Dario Argento was born in 1940, the son of Sicilian film producer Salvatore Argento and Brazilian/Italian photographer Elda Luxardo. His career as a film critic started when he was still in high school and continued when he skipped college to work for the newspaper Paese Sera. At the same time, he started as a screenwriter.
The first film he contributed to was Scusi, lei è Favorevole o Contrario? (Excuse Me, Are You for or Against?), which was written, directed and starred comedian Alberto Sordi. The next year he wrote Qualcuno ha tradito before really hitting his stride with four movies in 1968.
Oggi a Me… Domani a Te! (Today It’s Me… Tomorrow You!) was the directorial debut of Tonino Cervi, who co-write the film with Argento. This spaghetti western was titled Today We Kill… Tomorrow We Die! is the US. That’s the genre that Argento found his first major success in, as he co-wrote Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West and Robert Hossein’s Cemetery Without Crosses (although Hossein claims Argento had nothing to do with this film).
In 1970, Argento directed one of the two most popular films amongst casual audiences: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. At this point, Dario achieved not only Italian fame, but an international audience and the title of “Master of Horror.” Despite trying to leave the genre in 1973 — after completing the animal trilogy of films which define giallo — with the comedy/drama The Five Days.
After a two year hiatus, Dario returned with a tightly wound, incredibly artistic giallo Deep Red that was seen as a return to his true form. Then, he would shift from direct giallo to the supernatural — Deep Red flirts with it — to craft the second film he’s best known for, Suspiria. After this film, audiences are somewhat split on the quality of his work. I’d argue that there are several great films to come, ending with 1987’s Opera.
Many of Argento’s efforts in the 1990’s and beyond are derided, as the feeling is that he’s either become too mainstream or has continually repeated himself time and again. Notable exceptions are The Stendhal Syndrome and Sleepless, but many people just show up to his films to pay tribute to the man who pretty much owned Italian horror for much of the 1970’s.
Keep in mind — this list of ten films comes directly from the author and appears in no set order. Your mileage may — and should — vary. We welcome your thoughts, critiques and constructive criticisms.
1. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage: All giallo past 1970 owes a blood debt to this film, a retelling of Frederick Brown’s The Screaming Mimi. The red herrings, the foreign hero who becomes involved in a murder to the point that he or she becomes a detective, the violent deaths, the music, the fashion, the lurid neon red blood and the twist endings all start here, despite the genre also finding root in the novels of Edgar Wallace and in the films of Mario Bava, particularly The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Blood and Black Lace.
2. The Cat O’Nine Tails: Blind puzzle master Franco “Cookie” Arno (Karl Malden), his niece Lori and a reporter Carlo (James Franciscus) become involved in a series of muders that concern a gene that you can point to people becoming evil. While slow and a bit too full of comedy, there are true moments of horror here.
3. Four Flies on Grey Velvet: This movie — featuring a camera that records the last images that a dead person sees — didn’t play in America until nearly 20 years after it was made. It’s intriguing but doesn’t hint at where Argento came from or where he was going to go.
4. Deep Red: If the only scare that Deep Red had was the inhuman puppet that runs toward the camera near the end of the film, it would be one of the scariest movies ever made. It compounds that terror with Argento’s trademark face through glass kill and an overwhelming sense that death is coming for everyone in the film.
5. Suspiria: Despite the criticisms directed at Argento in his later career, we must always remember: he is the man who made this movie. There has never been a more absolute horror movie, where the image supersedes the story, where real witchcraft feels imbued into every second of every flickering flame. This is what magic looks like.
6. Inferno: I love Inferno nearly as much as I do Suspiria. Perhaps it’s the scope of the film. Maybe it’s the sheer insanity and lack of reality. Or it could be that Mario Bava was also behind the lens, adding his master’s touch to this second battle against the Three Mothers.
7. Tenebre: I’ve gone on record several times about how Tenebre is my favorite giallo of all time. It’s literally the last word on the genre, as slavish to its tropes as it is willing to subvert and destroy them. This is the ultimate version of Argento’s continuing theme on the ability of fiction and artwork to destroy as well as save.
8. Phenomena: I am beyond an advocate for this film. I’m an evangelist. It ranks among the strangest films I’ve ever seen, a movie that combines a girl who can control bugs, a police detective that uses them to solve crimes and a mastermind who uses their son for murder. It also has a deeply personal note of Argento’s life woven into it, as the story Jennifer tells about her mother leaving is the true story of Dario’s life.
9. Opera: Argento claimed that this was his most difficult movie to create, thanks to technical problems that delayed production, lead actress Vanessa Redgrave dropping out, the stress of working with actress Cristina Marsillach, Argento’s producer father Salvatore dying during filming and the end of his romance with Daria Nicolodi (who must receive her proper credit for the writing of several of Argento’s biggest successes). What emerges, however, is a dizzying work of intensity with some of the most over the top death scenes in Argento’s filmography, including a scene where Nicolodi is shot through a keyhole and her head explodes.
10. Sleepless: This was Argento’s return to form and while it’s imperfect, you can still sense his brilliance around the edges, particularly in the opening multiple murders on a train car.
There are several other films that were aided and abetted by Argento, beyond the films he’s directed himself, that I’d like to call out:
Demons and Demons 2: If you want horror movies to be fun and mindless — and who doesn’t sometimes — allow me to recommend either of these films. The first, in particular, feels like a middle finger in the face of growing censorship and attacks on so-called video nasties. It’s everything everyone ever warned you about when it comes to demonic horror. While Lamberto Bava directed, you can sense Argento’s sure hand on set.
Dawn of the Dead, Two Evil Eyes and Martin: Argento would produce the first, as well as create an Italian cut or Martin called Wampyr and a Dawn redit that was renamed Zombi — complete with music by Goblin — that would soon be copied by Lucio Fulci (I’d say improved) and the rest would be gore history. These two masters of horror would collaborate several times throughout their careers, even splitting Two Evil Eyes in half to each tell their tales.
The Church: Nobody took the flag of Italian horror and tried to keep it alive longer than Michele Soavi, keeping its traditions alive until 1994. This Argento produced and written film — he’d also work with Soavi on the unhinged La Secta — is often referred to as Demons 3. That’d be good. However, this movie is great.
What’s your favorite Argento film? Did we miss something? Let us know.