A Beginner’s Guide to Dario Argento

Suspiria Photo: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

The heyday of the Italian cinema subgenre known as giallo didn’t last a very long time, and most of the entries falling under its highly specific umbrella didn’t make it to American theaters. But a self-selecting set of in-the-know filmmakers nonetheless fell in love with this lurid breed of slasher flick, and have kept its legacy alive up to the present. Known quantities with adventurous tastes (Alfred Hitchcock, Eli Roth) and underground sensations (Britain’s Peter Strickland, Belgian husband-and-wife duo Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani) alike have found inspiration in the movement’s near-pornographic emphasis on visual splendor over bothersome little things like logic or reality. The latest addition to their self-selecting ranks is Luca Guadagnino, who will soon follow up the near universally acclaimed Call Me by Your Name with an adaptation of a gnarlier sort, tackling the supernatural ballet freak-out Suspiria.

Though it doesn’t fall within the bounds of giallo, the film ranks as the most widely known of its director, Dario Argento, the subgenre’s poster boy and the subject of a new 12-film retrospective at New York’s Metrograph theater. Argento codified, refined, and arguably perfected the signature tropes of the form: a haywire plotting structure, jags of psychedelia rendered in eye-popping color, the black leather glove as an all-encompassing symbol of danger and desire. If his movies can be said to be “about” anything in a thematic sense, it would be sex and death, and he never strayed far from his pet obsessions. Still, put style far enough over substance, and as it turns out, style becomes a substance all its own.

The Suspiria release and accompanying salutes such as Metrograph’s are sure to give Argento’s profile a bump, so those proud know-it-alls who want to look authoritative come November should start boning up now. To that end, Vulture has compiled this cursory overview of Argento’s best work. A hot tip for those intrigued by his methods: Google “Sergio Martino.” Then Google “Mario Bava.” Then Google “Lucio Fulci.” You can probably take it from there.

The “Animal Trilogy” (1970–1971)
After getting his feet wet in the world of screenwriting (most notably, he assisted Sergio Leone and Bernardo Bertolucci with the script for Once Upon a Time in the West), Argento started strong in his directorial career with a trio of films grouped by word-salad titles name-checking the kingdom animalia. He saved the best for first with The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, kept his hot streak going with The Cat O’ Nine Tails in 1971, and finished strong that same year with Four Flies on Grey Velvet. Each film follows a similar schematic: a cool customer with creative inclinations (a vacationing American novelist, a sharply attired reporter, a rock-and-roll drummer) gets an eyeful of murder, and sets out on an independent investigation to clear his name and/or save his hide. Everywhere he goes, corpses crop up like dandelions to the tune of Ennio Morricone’s far-out lounge compositions, leading to a bloody confrontation exposing the killer’s identity.

The plotting is repetitive when not actively maddening — Cat was so named as a reference to the surfeit of dead ends pursued by its amateur detective — but duly serves its purpose as scaffolding for Argento to mount his twisted objets d’art. The close-ups of eyeballs, forcing the viewer into voyeurism and exhibitionism in one; the chilling Dutch Boy mask whose lifeless smile haunts the whole of Flies; the expressionistic POV shots inviting us to join the killer through surrogacy. (Argento notoriously insisted that his own hands be used when shooting the first-person stranglings on multiple films, the sick puppy.) He enlivened the usual killer-on-the-loose beats with bizarre flights of fancy, trapping his prey beneath a massive abstract metal sculpture in the climax of Bird in a cheeky visual pun. Aesthetics is pain.

Deep Red (1975)
Argento didn’t reinvent the wheel when he returned to the giallo school following a zany send-up of revolutionary politics titled The Five Days of Milan in 1973. Rather, this critic considers Deep Red to be Argento’s finest film specifically because he challenged himself to get away with more under the same parameters he had already set, elevating all the same favored elements to new heights of unhinged artistry. He followed through on the promise of the title and then some, flooding his frames with blood in a hue not naturally found in a human body. Argento’s camera had never been so freely mobile, slithering up stairways and careening off of walls during the frenzied arias of murder. His ongoing interest in pop psychology spawned his most salacious plot yet, a Freudian stew of creepy killer dolls, repressed trauma, and triggering musical cues. (Summoning the same cooler-than-cool energy he brought to London’s fashion scene in Blow-Up one decade earlier, star David Hemmings fit perfectly into Argento’s world of swingers and post-beatnik hipsters.)

Attention must be paid to Goblin, the Italian prog-rock outfit responsible for the brooding, sinuous, haunting score. It was a blessing in disguise that Pink Floyd said no when Argento first approached them, sending him back to Italy and into the arms of composer Giorgio Gaslini, who enlisted the help of the gangly, morose 20-somethings that had bowled him over at a live show earlier that year. Disputes with the director eventually led to Gaslini exiting the project, a case of addition by subtraction if ever there was one, in that it let Goblin run wild in the studio with minimal supervision. In their epileptic fits of free jazz, whirligig sax solos, and berserk synthesizer twiddling, they laid the path for John Carpenter’s Halloween theme and inspired metalheads and Tyler the Creator alike. Good luck purging the infant-babble lullaby mocking the audience’s terror from your nightmares.

