When we talk about horror, big names like John Carpenter, George Romero, Wes Craven, and Tobe Hooper are bound to come up first. But at the same time that these seminal directors were releasing what would become American horror classics in the early 1970s, a man named Dario Argento was scaring audiences across the pond in Italy with spectacularly gruesome films of his own—dreamlike tales of terror that never quite follow reality’s rules.
Born in Rome on September 7, 1940 to Sicilian film producer Salvatore Argento and Brazilian photographer Elda Luxardo, Dario Argento was first drawn into horror by way of a collection of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories—a passion that only deepened as he got older.
While working as a columnist for a local newspaper, Argento landed his first industry job co-writing the screenplay for Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) with Bernardo Bertolucci. Just two years, later he would strike out on his own, using his influences of Poe and Mario Bava to create his debut feature, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage—a film often described as one of the first modern giallos (more on that in a minute).
Argento oscillated between crafting giallos, like his Animal trilogy, and straight-up horror films, like Suspiria (1977), Inferno (1980), and Phenomena (1985). Below, I’ve laid out a primer that recognizes Argento’s “must-watch” films and the best entry points for those looking to dig into his filmography.
What is a giallo?
Giallo comes from the Italian word for yellow and owes its name to classic Italian detective novels, which were jacketed in yellow covers at the time. It then developed into a specific genre, a whodunit, but one in which the identity of the killer doesn’t really matter. So think of it as a meeting in between Agatha Christie-esque detective crime fiction and thrillers.
The first true giallo, the movie that introduced the form, was Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1964). With it, the archetype of the genre—a killer with black gloves, a serpentine mystery plot—were established. Bava brought a mixture of both horror and detective mystery to his films, and many directors have followed in his footsteps since.
Giallo movies also take the cake for best titles in the genre: The Red Queen Kills Seven Times, Your Vice Is A Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, Seven Blood Stained Orchids, Short Night of Glass Dolls, The Blood Stained Butterfly, Black Belly of the Tarantula, Lizard In A Woman’s Skin. The list goes on. Yet, rarely do these titles have anything to do with the actual film. You never see a bird encased in crystal in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. So, in a way, the title acts as the ultimate McGuffin.
The “Animal” Trilogy
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)
Black gloves. Razor and knives. A score that pulls you, helplessly, in. Just as helpless as Tony Musante is behind that pane of glass, watching a victim of an attempted murder crawl toward him. The first 15 minutes of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage does exactly what Argento does best with the beginnings of a film: set a mood.
Crystal Plumage is a film by a much more grounded director than the one who would later soak the screen in neon visuals. It sets out as the first film as what most people know as giallo. And this is his debut!
The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971)
Cat is the one giallo wherein Argento strings things along with a heavy plot, but the problem is that it’s not his strong suit. Argento’s even gone on record to state that this is his least favorite of all of his films. While I wouldn’t agree overall, it is certainly is the least impactful of his ‘70s work. We do get to see Karl Malden play a blind puzzle-maker, though, and we get a memorable set piece in an elevator shaft.
Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971)
The next Halloween mask you’ll be running to the stores to request is the mask the antagonist of this 1971 capper to the animal trilogy wears. From the opening sequence, Argento has us.
Argento took the strings that tied him down to plot structure and gleefully sliced through them, leaving us in an atmosphere that plays like free-form jazz. Dario’s subdued color palette of browns, blues, and greens helps nail the vibe. And this what also sets Argento apart from his giallo brethren. Both Sergio Martino and Lucio Fulci were rigorous plotters of the form on one hand and played in dream logic on the other.
Once again, Argento employs Morricone for the score, who fills it with jazz rock. Unfortunately, Ennio disliked the score so much that he refused to work with Dario again until Stendhal Syndrome in 1996.
Master of Giallo
Deep Red (Profondo Rosso) (1975)
The sounds of children. Howling wind. Smash zooms. Beautiful reds and blacks. A pulse-rattling Goblin score that ranks among the best of any horror film. The sense of claustrophobia and paranoia is all over this film. It brings together all of the elements of the giallo into a perfectly constructed mystery.
David Hemmings, whose previous work includes the Michelangelo Antonioni classic Blow-Up (1966), stars as the lead character who’s on the case of a mysterious killer. Daria Nicolodi, a frequent collaborator with the director, costars in her first collaboration.
