Tom Jolliffe on the years, and films, which defined Dario Argento…
Looking back over his peak years, whilst Dario Argento may not have been the first pioneer of Giallo horror, he followed in the footsteps of the great Mario Bava and popularised Italian horror around the world in a way even Bava could only dream of. Those Giallo horror pictures (though ‘giallo’ itself was first popularised as post-fascist literature in Italy) would forever affect the genre as a whole. Bava, who’s crowning achievements list such exceptional works as Blood and Black Lace found himself revisiting the genre and becoming synonymous with it.
By the time Dario Argento was forging his own path he launched himself straight into Giallo and almost predominantly stayed within that genre. The Giallo itself would usually be a detective story with a protagonist (often a ‘foreigner’) who stumbles onto a serial killer (almost always masked/hidden until the finale reveal) in the midsts of their run of killings. Bava’s iconic style cemented some of the genre tropes particularly the iconic image of his Blood and Black Lace styled (masked) killer, combined with the vivid colour of cinematography and mise-en-scene. Argento took those tropes and dialled them up.
By his own standards, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage is a restrained debut. By the standards Argento would later employ that is. The film is stylish, excessive, colourful and dynamic. It firmly sets the illogical logic of an Argento picture. Coloured lighting has no logical source or basing in reality, but within the highly charged emotions and world of the film, it makes sense. There was always an ability with Argento too (again, picked up and expanded upon from Bava) to toy with point of view. His mastery of camera perspective allowed him to intrude or pull right back and become voyeur, whenever he saw fit.
By the release of Deep Red, Argento had firmly established himself as a horror master. His film victims often sadistically (almost fetishistically) penetrated by the blade of a knife and expelling an unrealistically St George Red blood that tips almost to orange, and carefully away from crimson. Likewise, as evident in Deep Red (and plenty of his films beyond), death could often involve grotesque and macabre encounters with glass as the masked killer(s) savagely offs their victims through broken panes and shards.
Having predominantly worked with Ennio Morricone in his earlier films, Deep Red also saw Argento’s approach to the music change. Slap bang in the middle of prog-rock peak, Argento began his illustrious creative partnership with the Italian Prog-Rock band, Goblin. Though Morricone is of course an iconic film composer, the music most associated with Argento is that of Goblin (and the latter 70’s/80’s synth composers he also worked with who very much fit within the ‘Goblin’ style). That soundtrack as David Hemmings finds himself accidentally drawn into a murder inquiry after witnessing a woman being brutally killed (glass and stabbing involved of course) added yet another identifiable Argento-ism that would subsequently become iconic.
If Argento’s films had already been loaded with bright, lurid, often inexplicable colour, Suspiria would double down on the visuals. Bleeding reds, intense blues, striking whites, sickly greens, dirty yellows and everything else he could throw in (sometimes 2-3 particularly prominent per frame). Suspiria is almost overwhelmingly dazzling and evocative. As a set, as costumes, as physical elements within a frame, those colours have a basis. Occasionally as strongly filtered light sources they have no logic beyond directly looking to affect the audience or convey something. Yet there isn’t always a specific correlation with a particular colour for Argento, every colour he’s utilised in a film (and indeed rarely more so than Suspiria) evokes a certain threat. There’s certainly never a ‘safe’ colour with Argento, and even the ability to gradually alter the light and set décor of a white room, into red shows how free he is with direct logic. Suspiria, involving witchcraft (though the film still carries many giallo tropes) has a fantasy element that allows for its own logic.
Inferno, which is an unofficial middle of the ‘three mothers’ trilogy that threads Suspiria through to Mother of Tears saw Argento’s levels of restrain almost entirely disappear. Lost in a sea of indulgence it began, for better or worse a period where his films turned the madness levels up. If you think Suspiria is brimming with colour and features a supernatural finale twist that will drop your jaw, Inferno is Argento’s ‘hold my beer’ to himself. The film is insane. It’s almost a caricature of his work and whilst the coherence flies off long before the film ends, it’s still an essential watch.
Tenebrae was better (his last true ‘great’ perhaps), as close to restraint as Argento had managed since his auspicious debut, and whilst not as iconically ‘Argento’ as Deep Red or Suspiria (with a more firm ‘detective’ focus again) it’s still essential Italian Horror. The 80’s would see a mix of more craziness and some overwrought style over substance personified in films like Opera, but Phenomena, starring a young Jennifer Connelly is one of Argento’s last hits. It’s insane, it’s his most gonzo film, and it has things in it involving a chimp that defy explanation, but it’s also a director of undoubted style enjoying a chance to almost satirise himself and the giallo audience. After all, if a director becomes so synonymous with a genre, fans can tend to expect them to remain in the comfort of that world. Phenomena allowed Argento a freedom to be completely wild, and whilst the film is bat-turd crazy (to put it mildly) it’s also immensely entertaining.
Like many greats, Argento, who began to carry the stigma of critical derision and commercial disappointments from that period of over-indulgence, would see his films drop in inspiration through the 90’s and beyond. His daughter Asia Argento, who became a regular fixture in the cast of Dario’s 90’s films would also become unfairly identified as something of a death knell to his career, where the indulgence extended to nepotism. Flashes of his brilliance, in films like Trauma, still remained, but the films tended to lack the energy to sustain the run-times. Still, I guess there’s only so many times you can unmask a killer and keep things fresh.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020, including The Witches Of Amityville Academy (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/