Terror Tuesday: Getting To Know Dario Argento

New to the Giallo stylings of Italian master Dario Argento? Brian leads you through five films to get you up to date.

1. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage

To fully appreciate his later Giallos, I think, you should see his first attempt, which has some pacing issues and a not-as-interesting story as the newer films, but is a hell of a first try all the same (I prefer it to the follow-up, Four Flies on Grey Velvet

). Some of the kill scenes (particularly the home invasion around the halfway point) still rank among his very best, and unlike some of the others, it’s fairly coherent throughout. Fear not though, it still has some weirdness – there’s a guy who eats cats (!), and there’s a lengthy scene in which the difference between transvestites and perverts is explained. So it’s a good horror movie AND you can learn something!

2. Inferno

Suspiria

is a better film, but if you could only watch one of the “Three Mothers” films, Inferno

would be the one to go with (the 3rd in the trilogy, Mother of Tears

, is a fans-only affair). Not only does it contain some of his most visually interesting sequences (such as the lady looking for her keys… underwater… inside of a multi-story building), but it’s also one of his more batshit wacky movies, with a guy being attacked by cats (what’s with him and cats?) and another guy getting beheaded by a hot dog vendor for some reason. I’ve watched it a few times and I still couldn’t tell you what it was about, but I’ve enjoyed it immensely each time. See it in a theater if you can – it’s easily one his most beautiful looking films.

3. Tenebrae

Possibly Argento’s most accessible film, it’s also the best of his “traveling creative type gets caught up in a murder mystery” series of Giallos, following Bird, Flies, and Deep Red

(the later Trauma

also has some similarities to this basic plot scenario). Things can get a bit confusing if you’re not giving it your complete attention, due to a rather unusual twist at the halfway point, but in the end it all makes sense, which isn’t something you can say about many of his films. It also features John Saxon headbanging, which should be the only excuse you need to give it a look. One caveat, however – in many Italian horror films, women aren’t presented in the most flattering light, and this is certainly no exception. For example, early on a woman is caught shoplifting, and casually offers to sleep with the cop to get out of trouble (which he, of course, accepts easily). Our hero also instantly assumes his ex-wife has followed him to Italy when he tries to call her and there’s no answer (and he’s right!). And she’s sleeping with his best friend. So, yeah, not exactly the best film for ladies night.

4. Opera

For my money, this was Argento’s last great film. The back-story is more interesting than usual, and it has some of his most advanced and creative setpieces, such as the raven attack on the opera house. And while most of the gore scenes in his career are of the over the top variety, this one has a genuine cringe-worthy moment, with the killer pinning a would-be victim’s eyes open so she can watch as he kills her boyfriend. He’d very rarely explore this sort of “nasty” action in the future, so there’s a bit of a novelty to it. Also, his all time worst film is a legit Phantom of the Opera

adaptation with Julian Sands, making this loose homage look all the better. Plus, Opera boasts Goblin’s best score ever, in my opinion (sorry, Dawn of the Dead fans).

5. The Card Player

To love Argento is to accept that most of his movies in the past 15 years or so kind of suck. You can’t just watch the great or memorable ones; you have to take in one of his misfires as well. So it might as well be The Card Player

, which is at least an OK enough thriller, but completely lacking any of his personal touch or flourish (even Claudio Simonetti’s score is some borderline techno rubbish). Mother of Tears

and Giallo

are more in line with his more traditional work, though they are both rife with bad casting and other issues. Plus it’s kind of a Seven ripoff, and I always enjoy seeing how other countries “pay homage” to our films.

Again, these are by no means his best films, but more of a random sampling of his entire output thus far. If you dig these, I would strongly urge you to watch them all; Phantom is the only outright stinker, as far as I’m concerned. And whether it’s on a glorious 35mm print or on a remastered DVD, you shouldn’t deprive yourself of Argento’s visual madness; even if you can’t make heads or tails of what is going on, you can almost always enjoy the vibrant colors and off-kilter set design (Suspiria

in particular on that one). Issues with the narratives aside, Argento has always impressed me on a technical level more than most of his American peers (Craven, Romero, Hooper, etc), and a horror fan should never pass up an opportunity to see one of his “golden era” films on the big screen.

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