The master of Italian horror, Dario Argento, turned 80 this week! While I love most of Argento’s early films I thought I’d talk about a few of my absolute favorites.
The second film in Argento’s ‘Three Mothers’ trilogy (between Suspiria in 1977 and Mother of Tears in 2007), Inferno is a film that’s grown on me over time. It’s a beautiful, incoherent mess of a film, with all the hallmarks of early Argento – stylish kills, phenomenal set pieces, and a crazy soundtrack (here by prog-rock legend Keith Emerson, rather than than Argento stalwarts Goblin.) The film is nominally about a woman, Rose (Irene Miracle), who discovers her New York apartment building may also be the residence of one of the Three Mothers – a cabal of witches who secretly rule the world. Repeated viewing won’t clarify the plot for you, but will increase the sense that you’re watching a psychedelic nightmare where buildings rot, cats plot and even the food truck guy is out to get you.
Argento’s first film reinvigorated the giallo – a genre of stylish crime films previously exemplified by movies like Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace. This convoluted thriller is about a man, played by Tony Musante, who is drawn into a murder investigation after he witnesses an assault at an art gallery. That scene, with Musante trapped between glass walls as the victim struggles across an all-white room, is startling and effective even now – in 1970 it must have been electric. Though it doesn’t have some of the excesses of plot, imagery and music of later Argento films, Bird is still a stylish and fantastic film, and a brilliant debut from a man who would go on to redefine both the giallo and the Italian horror film.
Deep Red (1975)
Perhaps the greatest giallo ever made, and strong contender for greatest Argento film as well, Deep Red sits between the more straightforward (hah!) murder plots of his earlier movies and the more supernatural themed projects that were to follow. A musician, Marcus (David Hemmings), witnesses the brutal murder of a psychic. A local reporter (played by Argento’s partner/collaborator Daria Nicolodi) publishes a photo of him in the paper, naming him as a witness. This draws the attention of the murderer, leaving Marcus and the reporter racing to discover the killer’s identity before they’re murdered as well. Argento’s first film made the giallo a phenomenon and this, his last classic giallo, set the bar so high that it’s arguably never been equaled.
Creepers – the shorter US edit of Phenomena – was my very first Argento film, and in my then steady viewing diet of slashers and gore flicks it was something of a revelation. It’s a story about a girl, played by Jennifer Connelly (pre-Labyrinth), with the psychic ability to control insects and how she teams up with a wheelchair-bound entomologist (Donald Pleasance, with an… interesting Scottish accent) to catch a killer. While it doesn’t always rank high on most lists – Kim Newman called the film an “almost total failure.” I don’t care, I still love it – jarring heavy metal sequences and all. For another director the story of a girl with awakening psychic powers in the pubescent pressure-cooker of an all-girls school would be a movie all by itself. For Argento it’s mere window dressing, one of half a dozen different stories that don’t really relate but somehow combine to form this gestalt of awesome weirdness. Also, there’s a chimp with a straightrazor.
The most beautiful horror film ever made. It’s also one of my favorite films of all time. The plot – about a ballet dancer and her growing realization that the foreign school she’s attending may be run by a coven of witches – is probably the least interesting part of the film. It’s really about the glorious colors, with cinematography by Luciano Tovoli, and the incredible set pieces. It’s the violence choreographed as if it was a dance. It’s the music (by Goblin) that overpowers but doesn’t overwhelm. It’s a beautiful, horrifying dark fantasy – an Art Deco fairy tale by Goya. Suspiria is Argento at the height of his abilities, and to me it’s his greatest achievement.
Sailor Monsoon will tell you that the Creepers cut is the superior version of Phenomena, but he is wrong. What are some of your favorite Argento films?