With a career spanning over forty years Dario Argento has directed and written a whole host of creative and disturbing masterpieces, and in the process has worked with and inspired a generation of filmmakers, from John Carpenter to Tobe Hooper, so whether you’ve heard of him or not, don’t dismiss him as just another horror director, for he’s much, much more than that.
Argento’s obsession with horror began, unsurprisingly, during his childhood. Born in Rome in 1940, his mother was a professional photographer and his father was a film producer, so he was involved in the goings on of the world of cinema from an early age. Due to occasional bouts of illness he spent the majority of his time reading, but it wasn’t until he picked up a collection of Edgar Allan Poe short stories that he really developed a passion for the themes of murder and the grotesque with which he would become so well associated. Interestingly enough, he didn’t dive straight into the cinema business like his father, but instead chose to be a film critic, writing for a variety of magazines throughout and beyond high school. It was through this job that Argento eventually met and became good friends with spaghetti western director Sergio Leone, for whom he wrote the original story of Once Upon a Time in the West with Bernardo Bertolucci. Encouraged by this experience, Argento began to write, and in time direct, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and as he became increasingly enthusiastic about making films, his career began to take shape.
By far his most successful film is Suspiria. Both graphic murder mystery and haunting fairy tale, it tells the story of a series of murders within a girls’ dancing school and sees Argento experiment with the idea of the horror genre being an art form and not simply mindless entertainment. He subverted the previous assumption that ‘slasher’ films are shallow and predictable, to such an extent that the film becomes a work of art: a multilayered painting that succeeds in hypnotising the viewer with its sinister use of colour and sound. There is no doubt that Suspiria is where Aronofsky got most of his inspiration for Black Swan, for they both convey an unnerving tension, a feeling of conspiracy in the isolated world of a ballet school.
As with most of Argento’s films (Inferno especially), Suspiria’s soundtrack is terrifying; written and performed by Italian rock band Goblin, it has a childish, nursery rhyme quality to it, full of loud whispers and distant screams that burrow deep into the brain and stay there long after the film ends.
Also set in a girls’ school, Phenomena (or Creepers, as it’s known in America) is a film definitely worth mentioning. It stars a young Jennifer Connelly as a girl with the ability to communicate with insects, who tries to solve a bizarre string of murders connected to a nearby criminal sanatorium. As with a lot of Argento’s work, the plot makes little sense (her closest friend is an elderly scientist with a monkey as an assistant), but the characters are so well crafted, the atmosphere so unsettling, that you begin to wonder whether the film needs a coherent plot at all.
Think of a way of killing someone, and Dario Argento has already come up with it. Of course the bizarre methods of inflicting death that he imagines are disgusting, but there’s a certain beauty in the way he presents them: a body crashing through a stained-glass ceiling; a knife piercing an exposed heart; a girl diving into a sea of barbed wire. What’s intriguing though, is that most of the violence in Argento’s films is directed at women. He isn’t a misogynist, he once explained in an interview, but he finds that women are more interesting to kill; their deaths give his films a sexual beauty, one that is directly connected with the entire genre of horror. This astonishing imagination of his was able to run wild when he teamed up with fellow horror director George A. Romero. The two had met previously when Argento offered to help finance and produce Romero’s zombie sequel Dawn of the Dead and they came together again a decade later to make Due Occhi Diabolici, or Two Dead Eyes, a film based on two Edgar Allan Poe short stories, taking the gothic tales to a disturbing new level – what more could you ask for in a film?
There are short periods when Argento moves away from horror slightly and focuses on his fascination with ‘giallo’, an Italian genre concerned mainly with crime and mystery, similar to a lot of Alfred Hitchcock’s work. As a matter of fact, due to the fluidity of camera shots, the creative plots and heavy use of handheld cameras, Argento has a number of times been hailed as the Italian Hitchcock, which isn’t a bad description, especially considering films such as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Cat O’ Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet.
Sadly his presence in film is dwindling slightly, for while he continues to direct (Dracula 3D is his current project, which isn’t expected to have a very wide release), he seems to have lost a lot of the reputation and celebrity status he once had in the ‘80s and ‘90s. There’s also talk of director David Gordon Green wanting to remake Suspiria, doing what Gus Van Sant did with Psycho in 1998 and reproducing most of the scenes shot-for-shot; it hardly seems necessary and even slightly insulting – why not just re-release the original Suspiria in all its glory.
Nevertheless, his imagination lives on in people’s nightmares and his legacy is still very much alive in these fantastically unique horror films. Go forth and watch.