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From the 1960s to the end of the 1980s, the horror genre entered a golden age. However, it didn’t take place in Hollywood, but rather in Italy, where directors like Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Pupi Avati and Lucio Fulci began to emerge. Their films often centered upon witches, zombies or sexually deviant killers and were, for the most, incredibly gory. Yet, aside from their ultra-violence, what separated Italian horror from the rest of the world was its incredibly unique style — emphasising, what critic Maitland McDonagh notes as, “vivid colours … flamboyant tracking shots, disorienting framing and composition [and] fetishistic close-ups of quivering eyes”.
A huge part of this golden age of horror was the giallo [meaning yellow] sub-genre. Deriving its name from paperback thrillers popular in Italy, published on cheap yellow paper, the term refers to the country’s murder mystery films notable for their strong elements of horror and eroticism. Although Dario Argento did not create the genre — that honour goes to Bava with The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) and Blood on Black Lace (1964) – he did cultivate it, directing some of the most critically acclaimed of all the gialli. To celebrate this year’s Halloween, we here at Headstuff honour five of the filmmaker’s greatest horror works.
Deep Red (1975)
Already acclaimed in his home country for his “animal trilogy” of gialli — The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971) and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) — Deep Red was Argento’s most internationally successful and critically lauded film upon its release. It stars David Hemmings as Marcus, a curmudgeonly British pianist and music teacher, living in Turin, who is a witness to the murder of a famed psychic. The deceased clairvoyant had recently outed a crowd member at a recent show as a killer. Teaming up with journalist, Gianna (Daria Nicolodi), Marcus begins investigating.
Inspired by Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up – both star Hemmings as someone who seemingly misreads a crime scene – and Alfred Hitchcock’s oeuvre – an average man thrust into a dangerous situation with a psychoanalytic tinged plot– Deep Red, narrative-wise, reads more like a detective story than a horror. Yet, Argento elevates the movie effortlessly into levels of terror, implementing every trick in his arsenal of fear – unsettling kids’ music, violent child drawings, eerie puppets, mutilated baby dolls – creating a real sense of dread. Although, the murder sequences could easily put off those squeamish to violence, nobody could claim they are not impeccably staged. Argento’s incredibly fluid camera-work creates a real sense of movement and danger, while his use of bright-red paint as blood establishes a hyper-real other-worldly feel.
Often referred to as a cult classic, upon a re-watch its clear why Suspiria is still acclaimed in film circles. It stars Jessica Harper (Phantom of the Paradise) as Suzy, an American ballet dancer. She moves to Germany to enrol in a prestigious dance boarding school. However, upon arrival, she learns a female student has been murdered, while strange happenings begin to occur.
Suspiria is one of the most gorgeous looking horrors of all time. From the opening scene, where Suzy arrives in Germany, it’s as if the protagonist has entered a technicolour nightmare. Every frame is drenched in vivid reds, blues or greens, causing the movie, at times, to resemble visually a horror take on The Wizard of Oz (both movies used imbibition Technicolor prints to emphasise their colours). The set-design is also incredible, reinforcing the bright colour lighting. Watching it now, the look of the lavish and glossy dance academy, in which the majority of the action takes place, must have inspired Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. On top of this, the score by Italian prog-rockers Goblin (who also worked on the phenomenally pounding Deep Red soundtrack) is an unsettling blend of throbbing horror music and twinkling ballet accompaniment. As well as heavily influencing John Carpenter, the band’s work blends with the visuals to create an overwhelming sensory experience.
However, although many critics describe Suspiria as an almost surrealist film in the way its narrative is secondary to its tone, the script (written by Argento and his wife, Deep Red star Daria Nicolodi) is surprisingly tight. Generally, every key-plot point is explained as the movie progresses and although sequences such as the “barb wire” room (which has been paid homage to in so many lesser movies) are out-there, one can draw a logical reason for their inclusion. Horror fanatics who haven’t seen Suspiria will adore it for its gory violence and retro feel. Meanwhile, those who dislike the genre will still appreciate its atmosphere and style.
Argento’s most playful and self-referential work, Tenebrae (Latin for “shadows”) sees the director providing a retort to his detractors. Anthony Franciosa plays Peter Neal, an American horror novelist embarking on a press tour for his latest book titled “Tenebrae”. Arriving in Rome, he is startled to learn that his latest novel has been the inspiration for a string of murders.
Neal is clearly a stand-in for Argento as both are artists in the horror genre whose apparent fixation with violence to women has led to criticism. The novelist in Tenebrae, early on, is accosted by critic who claims his work is “sexist”, reducing his female characters to just “victims” and “ciphers”. Although, Argento doesn’t subvert this trend here (many females do meet a grisly end), he does something stranger and more fascinating. Neal, in an interview with another literary critic, becomes a mouth-piece for the director stating that just because he writes about sexually deviant killers doesn’t mean he is one. The matter is then dropped and Neal takes the position of the hero attempting to solve the murder. However, in the film’s final moments, Argento pulls the rug out from under the viewer, hinting that Neal perhaps isn’t as pure as one thought. With this, the director suggests that gory and sensationalist writing may in fact stem from its creator’s repressed and hidden fixations.