Suspiria (1977)
Scholars have long quibbled over whether this phantasmagoria technically qualifies as a giallo, the film having severed its tethers to Earth and drifted into a new plane of pure fantasy. For those of us unconcerned with taxonomy, it’s still a hallucinatory trip into hell rich with pleasure and torment, however you might label it. Jessica Harper, doing the same ingenue bit that made her an instant cult sensation in Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise three years earlier, portrays an American ballerina enrolling at an elite dance academy in Freiburg, Germany. Something seems a little off, though; maybe it’s the maggots falling from the ceiling, maybe it’s the drugs in the food, or maybe it’s the fact that her instructors are witches bound to an ancient ritual that demands regular sacrifice in flesh.

This is Argento’s most sumptuous stew of influences, mixing 19th-century occult mythology about religious sorrows with the dark, violent fairy tales popularized by Hans Christian Andersen and then setting it all at a high boil. Digging deep for his reference points resulted in an eerie atmosphere augmented by an unorthodox array of kills; the usual garroting and stabbing is mostly excised, replaced by a dancer’s fall into an instantaneously materialized pile of barbed wire, to name one example. While Argento includes only a scant few scenes of dance, the feverish emotionality of performance informs the fabric of the film, which continues building in intensity until the mirror-smashing finale breaks through directly to the subconscious. A warning for the uninitiated: You’ll never look at a glowing peacock talisman the same way again.

Tenebrae (1982)
After his dalliances with the mystical in Suspiria and its follow-up Inferno, Argento returned to the giallo with a vengeance. I mean that literally: To show that he was unintimidated by the crazed fan who kept calling him with death threats, Argento wrote a movie about a horror novelist targeted by a night stalker reenacting the grisly slayings from his written works. For added saltiness, he also includes a scene in which his avatar basically tells his critics exactly where they can shove their objections to his passions for female skin and carnage. The denouement dives even deeper into the meta-textual, gleefully implicating Argento himself in his crimes against sensitive tastes. It’s rather telling that Argento’s most personal film involves sexual humiliation and temporary dissociation.

While shouting out his haters, Argento continued to forge onward in his innovation behind the camera and in the editing suite. His conveyance of visual information had never been so intricate or precise; multiple viewings reveal hints as to the killer’s identity encoded in purposeful pans across a room or conspicuous cuts. He continued to locate the uncanny by rendering everyday objects hostile and alien, getting his most arresting shot from a filament burning out in a smashed light bulb. But Argento’s secret weapon was always the mundane. In his chaotic universe, evil often lurks where the victims feel at ease and off guard, in the daytime and in public spaces. He wants his viewers to spend the rest of their lives steeling themselves before entering any empty room, aware that it may very well contain a killing in progress.

Trauma (1993)
The later years of Argento’s career have been marred by a string of misfires (please, love yourself and refrain from seeing his Dracula 3D) and controversies revolving around his daughter Asia. Prior to all that, however, he pulled off a family affair on American soil. Asia plays an anorexic patient at a stay in a Minneapolis mental hospital, where the orderlies have a bad habit of getting suffocated by a fiendish contraption known to fans as the Noose-O-Matic. As the title makes abundantly clear, Argento’s back on his Psych 101 grind, ginning up the most demented backstory in a filmography full of them. And the neuroses extend to darker crannies of Argento and his collaborator/lover Daria Nicolodi’s subconscious than usual — Asia’s role is based in part on her real-life half-sister Anna, who battled eating disorders right up to her untimely, accidental death shortly following the film’s release.

Posterity has identified Trauma as a departure for Argento on several fronts. It’s the rare instance of a female protagonist surviving to see the end credits roll, the beginning of a protracted creative partnership with his daughter, and an early sign of his later compulsion to cast a wider net of appeal with U.S. audiences. And yet all of Dario Argento’s films (even the bad ones!) are so immutably his, all but embossed with his proprietary stamp in blood. The mark of a great filmmaker is the ability to create a sui generis visual language setting his or her work apart from the rest of the era, genre, or nation. Put a random frame of Argento’s in front of someone who has a functional understanding of his corpus, and they’ll immediately be able to identify its point of origin. He laid full claim to the vivid, oneiric strain of horror that the franchise mainstream doesn’t dare touch. His legacy lives on today in the cult circuit and the art house, in the bedroom and the asylum, or anywhere someone zips up a black leather glove.

A Beginner’s Guide to Dario Argento