Deep Red also shows Argento smuggling supernatural elements into the giallo genre. Up to this point he is the only director doing this, and future films of his would employ the same method. Guillermo Del Toro once said, “An Argento doesn’t make logical sense. It makes lyrical sense.” Deep Red is Argento in full-on opera mode.
Tenebre did not come about because Argento was eager to return to the giallo. Rather, he was strongly persuaded to make this film. The way Dario stylizes the movies is almost a negation of his previous two horror films. The expressionistic gothic lighting in Suspiria and Inferno are absent, and in their place are sterile, clean surfaces. It’s a self-critical work. Right off the bat, we see a book thrown into the fire against the title card.
Even with this confessional style, we are treated to incredible roving camerawork. There is a famous shot involving the severing of an arm and the resulting blood spray against a white wall that would make DePalma jealous. Tenebre was able to take the tropes of the genre, twist them, yet still make them function perfectly.
Argento refers to Opera as his darkest film. Even in a film as gothic as Phenomena, you still had the monkey for relief. But there’s no buffer here to soften the sharp blows this giallo delivers.
Argento is at his most technical with the camera, roving over a packed opera house during a production of MacBeth. The keyhole scene with Daria Nicolodi stands out as one of the best in the genre. It’s a gloriously dark finale to his streak of ‘80s classics and, unfortunately, would be his last film that’s enjoyable all the way through.
The supernatural elements you see in Deep Red are mere overtures to what he does in Suspiria. By now, the mysterious killer no longer appealed to Dario. So he turned his eye to another brand of evil villain: witches.
This 1977 classic has become ingrained into my DNA at this point, the opening 10 minutes being what immediately comes to mind when Argento’s name is mentioned. It’s a candy-colored phantasmagoria, and he plunges you right into it from the start. Luciano Tovoli’s brilliant lighting and constantly moving camera are all over the movie. The remaining 88 minutes continue this dreamlike world.
The fairytale-like structure originated from a real scenario. Screenwriter Daria Nicolodi’s grandmother was sent away as a young girl to a prestigious boarding school, only to find that black magic was being practiced there. Dario Argento would assist Nicolodi in crafting the film’s Three Mothers mythology. On a visual level, Argento pulled inspiration from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Jessica Harper, who genre fans know from Phantom of the Paradise (1974), plays the lead. Argento turned to Goblin once again for the score. The progressive rock band used additional unconventional instruments, like African drums and Greek stringed instrument called a bouzouki, and the end result is one of the most iconic soundtracks in horror history.
Take a still of any shot from Inferno, and it could easily hang in a museum. It’s a cornucopia of things to love. The way Argento uses gels, the burning colors, ancient witchcraft mythology, Keith Emerson’s thundering score. Architecture is also used to great effect, with killer curtains, slicing door knobs, and guillotine windows. All of it contributes to a disorientation of the senses—a perfect sequel to Suspiria, and everything one would want in a follow-up.
Argento had planned a downbeat conclusion to the trilogy, but he problem was that Inferno had performed poorly at the box office. Argento had a meeting with producers and decided to forget about this type of story. His next film would be a return to the giallo, which resulted in Tenebre. We wouldn’t get his conclusion, titled (appropriately enough) Mother of Tears, until 2007. The less said about it the better.
The Absurd Glory of Phenomena
Italian horror films have had a strange release history when distributed overseas in the US. Phenomena was released in the US as Creepers in 1985, with 20 minutes excised from it and re-ordered. With the help of restoration companies like Synapse Films and Arrow Video, its home video release allows us to see the full version the way the director intended. Here are five reasons why I love it:
- The way the music is used creates a sonic landscape as thick as the atmosphere of the film itself. Iron Maiden’s “Flash of the Blade” and Motorhead’s “Locomotive” bump up against Goblin’s score.
- Jennifer Connelly. Fresh off of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In America, Jennifer Connelly plays a character who can control insects.
- Donald Pleasence. We know Pleasence as Dr. Loomis from 1978’s Halloween, but here he plays an entomologist with an assistant—played by a chimpanzee!
- Its individuality set against the rest of Argento’s work. He hadn’t done a film quite as bizarre before and hasn’t since.
- The ending. It might be my favorite ending of all of Argento’s films, if for nothing else than its sheer insanity. In the same way the opening 10 minutes of Suspiria are iconic, the final 15 minutes of Phenomena are immensely satisfying. Only Four Flies On Grey Velvet comes close to topping it.