Suspiria returns to the subject of witchcraft, the feats of alchemy and summoning the undead steeped once again in a red/blue dynamic that Argento uses as a shorthand for deep, primeval forces. Good and evil, repulsion and attraction, terror and desire – Argento sees these not as opposites but as essential, indivisible dualities burbling within every soul, their eternal conflict reiterated in clashing colour. Directing from a rulebook he’d rewrite according to his own fetishes and phobias, he thrilled in holding viewers captive and implicating them in the acts of sadism on screen, as if to shock them with their own forbidden excitement.

Opera (1987)

As he left behind Technicolor and circled back to giallo, Argento’s output focused its daring on content more than style; Tenebrae (1982) and Opera (1987) both rebuked the detractors denouncing Argento as a misogynist who played out his twisted fantasies through deviant entertainment. In his career’s later phases, he largely fell out of favour with the critical press, in part due to his curiosity about new equipment that would clash with the lushness of his previous celluloid photography. 1996’s The Stendhal Syndrome saw Argento tinkering with nascent, clunky CGI to engrossingly imperfect results, and 2003’s kitsch object The Card Player hinges on the plot device of a webcam live-streaming stabbings. His eventual embrace of digital shooting in the 2000s drained the saturation from his signature giallo look, a fatal development for a genre synonymous with a sickly richness of colour. 

Dark Glasses (2022)

After the roundly shellacked Dracula 3D in 2012, even loyalists assumed that Argento had hung up his razor blades, until 2022’s Dark Glasses provided an unexpected, fitting coda to his mutilated body of work. Ilenia Pastorelli plays a sex worker blinded by a car crash and targeted by a serial killer, her sudden disability both an impediment and extrasensory aid to her amateur detective work. Argento seems looser and more relaxed than in most of his late-phase films, willing to mix things up by pairing her with a young orphaned child in an unusual buddy dynamic, and by outing the killer’s true face about 40 minutes in. Especially in the death scenes, which trade his arch calibration of mood for raw schlock value, he gives the impression of an unencumbered man working in service of his own joy. 

We can see it in the blood, as copious as ever yet noticeably darker than before, too black where it used to be too red. His trademark cherry tones appear again in Pastorelli’s blouse on the afternoon of a solar eclipse, but an essential intensity in them has faded with the changeover to digital photography. In a decades-spanning career of peaks and valleys, Argento never lost his hunger for carnage – even as the means to articulate it slipped away from him. 

Dario Argento: Doors into Darkness is at BFI Southbank in May and on BFI Player.

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