I’m a big fan of Hitchcock, so naturally I’d be a big fan of Italian giallo films. I love the murder mystery, and giallo always had a horror touch to them with the nasty kills. My first giallo was a Dario Argento film back when IFC was still the Independent Film Channel. I was introduced to Tenebrae (the same weekend I saw Cube and Braindead…I miss IFC) and then had to look up as much of that style of filmmaking as a could. Which granted, wasn’t much when I was living in a small town with two video chains and a Walmart.
The point is, I have a strong appreciation for Argento’s work. I even don’t think his career has had as sharp a downfall as people like to claim, as I still have appreciation for Giallo (even if its flawed) and his work on Masters of Horror. I haven’t seen Dracula 3D, but I heard its his worst yet. Hopefullly its not that bad, and if it is, hopefully he can get back on track.
This week is the final week of my month-long look at horror directors, so let’s dig in to the Top Ten Films Of Dario Argento. Here’s some awesome music from Goblin to get us going.
#10: The Mother of Tears: The Third Mother (2007)
I actually saw the Three Mothers trilogy (this, Inferno and Suspiria) out of order. I didn’t think it mattered much and I still don’t think it matters now. This was actually the first one I watched, which may be kind of silly. I think watched the first two in proper order. I can’t imagine this sold well to anyone but Argento fans, however. Who is going to buy an obvious sequel without having heard of the first two films?
I know this isn’t technically that great of a film, but I still enjoyed it. I’ll tell you why: because it’s absolutely insane. Yes, it’s a mess and it’s all over the place. I just think the influence of the third mother that causes the carnage that and all of the gory kills makes it a fun ride. Sometimes horror can be just a B-movie with a lot of nasty kills and this is an example of that. I don’t think that was Argento’s intention (I think he was going for an epic finale to the trilogy), but it worked for me and that’s why it’s here. It’s the very definition of style over substance, but sometimes that’s okay.
#9: Phenomena (1985)
I think Phenomena is Argento’s weirdest film ever. It’s a fantasy horror film about a girl who can psychically communicate with insects and uses that to track down a serial killer. It’s original and bizarre at the same time. You might of heard of this under its US release name Creepers, but even then it’s largely forgotten. It stars a pre-fame, teenage Jennifer Connelly (before Labyrinth, even) and Donald Pleasance.
I do have some problems with Phenomena (and if I had to pick an Argento film to remake, this would be it), but it’s still a fascinating film to watch. As always, the kills are stylish and interesting. Donald Pleasance always turns in a good performance and Connelly is actually pretty good in only her second film role. My biggest problem was always the ending, but I can’t fault an entire movie over what was a silly twist. I won’t spoil it, except to say there is a chimpanzee involved.
#8: Opera (1987)
When I first saw Opera, I actually didn’t like it. I’ve re-watched it since, realized that most of my problems with it were indeed my problems (silly things like the dubbing getting on my nerves) and can now appreciate it for what it is. I still have a few hang-ups, such as the editing being disjointed and abrupt at times, but otherwise this is a very good movie.
The biggest points in the films favor are its story and Argento’s direction. The movie is very stylishly shot and looks beautiful, particularly in the opera house. The story is about an opera singer who is attacked by her stalker and forced to watch (via pins placed under her eyes that will gouge her eyes out if she closes them) as this killer murders everyone close to her. There’s some neat gore and lots of beautiful direction choices. Argento has done this type of story before (in the very next film on this list), and it’s pulled off well here.
#7: Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971)
Like Opera, this involves one individual being tortured by a demented killer. While Opera was more extreme, this is more psychological. A man is framed for murder, but the person who takes photos of him “in the act” doesn’t go to the police, The person doesn’t want any money either. They just want to drive him crazy with the knowledge that they could turn him in at any time. On top of that, they’re killing anyone who gets close to the secret and can enter his home at any time.
This one is filled with red herrings, as I suspected almost everyone at one point or another. I think this is the film’s strength. Like the hero, you’re too busy suspecting everyone else to notice what should be a pretty easy solve (and if you’re not sucked in by the movie, it may be an easy solve for you). This one also had some comic relief that I enjoyed and a really neat slow-motion car crash in the climax.
