It’s 10pm on Halloween night in Atlanta and a large crowd of metalheads, horror nuts, and other social misfits are gathered in the main room at The Earl to watch Claudio Simonetti and progrock band Goblin play a live concert to Dario Argento’s classic 1977 film Suspiria. I’m excited, to say the least, and I’m not alone. Nearly everyone in the crowd has seen the film and remembers well its notable score, performed by Goblin, who would later pen classics like Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and a dozen other Italian horror flicks. Sure, there are the odd ‘plus ones’ who don’t know who the hell Goblin is, have never seen Suspiria, let alone any other Argento film, and stand next to their salivating friends with wide eyes and just a little too much forehead sheen. After all, the fans look a little unstable. Goblin comes out on cue as the lights drop. Suspiria begins to crank and the floor rumbles with the base. The main theme is unsettling, to say the least. There are some bizarre vocalizations and an array of sounds that could be human, could be animal, or maybe just some clever synth wizardry. Either way, it’s a wall of sight and sound that is strange to the newbies and familiar to the fans. For most of us, it is the first time seeing the newly restored 4K version of the film. It’s beautiful. Goblin sounds great. A part of me is just a little jealous of those doe-eyed straights who have yet to discover Argento’s work. Half of them will hate it. Half of them will subsequently hunt down everything Argetno’s ever done and watch it too.
What they don’t realize is that they’re already watching one of his best pieces and this, in itself, can be frustrating. I’ve never tried heroin, but I imagine it’s the same idea. They’ll be chasing that Argento dragon for years and it will never quite deliver like this again.
Suspiria was my first Argento film. I think it’s safe to say it was the first for most people who are familiar with his work. After all, you can’t have a conversation about movies without the film coming up for one reason or another. If you’re talking cinema with a horror fan, odds are they own the Blu-ray, the 4K (yes, it’s on a different disc entirely) and the soundtrack. It was remade, or more appropriately “re-imagined” in a great 2018 film by Luca Guadagnino which is undeniably well-crafted, but also decidedly not an Argento film. Argento is his own genre. His work is unmistakable. While Suspiria may be the most concentrated version of the stylistic hallmarks that make Argento Argento, it really is just the beginning; the flagship of a fleet of visually compelling works – many of them part of the Italian Giallo genre. Giallo is what got him started. It provided the blueprint for what would become Argento’s own unique aesethetic. An aesethetic so provocative that it, in turn, changed Giallo forever while at the same time ending its golden era.
What the hell is Giallo?
Basically, we’re talking about a very stylized Italian slasher with a heavy mystery component. The name comes from a series of Italian mystery novels which were typically clad in a shiny yellow dust jackets. The genre broke big in the film world thanks to the great Mario Bava, who directed Gialli in the 60s, kicking things off with The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1962.) Though this flick didn’t get a lot of attention, it is generally considered to be the first Gialli. But the real daddy of the genre was Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1964) which dropped 2 years later. This film not only solidified Bava as the father of the genre, but also introduced elements that would be used to qualify future endeavors as either Giallo or not-Giallo such as the mystery component, the black gloves, the POV camera, the sex, the sleaze, the exotic locations and the brutal murders. The film is also a clear stylistic influence on Argento’s work.
Needless to say I’ve watched a ton of Gialli and the main problem with them is that they are all virtually identical. I own several and I honestly can’t remember off the top of my head which one was which. They are, in a word, generally forgettable. It pains me to say this, but I’m not the only one who feels this way. Sure, there are standouts like Bava, Fulci, and Sergio Martino. Avati’s House with the Laughing Windows (1976) is stellar and definitely stands out as one of my all-time favorites. They’re fun to watch and the cinematography is absolutely gorgeous and sometimes even genius (as in The Fifth Chord (1971). However, taken as a whole, the genre is so incestuous and creatively bankrupt that you could easily watch a series of five Giallo films in a row and be unable to discern one film from another.
