Dario Argento – Master of the Macabre – By Josh Samford

Dario Argento is a bit of an interesting figure in the Italian horror scene. He is as eyecatching visually as a director can possibly get I think, but when you really start to think about it, compared to the violence of other directors from his time and era – he was always pretty tame. That is not a negative for you true film fans out there, but even the most pure gorehounds I know who were hyped up about on-screen violence before their days of witnessing Suspiria – very few I have found complain. Maybe it’s because the deaths, although not particularly gory, are usually very elaborate and inventive. Maybe it’s because despite the cartoon outlines of what you might expect from my brothers, they aren’t the kind of people to pass up visual beauty or an intriguing story. Whatever the situation may be, Argento is simply an intriguing director. A visual director born, following up Leone’s footsteps but in a completely different genre. Usually in one he helped catapult here in the west. The Italian Giallo. A subgenre based on lurid stories of killers who hide in the shadows, usually assaulting women, and innocent artists/detectives thrown in the midst of it all who must help solve the crimes. Imagine the original Friday the 13th or Halloween, but with a lot of style, atmosphere and more of a detective novel feel to it. Argento may not fit into all of the genre packaging of someone like Fulci or even Rugerro Deodatto, but his influence will also expand much farther than either man I imagine.

Argento was born in the Italian metropolitan Rome in September of 1940, his father was the succesful film producer Salvatore Argento – someone who would most certainly be influential in his career; but don’t let that persuade you from his most obvious of talents. Around the time Dario hit his twenties he started to take after me and became a film critic. Okay, so maybe I take after him, whatever. He was writing for the papers until he joined with Bernardo Bertolucci and co-wrote Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time in the West, around 1967. Literally one of the greatest westerns of all time and in my humble opinion probably the best film Sergio Leone directed. When I discovered Argento was actually one of the writers a few years ago, well, my mind was blown. Not only a fantastic director, but he’s also involved in one of my favorite film projects of all time. Serious business, what can I say. Well after Once Upon A Time… Argento continued to work as a writer, churning out some screenplays here and there until he finally got noticed and was given his own feature film to direct. The Bird With the Crystal Plumage. His first trip into the Giallo artform, and even out on his first film – his style was ever present. He gathers some amazing visuals, giving life to a subgenre of cinema that although deserving of such visual treats – seems to have been rarely given the royal treatment that Argento provides. He uses bright coloring in the film to highlight it’s overall darkness, and takes the leaps that most directors just wouldn’t have the courage to take. Maybe an amateur breaking rules he doesn’t know exists you might think, but his career choices continued down this path of bravery.

After Bird, Argento continued with his directorial career taking on other Giallo projects such as "The Cat O’ Nine Tails", "Four Flies on Grey Velvet" and some other unsung films; but his first big and important film is generally believed to be Deep Red (Aka: The Hatchet Murders, Profondo Rosso). Another Giallo, but this time around his style was let free reign over all. You could take a paragraph alone just discussing the use of the color red in the film, and the various ways Crimson is shown on light colors – or the opening sequence showing a not so happy Christmas for some poor child. The color, the tension, the style, the atmosphere, the ambiance, the mystery – Deep Red deserves its title as a classic of the entire Italian film industry at the time. Everything Argento touched during this period started turning into genre-gold it seems, and it seems a bit odd he didn’t become a celebrity in his own right in our country around this time. After Deep Red, Argento made two of his greatest moves as a cinematic personality. The first was his own film Suspiria which directly followed Deep Red and stands as one of the greatest horror films of all time – and then working as co-producer (as well as simply orchestrating a hand in both the writing process, distribution and being a friend to George Romero throughout it all) on Dawn of the Dead, or Zombi as it was titled throughout Europe. Really, discussing Suspiria should almost be like going over treaded waters for everyone who has read this I’m sure. If you haven’t seen Suspiria, I should hope you’ve at least read countless reviews for it. One of the most atmospheric (and I know I’ve used that word a lot so far) films ever made. That is no joke right there. A dark and hidden mystery taking part in an all-girl’s dancing school about the supernatural; it was Argento departing from his roots only by a small fraction – as he retained all the style that made him an original but injected even more dread and an out of this world beauty/horror that could only be attained with the supernatural taking place. The audience would have to believe in the things that go bump in the night simply to let the amazing color scheme sit natural with them.

Argento is often compared to Hitchcock, and I would say it is fair, but with something like Suspiria – try as you might, it’s hard to picture Hitchcock using sheets to cover his set and lighting everything in a blue-green aura; then having some girl fall in a pit of barbed wire to die later in the same film. Argento simply is who he is, and that’s why we think the guy is so special. As mentioned, around the time of completion, Argento actually had George Romero stay with him after being impressed by his previous work and encouraged him to write a sequel to the original Night of the Living Dead – so he did; and Dawn of the Dead made film history. Argento helped the distribution of the film in Italy and in most parts of Europe, as well as helped with the soundtrack for the film with his long-term partners in musical crime: Goblin. A group deserving of an article specifically set to them, as their part in horror movie history is equally as interesting. Working with Argento, D’Amato as well as many others; Goblin created horror out of a synthesizer and their odd pop-rock sensibilities either make you get into the groove or completely turn you off, either way, after hearing them you’ll never forget the sounds. After these two achievements, Argento followed with a string of succesful features. The follow up to Suspiria, Inferno, was a sequel that plays second part in an incomplete trilogy about The Three Mothers; a series of witches in Argento’s world responsibile for great evils throughout the world – but this sequel didn’t explain much of their mystery and to this day we are waiting on the conclusion to their story. It’s really not clear if we’ll ever get that conclusion either.

After Inferno Argento made what is considered his last trilogy of truly great films. First, one of my personal favorites: Tenebre. A down at home Giallo that plays like a stripped down version of a lot of Argento’s films, but retains a specific power to it. It’s a strong film, no getting past it even if you’re not as big a fan as I am. He tried many things in the film, including a crane shot that starts on one side of a building, travels up and over the roof then comes down the other side into a window. Even at this time he was continually breaking the rules and stretching the use of style in cinema. If you can watch and not be inspired, well, perhaps you have no heart! The best I can assume. After that Phenomena, a fan favorite about a young psychic girl (played by the now popular Jennifer Connely, who has had a few not-so-nice things to say about the Argento classic) followed and to this day remains well talked about. Then came one of Argento’s most style induced films and probably his last great picture. Opera. Nothing but amazing camerawork, mind blowing death scenes and one incredibly bizarre heavy metal soundtrack. The film worked and remains at the top of my reccomendations list at all times, as it’s about the quickest moving Giallo I’ve probably ever seen and feels like a tasty candy going down. Opera is the equivelant of cinematic ice cream. It might not be as fulfilling as Suspiria – but my oh my is it a tasty treat.

Argento has continued to plug away, creating some hits and missess along the way. Making a film every few years as a matter of fact; but sadly he hasn’t recaptured those days of glory we’ve discussed here. There’s still no getting past his current status and even the talent he holds onto. It seems most likely just a case of the wrong scripts and the wrong ideas being focused on. Whether or not it’s a Suspiria out of the gate with every film, an Argento film will always remain more interesting and awe inspiring than just about anything you are going to find on the racks at your local Blockbuster. I highly reccomend nearly any film mentioned in this article so far and hope that perhaps my mindless rambling will convince one of you people out there to pick up a copy of anything above. Heck, just writing all this, now I want to go out and rent something! Check you later fellas!