The Suspiria remake is out soon, and Luca Guadagnino’s take on the 1977 horror classic should make you curious about the director behind the original film. And if you’re new to the gorgeously gore-streaked world of Dario Argento, we’re here to help you dive in.
Born in 1940, Argento began his directing career in 1970, which means his filmography has about a decade of overlap with his mentor, Mario Bava (Black Sabbath, Black Sunday, Blood and Black Lace, A Bay of Blood) — widely renowned to be the greatest Italian horror filmmaker ever. Though Argento is now best-known for his more supernaturally-themed horror movies, he started out making giallo films, a realm where Bava also reigned supreme.
(Prior to that, Argento had worked as a writer in the action and Spaghetti Western genres; most famously, he shares a co-story credit for Once Upon a Time in the West with Sergio Leone and Bernardo Bertolucci.)
Giallo films do typically contain horror elements, but they’re better classified as “erotic thrillers.” They tend to revolve around fiends who do their bidding while wearing black leather gloves, and tend to pick glamorous targets, especially fashion models.
Argento’s first feature, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, is considered one of the giallo genre’s best entries. Its serial-killer plot doesn’t venture into the realms of the supernatural — but visually, it still has elements of the surreal. You can definitely see that Argento’s trademark style, specifically his love of brilliant colours (as well as his ability to shock and terrify viewers), has already begun to take root.
After his well-received debut, Argento made a few more giallo films — including The Cat o’ Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet; together with Crystal Plumage, the three films have been dubbed his “Animal Trilogy” — before leaning a bit more heavily into horror with 1975’s Deep Red. After that, he began his “Three Mothers Trilogy” with 1977’s Suspiria and 1980’s Inferno, though it would take him until 2007 to round it out with Mother of Tears.
Along the way, he directed other movies that further bent the boundaries of giallo (1982’s Tenebre) and horror (1985’s Phenomena); he also returned to his roots as a writer, co-penning Demons and Demons 2 with Mario Bava’s son Lamberto Bava, and he worked with George A. Romero on the zombie master’s 1978 sequel Dawn of the Dead. In 1990, Argento and Romero reunited to co-direct the Edgar Allan Poe-themed anthology film Two Evil Eyes.
Argento, who turned 78 in September, has understandably slowed down recently, though he’s apparently still working on his Indiegogo-funded adaptation of ETA Hoffmann’s The Sandman, starring Iggy Pop in the title role, which was first announced back in 2014.
Before the advent of things like Blu-ray players and streaming services, cinephiles had to work to see Argento films. Maybe you’d be able to catch a beat-up (and probably censored) print at a rep house or a film festival, or rent one of his films on VHS from the midnight-movie section of your local indie video store.
These days, even Argento’s second-tier films are readily available, and his masterworks — especially Suspiria — have been lovingly preserved and celebrated. You can even attend a concert-slash-screening of Suspiria featuring Goblin musician Claudio Simonetti performing a live version of the film’s iconic score (highly recommended if you get the opportunity).
Though the timing of Simonetti’s current tour might seem like a way to cash in on the remake, there’s way more to it than that. Suspiria‘s haunting synth soundtrack practically becomes a character by the end of the film. Argento’s willingness to make bold musical choices soon became one of his trademarks, along with the judicious use of brilliant colour — not just blood red, though there’s plenty of that, since he’s also very fond of gruesome, highly choreographed violence.
One important thing to keep in mind when you’re watching an Argento film is that style (his movies are beautiful, even when someone’s being decapitated) often takes precedence over everything else.
If you’re hung up on plot holes, or crummy English dubbing, or wondering why a ballet school would randomly have a room full of razor wire in it, you are not going to get as much enjoyment out of Argento’s movies as you should. Someone once explained to me that American horror movies usually take place within the realm of reality; yes, absurdly awful things are happening, but the basic rules of logic are still being observed.
On the other hand, Italian horror movies like Suspiria tend to take place within a nightmare that’s already in progress. In nightmares, the baseline is nonsensical, which explains why that razor-wire room would totally exist in a ballet school where the teachers are all secretly witches.
Five to start with
Obviously, any Argento 101 curriculum needs to begin here, with the tale of an American ballerina (Jessica Harper) who travels to Germany to continue her dance education — only to realise that the school is supernaturally compromised.
Not only is Suspiria — co-written by Argento’s longtime partner, Daria Nicolodi, who frequently acted in his films as well — a genuinely unsettling horror classic on its own, it’s also the first of Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy, introducing the witchy mythology that would intertwine in his career for the next three decades.
And it’s also the grandest example of Argento’s style, with pounding music and some of the most stunning and brutal violence you will ever see — as well as some of the most weirdly random moments: maggots falling from a bedroom ceiling, or a guide dog that suddenly turns vicious.
The second of the “Three Mothers” shifts the action first to Rome then New York, with a story that’s thematically tied to Suspiria (one word: WITCH!) but otherwise unrelated. After an Italian music student (Leigh McCloskey) receives a strange letter from his sister (Irene Miracle), who’s living in an apparently haunted NYC building, he heads overseas — only to find his sister missing and a whole lot of uncanny stuff afoot in her neighbourhood.
Though it’s not as beloved as Suspiria, Inferno is stylistically similar and also has even more narrative WTF moments, including an underwater sequence involving a pushy corpse, and a cat-hating bookseller who gets devoured by rats.
Deep Red (1975)
The black-leather-gloved killer hands get a workout in this giallo, starring British actor David Hemmings (who’d starred in Michelangelo Antonioni’s thriller Blow-Up nearly a decade earlier) as a jazz pianist who gets entangled in a Roman murder case after he witnesses a vicious attack.
The perpetrator soon targets the musician and others in his orbit, and the plot expands to include a hideous crime perpetrated during a particularly grim Christmas several years prior that’s still echoing tragedy into the present day. The death scenes in Deep Red (the gory title reference should be obvious) are particularly spectacular, but the film is just stuffed with eerie details, like the sound of a child singing at decidedly non-joyful moments.
Argento never turned his back on giallo films (hell, he made a film in 2009 literally titled Giallo), and Tenebre — about a best-selling author (Anthony Franciosa) whose murderous fiction has apparently inspired a copycat killer — is one of his best.
As the whodunnit plot unfolds, horrific death scenes intersperse with gauzy flashbacks from an undetermined POV, as a beautiful woman cruelly taunts a boy with a pair of red stiletto-heeled shoes. (Doesn’t get much more giallo than that.)
But it’s not all gruesome terror — Tenebre features a particularly jaunty supporting turn by B-movie giant John Saxon (probably best-known stateside as Nancy’s policeman father in A Nightmare on Elm Street), who plays the author’s doomed agent. There’s also a last-act twist that you will not be able to get out of your head.
Also known as “Creepers,” Phenomena begins very similarly to Suspiria, as a young American (Jennifer Connelly) heads to boarding school in Europe. But while the school itself is fairly unwelcoming, there’s a greater problem at hand, which is that a serial killer is prowling the Swiss countryside.
Phenomena‘s alternate title comes because Connelly’s character has a psychic bond with insects, a talent that helps her when she inevitably turns amateur sleuth — and also leads her to befriend a local entomologist played by Halloween‘s Donald Pleasence, whose wheelchair-bound character is tended to by a chimpanzee “nurse.” So there’s that.
Phenomena is also set apart by its use of heavy metal jams on its soundtrack, proving that while Goblin can reliably set the mood in Argento movies, Iron Maiden riffs can also achieve the same tension-building effect.