Then there is Dario Argento. He makes Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) and at once perfects and destroys the genre.Perfection is easy to see when you watch the film, especially if you’ve seen a few 60s era Gialli before viewing.Argento had tapped into something.On the surface, the film was still a mystery and still featured the Giallo requisite features as defined by Bava’s earlier works, but it was also memorable and distinct.All Gialli involved mystery, but Argento’s film seemed to actually let the mystery play out in front of the audience, daring them to try to solve it.Gialli both before and after Bird with the Crystal Plumage would rely mostly on exposition to solve the case and strange, out of the blue plot twists to try to bend the narrative to a satisfying conclusion.Argento’s work felt organic, and while it thrust the genre onto the international stage, it also ensured that virtually every Giallo that followed would strive for this same level of greatness, though few of them could tap into what Argento was main lining.There was something special happening in its photography and in the film’s interplay between character focalization (think ‘character viewpoint’ and ‘tense’ in the literary sense) and story events.This was subtle, almost boiling under the surface, and would further develop in his later works.
One of the most notable differences between Argento’s film and the Gialli of the past was that Argento centered his entire narrative on the viewpoint of a character – a foreigner, navigating the mystery as a relative outsider while in Rome. This created a subtle, eerie disconnect between the protagonist and reality. Even Bava’s work tended to present beautifully photographed, but diegetically shallow characters with an anchorless, third person camera which seemed mostly unattached to what was happening in the story. For Argento’s protagonist, his perception, and more importantly his memory were story. Bava’s film was undeniably beautiful, but Argento was able to go toe-to-toe in terms of aesthetic quality, while directing visual choices that supported what characters were thinking and feeling. Colors were deliberately restrained. Production design was heavily stylized and almost dream-like. Staging of set pieces and extras was limited and almost surreal in its sparsity, a technique which would later be deployed to even greater effect in Deep Red (1975) and enforced the feeling that we were watching a character’s subdued nightmare.
Following his Giallo breakout, Argento would direct two more classics of the genre: The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971) and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) which are solid offerings to the genre, but more stylistically restrained with the exception of the latter’s insane death sequence at the end. This death sequence can be viewed as a tipping off point. It was a taste of what was to come. In the scope of the genre, they are considered strong offerings, but they have considerably less style than Bird and Four Flies is hamstrung by some miserable attempts at humor which die a thousand deaths and just read as silly. In fact, Argento would direct a straight comedy afterwards and (thankfully) get it out of his system. Humor will be present in his later work, but in a much more appropriate way.
Following a brief break from the genre, Argento returned in 1975 with Deep Red. Prepare yourself. While the film is a Giallo, it is unique both in the genre and in filmmaking as a medium. There is a lot of talk about what changed for Argento. Where did this hyper expressive style come from? How did he muster the courage to create long, difficult tracking shots set to prog rock, surrendering his camera to pure style? Why the sudden inclusion of subtle supernatural elements and the feeling that, for the characters, the outside world was dream-like and nightmarish? We can attribute this to the simple factor of experience, but it’s a bit crazy not to acknowledge his collaboration with actor and writer Daria Nicolodi. She is only credited as co-writing Suspira (1977), but beginning with her amazing performance in Deep Red and continuing on through the duration of her professional and personal relationship with Argento, the director’s work is at its best in both substance and style.
Deep Red builds on what Argento had begun to work with in his previous films, but now the traits that make the director’s work unique are sitting in the front row. It’s a clinic on what sets Argento apart.
First, the music. In Argento’s best work, he uses Goblin. We have to understand that at the time, it was common to use straight forward classical scores for these films. Italian maestro Ennio Morricone provided some impeccable work to several Gialli, but most films used standard instrumentation that wouldn’t raise any hackles. Argento’s signature work, on the other hand, utilizes Goblin’s raw electronic rock scores at key moments of his films to such ferocious effect that it can occasionally remove the viewer from the immediacy of the scene, taking us out of the character’s headspace and creating the viewer as an engaged observer of sometimes hysterically frenetic evil and violence. This would be a negative except that in these moments, engagement is heightened. We almost become a participant in the insanity of the scene. We’re vulnerable as a victim, but also complicit as the killer. Deep Red was the first of his works to do this, but we see it employed to great effect in many of his other films, perhaps most notably in Tenebrae (1985), where after an admittedly rocking disco ride of a feature score, our ending finds us in what I’d describe as an ecstasy of psychotic violence with the furious music playing a feature role.