However, while this meta-textual element is prominent in Tenebrae, Argento does not forget to bring his stylish flair to proceedings. Goblin’s electro score — with synthesised voices shouting “paura” (meaning fear in Italian) – feels iconic today and has been sampled by various electro musicians such as Justice. Meanwhile, the first kill is an amazing fake-out to the audience, whereby a woman is stalked by a creepy homeless man, who one assumes is the film’s villain. However, the female, once escaping her unsettling pursuer’s clutches, is then murdered by the movie’s central killer. Other flashes of bravura filmmaking include the gorgeous scene of the antagonist slashing a lightbulb with his razor weapon and the various tracking shots Argento implements during action set-pieces.
There are touches of the nightmarish fairy-tale vibe from Suspiria in Tenebrae’s flashback sequences. At first, these scenes appear bright and happy. However, as the movie returns to them throughout, they grow increasingly disturbing with fetishistic imagery becoming more and more prevalent e.g. a woman sticking the bright red heel of her shoe into the mouth of a man. I couldn’t finish without mentioning Tenebrae’s ending in which the killer is revealed, previously silhouetted by the hero. It’s a master-shot which has been paid homage to so many times, perhaps most famously in Brian De Palma’s Raising Cain.
The fourth film on the list to feature an outsider investigating a murder, Phenomena features Requiem for a Dream star Jennifer Connelly (fifteen-years old at the time) as Jennifer, an American student attending a remote Swiss boarding school. Through a chance encounter with Dr. John McGregor (Donald Pleasance), a physically disabled entomologist, the young girl discovers she has the ability to communicate with insects. She uses this telepathy to discover the culprit of a string of local murders.
What is great about Phenomena is how Argento manages to take a frankly bizarre and wacky premise and make it compelling and entertaining. For about two-thirds of its running time, the film plays out almost akin to a Tim Burton-esque creepy coming-of-age story. In her new school surroundings, Jennifer is bullied for her unique abilities. However, she learns to accept them with the help of the kind John, who ensures her rather touchingly, “I know what it feels like to be different … people have the ability to make you almost hate yourself … but you’re in a position to do extraordinary things with that gift”. However, if all this sentimentality sounds too saccharine, do not fear. Argento saves all his lunacy for a fantastically tense final act – unleashing evil deformed children, knife-wielding monkeys, explosions and a gross pool of larvae in true giallo fashion. Ultimately, it’s the writer-director’s natural flair for lighting and staging action, as well as the fine acting that elevates the movie above a curious oddity. Pleasance manages to ground the plot’s absurdity in reality with a warm but melancholic performance. Meanwhile, Connelly is radiant as ever. Between working with David Bowie on Labyrinth, Sergio Leone on Once Upon a Time in America and Argento, there has never been a cooler child actress.
In 1998, Argento directed a horror adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera. The result was an ugly and ineptly made film which represented a decline for the director, who previously went to such great efforts to display a mastery in his craft. However, for those who want to see the maestro tackle the classic novel well, they should seek out Opera, his earlier quasi adaption of the story. Set in the modern day, it centres upon Betty (Christina Marsillach), a young operata and understudy, who is suddenly called on to play Lady Macbeth in Giuseppe Verdi’s Shakespeare-based opera. However, the singer becomes terrorised by a madman lurking in the opera house, killing those close to her.
The film lacks the punch of Suspiria and Tenebrae, perhaps because Goblin did not perform the score. Instead, most of the soundtrack is classical opera which is beautiful, serving the heightened atmosphere and story well. Yet, during the murder sequences, generic metal music is jarringly introduced, causing an unwelcome distraction. This minor irritation aside, however, Opera is very entertaining. It’s clear Argento is having great fun utilising the titular aspect of the story for all its worth. During action sequences, his camera swirls around the labyrinthine structure and wide-open spaces of the central opera-house with great aplomb. Meanwhile, he includes these nifty nods to Leroux’s novel such as the killer early on gazing at Betty through a theatre vent or later having his face scarred like the phantom.
There is a quite funny meta-textual element to the film a la Tenebrae. The director of the opera within the movie, played by Ian Charleston, is a clear stand-in for Argento. Noted as being a filmmaker attempting to transition into stage work, he is described as a “sadist” and is told in a review to “go back to horror films” – a nod to the period where the Italian auteur attempted to break-in to drama with 1973’s The Five Days, before returning to giallo with Deep Red. It was a good call because no one creates suspense like Argento, as evident by Opera’s central fifteen-minute sequence. Betty, after putting in eye-drops, lets a man into her home, assuming it’s a police-officer. As the scene continues and the possible killer’s face remains hidden or blurred, it just heightens and heightens the tension, leaving the audience just as scared as the protagonist.
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Argento expanded upon the mythology of Suspiria with Inferno (1980) and The Mother of All Tears (2007). He also collaborated with his friend George A. Romero (Argento and Goblin worked on the Dawn of the Dead soundtrack) for the Edgar Allen Poe anthology Two Evil Eyes (1990). Following this, the Italian auteur’s movies began to feel increasingly rote and lazy with the director putting less care into how his output looked or how his actors performed. That said, some of his later work does have flashes of his earlier genius – particularly 1996’s interesting The Stendhal Syndrome, or the bravura opening sequence from 2001’s Sleepless. However, even if his recent movies are sub-par, Argento still deserves tremendous respect as a true master of the horror genre. He made films which had their own personality and distinct look, while also inspiring a wave of future directors.