Where to begin with Dario Argento

With the curtain about to raise on a season of his work at BFI Southbank and on BFI Player, we plot a path through Dario Argento’s delirious cinema of darkness and disorientation.

24 April 2023

By Martyn Conterio

Suspiria (1977) © Cinecittà

Why this might not be so easy

Dario Argento has created a fiercely Italianate aesthetic, radically devoted to the cinema of sensation. His highly influential horror films and mystery thrillers are delirious plunges into the primal, into the darkest corners of human nature and desire. Featuring intensely voyeuristic POV camerawork, lurid close-ups and extended set-pieces leading up to extreme violence, his films earned Argento the nickname “the Italian Hitchcock”. Yet this connoisseur of the big-screen kill readily discarded Hollywood conventions, along with logic and coherence, in favour of aesthete pursuits.

Dario Argento

Argento started out as a screenwriter in the mid-1960s, notably contributing story ideas to Sergio Leone’s Once upon a Time in the West (1968). He later dabbled in television – Door into Darkness (1973), The Nightmares of Dario Argento (1987), Masters of Horror (2005 to 2006) – and directed ad promos for Fiat and others. In the 1980s and 90s, he produced and co-wrote films for friends and protégés. Demons (1985), Demons 2 (1986), The Church (1989), The Sect (1991) and The Wax Mask (1997) all bear his bloody signature in obvious ways. Argento also oversaw and re-edited Italian release versions of George A. Romero’s Martin (1977) and Dawn of the Dead (1978), adding scores by his favourite rock group, Goblin.

A potential stumbling block for newcomers: accusations of misogyny. Argento was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s morbid theory that the most poetic topic of all was the death of a beautiful woman, giving it a slasher makeover. Factor in his notorious penchant for playing the leather-gloved hands of maniacs himself, so that all the stabbing and slashing and strangling was done to his exact liking, it gave naysayers plenty of ammo. But lots of men die horrible deaths in his films too, and what’s rarely acknowledged – and what seems strikingly progressive in an era hardly known for it – is the inclusion of gay, lesbian and transgender characters in his movies. Then there are consistent critiques of masculinity to pick out and consider. No matter how contradictory it seems, no matter how counterintuitive, these elements exist and add nuance and sensitivity to his violent art.

The best place to start – The Bird with the Crystal Plumage 

Argento’s first feature, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) is the story of an American writer living in Rome. One night, Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) witnesses an attempted murder in an art gallery, but something bothers him about what he saw… and he can’t quite put his finger on it. 

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)
© Cinecittà

In the cinema of Dario Argento, seeing is deceiving. His characters are frequently forced to doubt their own minds and question something they’ve seen or heard. Recollections are mixed up like paints, producing a variety of hues. With its trendy production design, earworm score by Ennio Morricone, striking compositions by Vittorio Storaro, and colours and geometric patterns ripped straight off a Mondrian canvas, Argento’s debut is a thriller breaking from the past and seeing into the future. Its success reinvigorated the Italian giallo (mystery thriller) as a subgenre and introduced everything the director would pursue aesthetically and thematically from this point on, including the cod Freudianism as an explanation for the murder and mayhem. 

What to watch next

His subsequent films The Cat o’ Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (both 1971) complete his so-called ‘animal trilogy’. The latter features a brilliant spin on the gaslighting scenario (it’s the man being gaslighted, for a change), with French New Wave-style editing and hints of the paranormal starting to emerge. Proceed to his Turin-set mystery Deep Red (1975), starring David Hemmings as an English jazz musician who witnesses a murder. In this film, accompanied by Goblin’s unusual scoring arrangements, Argento pushed further and further into a space where the set-piece was given ritualistic prominence. 

Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971)
© Cinecittà

Now it’s time for Suspiria (1977). The gothic masterpiece about a coven of witches operating inside a ballet school reinvented cinema as an expressionistic rock concert. Again set-pieces take precedence, Goblin provide a remarkable prog-rock score and primary colours burn like a tropical fever. Suspiria is regarded as one of the greatest horror movies ever made, and rightly so. The sequel, Inferno (1980), is more like a traditional giallo in structure but comes shrouded once more in dreamlike surrealism.

After his excursions into witchy territory and getting flak for being perceived as a woman-hater, Argento addressed critics directly. Playing the provocateur, with tongue firmly in cheek, Tenebrae (1982) toys with the idea that horror creatives are demented sickos. It’s his funniest film (Argento doesn’t get enough credit for his comedy chops) and points to a future where the camera becomes increasingly untethered, as it glides, rushes, prowls and stalks in giddy new ways. Tenebrae’s famous crane shot – where the camera travels from one side of a house’s exterior across the rooftop to another side of the house – juiced up the voyeuristic camera technique with frissons of astral projection. 

Phenomena (1985)
© Cinecittà

Alpine-set Phenomena (1985) returned to the supernatural realm, and goes all in with Argento’s obsession with insects and the idea of pseudoscience masking fantasy. Featuring a razorblade-wielding chimp, sequences cranked to the max with 1980s heavy metal, and young Jennifer Connolly solving crimes by communicating telepathically with flies, the hills are alive with the sound of murder and Motörhead.  

A lunatic take on Vertigo (1958), Opera (1987) features the most indelible horror image in the Argento canon: a woman’s panicked face with sharp needles taped underneath her eyelids, so she is forced to watch a killer do his devil business. The plot is typically bonkers, the sexual sadism bound to rile, but the filmmaking is typically virtuoso – marking the end of Argento’s classic period.

The Stendhal Syndrome (1996)
© BFI National Archive

A later triumph is 1996’s The Stendhal Syndrome, which finds Argento combining stylised realism with surrealist sequences to delirious and haunting effect. Dodgy use of CGI aside, it’s another aesthetic high point. It’s the gut-wrenching plot, though, that makes it hit hard: a grand operatic tragedy about a policewoman (played by Asia Argento, his daughter) who becomes the object of a killer’s obsession, it’s delivered with new gravitas and emotional maturity. Argento usually afforded his female-protagonist-led movies happy endings. Not here. 

Where not to start 

From the late 1990s onward, we enter choppier waters. Still, there are plenty of draws. Sleepless (2001) and Dark Glasses (2022) harked back to his glory days, while even Giallo (2009), disowned by the filmmaker, has its intriguing aspects. Like Tenebrae, it’s got a tongue-in-cheek aspect, and offered another opportunity to critique male obsession, depicted as a mental sickness the antihero cop and the villain share (both are played by Adrien Brody). It’s the classiest-looking movie of Argento’s late era. 

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