Sound and image work together in Argento’s films. Goblin’s score to Suspira is highly atmospheric and effective in the opening sequence as Suzy makes her way through the Munich airport. The evil-sounding score’s whirling arpeggios are correlated to the storm outside, establishing that there is something wicked and sinister in the wind itself and that the night is turbulent and unsafe. This brings us to another key feature of Argento’s work: non-localized evil. Whether he’s helming a Giallo or a supernatural horror film, Argento makes it clear that wickedness is everywhere. The wind, rain, trees, gutters, buildings, fountains…even the most seemingly innocuous supporting roles like taxi drivers are part of a formless, shapeless terror akin to what a child might feel towards the darkness under a bed, in a closet, or outside in the night.
Evil can be localized in the form of a character and there are definitely killers who specifically embody threats during key scenes, but menace has also been diffused throughout every material aspect of the story world. Have you ever looked at a drainpipe during a storm and wondered if there was something sinister crouched behind the rushing water in the dark? Argento’s characters have and his camera reflects their mindset of potential dread. This is achieved in Deep Red through the eerily static staging of the extras and background characters throughout the film, creating scenes between the primary characters set in near deserted piazzas and cafes reminiscent of Edward Hopper paintings. Even when extras are visible in the background, they barely move or repeat slow, deliberate cycles of movement. In Inferno (1980), we see potential death at the hands of rats, cats, and even random short order cooks working late night eateries near central park. There are sinister children placed throughout his films. Two of the more frightening sequences in Tenebrae involve an aggressively creepy homeless man and a vicious dog, both of which have no relationship to the killer at all. Wild, sinister violence is everywhere. The effect of this technique is that when the killer is ultimately revealed and that non-localized evil is condensed into a focused identity, they seem all that much more crazy and diabolical.
This feeling of non-localized evil also allows presents to the viewer a feeling that we can’t escape the killer(s). Because there’s no fixed point for the horror in Argento’s films, there is nothing to run from. This evokes a familiar feeling for me akin to a nightmare. This phenomenon presents itself best in Sleepless (2001) in which we follow a character attempting to flee from the killer on a train. We know – or at least we think we know – that the character has outrun the killer and boarded the train safely. Once aboard, she receives a call from the killer who can tell that she is traveling aboard the train. Then, the killer is suddenly on the train with her. There is no explanation for how the killer makes it to the train in order to ambush the victim, but as an audience we don’t require one. This specific discontinuity is only possible within the atmosphere Argento creates. It borders on the supernatural but never quite abandons causal logic to the point where we are in disbelief.
This border between supernatural horror and Giallo is a tightrope Argento walks in nearly all of his projects from Deep Red forward. In films like Suspiria, Inferno, and Mother of Tears (2007), we are clearly in supernatural territory while in films like Deep Red or Phenomena (1985) the supernatural elements are more psychic or clairvoyant – elements which are fantastical but also acceptable within the Giallo genre. (Lucio Fulci and others would explore this grey area in films like The Psychic (1977)). Argento’s Phenomena expresses this supernatural quality a bit more aggressively than in his other works, but all of his films employ imagery that is just outside of everyday reality. Deep Red has its creepy laughing doll, Tenebrae has the killer sculpture (literally) and Opera (1987) has its serial killer-hunting crows. Four Flies has its doll-masked stalker and Sleepless presents the victims with the possibility that they are being stalked by the ghost of a dwarf serial killer. Next to these devices, the standard jealous boyfriends or insurance money heisting spouses from other Gialli seem tame and imminently survivable. The nightmare aspect is removed and without that atmosphere, our sense of dread is diminished. Also, they’re just not as fun.