#6: Tenebrae (1982)
As I mentioned earlier, this was the first Argento film I ever saw. I think it’s a great way to be introduced to this particular genre of film and the director himself. It’s not his best, but it’s still really good and features once again, some great stylish kills and a strong cast that includes John Saxon. I’m a huge fan of Saxon and love his entire body of work. He’s not as memorable here as in Nightmare on Elm Street or Black Christmas, but he holds up his end of things pretty well.
This movie somewhat revels in its gore and murder and ends with a ridiculous twist that I personally didn’t see coming. Since it has been a long time since I’ve seen it, I wonder if there were solid clues along the way. The funny thing about giallo movies is that they kind of do reveal the killer out of nowhere. Even paying strict attention, in some cases, won’t help you solve the mystery. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. I think it works in Tenebrae.
#5: The Cat O’ Nine Tails (1971)
In some ways, I actually enjoy Four Flies on Grey Velvet more than this. But this one has Karl Malden and I really liked his performance. He plays a blind man who at first sees solving murders as something of a game, another puzzle, until people closer to him begin to die and he himself is even put in danger. I think the thing I enjoyed most about this is actually his interaction with his niece, which makes him a more likable character. This is important, as it gives us a reason other than “he’s blind” to care.
This movie’s kills aren’t as great as other Argento films, but in these days it was more about the mystery and trying to figure out who is a suspect and who isn’t. At one point, the movie even attempts to suggest that Franco (Malden) is the killer, and in a lesser movie, they might have went there. This one doesn’t, just a quick moment to build suspense and cast suspicion on the most unlikeliest of subjects.
#4: Inferno (1980)
This one first introduces the “Three Mothers” concept which ties the three movies together, which Suspiria didn’t really bother with. Another difference from Suspiria is the way it opens. That one had a double murder. In this we don’t get a murder of any kind until about 30-35 mins in. But I like that about it. It’s trying to be a different story. It all comes down to witches, like the last time. I also like that the movie tries to build up certain characters just to kill them off later.
It’d put it somewhere in the middle of the other two entries. It’s very solid with great scenes of suspense and tension, as well as some great kills. Argento tends to let loose a little more when his stories are more supernatural and that’s evident here. While the theme of the film isn’t frequent collaborator Goblin, it’s still a really good listen and I play it even when I’m not in a movie-watching mood (just as I do the score for The Beyond).
#3: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)
This is Argento’s very first film and still one of his best. This is a straight-up murder mystery with very little in the way of graphic kills or blood. It’s just about solving who is doing the killing, and I tried looking for clues and still can’t see anything that leads to who is revealed. At the same time, it’s completely believable given how the killer murders people and how everyone acts up until the reveal.
I think this one once again because of a charismatic lead and a strong supporting cast. There’s also a bizarre scene with a painter that had me laughing, which breaks up the tension before the big finale. The opening moments of the film may be the best, however, as our hero witnesses an attempted murder but becomes trapped and unable to help. His desperation is what sells it, as is the fact that he eventually just gives up as he thinks she’s died. A solid start to a great career for Argento.
#2: Deep Red (1975)
There are several different cuts of Deep Red floating around out there, but the one I watched was the Blue Underground cut. I don’t think it’s the original Italian but it’s the most common. Deep Red is an attempt at the giallo films Argento made early in his career combined with the stylish direction and graphic kills that he would later use in Suspiria and Tenebrae. It’s sort of a bridge between the two different types of styles and you can tell that Argento was getting more ambitious here.
The things to praise in Deep Red are the same as the things to praise in all of Argento’s good films. It’s where he really began to kick things into high gear as a director and sort of make his trademark in the genre. Considering how good his early films were, this says a lot. Deep Red lead the way to the #1 film, which finally moved out of giallo for a bit and into something more supernatural.
#1: Suspiria (1977)
Suspiria should be considered Argento’s masterpiece, in my opinion. It has absolutely everything you could want in a horror movie. Suspense, terrifying moments, gore, great direction and more. The reason to watch this movie is the style from Argento. This is his direction at it’s best as everything looks great and sets the mood perfectly.
There’s a sense of dread even in the quiet moments because something always feels a little off after the opening kill. Which, by the way, I don’t know if you can call a scene depicting a double murder “beautiful”, but Argento certainly provides a strong argument for it. If you haven’t seen it you wouldn’t know what I’m talking about. But for those who have, it’s just amazing to watch. Suspiria is my favorite Argento film for several reasons, but the fact it starts out so strong is enough to hook just about any horror fan. Go see this if you never had the chance to.