Argento’s films are also heightened in their violence. It is no question that Dario Argento appreciates and understands gore. Argento’s camera engages in a deliberate ‘pointing’ towards violence, even if it means he has to slow down a scene or interrupt story time. Knife punctures, teeth bashing, and other acts are isolated in separate camera shots, usually in close up and more often than not accompanied by furious Goblin music. Again, the viewer is taken out of the direct experience of the character, but increasingly engaged by the act itself, like a line of dialogue or action in a stage play being delivered directly to the audience. The gore ranges from absurd paint-like gushes of blood to more unsettling and disruptive moments like those found in Opera and Stendhal Syndrome (1996). There is unsettling violence committed both on women and by women and some of the most disturbing scenes involve Argento’s daughter Asia, an aspect of his personal relationship and professional life I would rather not analyze too deeply. Suffice it to say it’s bizarre, but Argento cannot be accused of bias. In his films, killers are women as much as men and so are the victims.
For my own part, I don’t watch Argento films for the violence or gore. For me, it is about the atmosphere. That perfect combination of visuals and sound that thrusts the narrative into that dream logic where we begin to question whether what we are watching is ‘real.’ Argento has stated in numerous interviews that he takes a lot of his script from his own dreams, which might account for their effectiveness in this area. This atmosphere carries throughout this best films, but it can also be taken in a concentrated does in select moments where he will just allow his camera to drift for several minutes through an environment accompanied by Goblin’s music. We get a taste of this floating camera in Deep Red as it moves inches off the ground, drifting over the killer’s accessories. We see it again in Tenebrae when a young female reporter senses she is being watched from her apartment window. The camera flows from her window up and around the exterior of the building achieving a result that is difficult to explain but easy to feel. He does this again in Sleepless when we are backstage discovering the killer has struck again, the camera moving at length over the carpet (which is being vacuumed, no less) coming to rest on the killer’s feet. These moments are pure style. There is no story explanation for the time taken to drift these cameras in an almost playful way. Somehow, though, they feel appropriate and ‘right.’ Argento will use small doses of this technique in other films like Inferno and Opera, but never with as much indulgence. And that’s the criticism, isn’t it? Argento has been accused of being indulgent with his work. Frankly, I find that to be a silly criticism, or at least a moot one. Given the impact of non-localized terror in Argento’s work and how this camera treatment supports the dreamlike atmosphere of his best films, how can we question its application, even when used liberally? When the camera breaks into these drifting sequences and the Goblin music ramps up, I defy you not to enjoy yourself.
To increase the likelihood that you will, I have taken the liberty of making a few suggestions below. As I mentioned previously, starting with Argento means you’re already watching the best Gialli and starting with Suspiria means you’ve already seen Argento in top form. This, in itself, is a sort of tragedy. After all, where can you go from there? Start with Deep Red. Suspiria, ultimately, isn’t technically a Giallo, although it features many Giallo-inspired moments and is certainly dripping with Giallo-ness, if there is such a thing. After Deep Red, move to Tenebrae. Then, watch Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Following this, I’d suggest Suspira and then Inferno, followed by Phenomena and then Opera. Trauma and Sleepless come next. Now you can take in the lesser stuff like Four Flies on Grey Velvet and Cat o’ Nine Tails. These are traditional Giallo and would be a great jumping off point if you want to finish up Argento’s work and explore that genre further. For non-Argento Gialli, take in House with the Laughing Windows, the Fifth Chord, All the Colors of the Dark, Torso, Don’t Torture a Duckling, New York Ripper, the Psychic, Bay of Blood, and Blood and Black Lace.
Unfortunately, the remaining Argento films are simply not well-made. Mother of Tears has its moments, but Stendhal Syndrome, the Card Player, and Giallo are barely serviceable. His Phantom of the Opera and Dracula 3D are virtually unwatchable. Though, if Argento never makes another great film, that should be perfectly fine. After all, he gave us several great movies and as Orson Welles once told Peter Bogdanovich, “kid, you only need one.”
I think enjoying Argento is about noticing, appreciating, and then embracing the unique atmosphere that his films create. These pieces are definitely not made for the small screen or those who are shy about cranking up their sound systems. These are theatrical experiences. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to catch them at special screenings (with or without live music) and be able to see them as they were meant to be seen. If not, be sure to create as appropriate an atmosphere as you can muster at home. Darkness is a must and a bowl of popcorn doesn’t hurt. Perhaps the most important ingredient is whatever you have left of your childhood imagination, complete with that sense of vulnerability and uncertainty that goes along with our more tender years.