10 Essential Films by Italian Horror Master Dario Argento

10 Essential Films by Italian Horror Master Dario Argento
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Italian horror legend Dario Argento’s 20th movie, Dark Glasses — his first feature in 10 years — will be arriving on Shudder this spring. While we wait (and feverishly hope it’s a return to form after 2012’s regrettable Dracula 3D), we’re looking back at 10 films that have defined his career so far.

Fans of Argento — who also wrote, co-wrote, or adapted the films he directed that are on this list — are already well familiar with the joys of his giallo thrillers and horror epics. Their trademarks are unmistakable: eerie soundtracks (his early giallos feature Ennio Morricone, while his horror films favour Goblin, members of Goblin, Keith Emerson, and others, with the occasional heavy metal tune tossed in for extra impact); POV shots that inevitably offer a glimpse of murderous black leather gloves; and colourfully striking visuals and production design — highlighted by exquisitely staged violence. Sometimes the dubbing isn’t great, sometimes the acting is uneven, and sometimes (OK, often) there are plot holes, but it’s hard to nitpick in the midst of such sensory and stomach-turning delights.

Opera (1987)

When soprano Betty (Cristina Marsillach) suddenly goes from understudy to leading lady, her turn as Lady Macbeth seems poised to make her a superstar. Too bad a serial killer with a personal vendetta is stalking the budding diva, murdering people in Betty’s orbit and sometimes making her watch by pinning her eyes open, which is just as excruciating as it sounds. Speaking of eyes, Opera contains one of Argento’s most shockingly memorable kill scenes, in which Betty’s agent (played by regular Argento collaborator and onetime partner Daria Nicolodi) gets shot through the peeper while peeping through a peep hole.

Tenebre (1982)

While promoting his latest murder mystery in Rome, American author Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) becomes embroiled in a real-life murder mystery involving crimes committed by a fiend who’s dangerously obsessed with his novels. Tenebre is more giallo than straight-up horror (as are several of the other films on this list), but the mystery is pleasingly twisted and the death scenes are as gory as you’d expect — plus, Franciosa’s co-stars include Nicolodi as Peter’s peppy assistant and the great John Saxon as his even peppier, jaunty-hat-wearing agent.

Suspiria (1977)

Suspiria is probably the title that first draws most curious viewers into Argento’s films, and maybe even into the entire realm of Italian horror, with good reason. Ostensibly it’s about an American dancer (Jessica Harper) who enrolls in a ballet academy in Germany, only to discover it’s run by witches. But the gorgeously brutal Suspiria — which was co-written by Nicolodi, though she doesn’t appear onscreen in this one — is really about someone whose entire reality becomes subsumed by a paranoid, maggot-filled, murderous nightmare she can’t wake up from. In short, a masterpiece.

Inferno (1980)

After Suspiria, the second film in Argento’s loosely connected “Three Mothers” trilogy — sadly, 2007’s Mother of Tears is for completists only — explores another witchy tale, this one set in and around an imposing apartment tower in New York City. Searching for his missing sister, an Italian music student retraces her steps only to discover cats, rats, creepy books, neighbours both friendly (including Nicolodi) and decidedly not, and a web of dark and witchy secrets that wrap around the building’s very foundations.

The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970)

Argento made his directorial debut with this influential giallo about an American writer (Tony Musante) who hopes an Italian vacation will help dislodge his writer’s block — but instead finds himself the star witness in a bizarre attack that just might be connected to a serial killer’s ongoing murder spree. Naturally, he’s soon drawn into a dangerous mystery. The Bird With the Crystal Plumage explores both the art world and the world of rare birds, and strikes a tone that’s both glamorous and sleazy, perfectly setting the stage for Argento’s career (and his many imitators) to come.

The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971)

Oscar-winning actor Karl Malden pops up in this giallo as a blind man who happens to be a former investigative ace; he teams up with a reporter (James Franciscus) who’s poking into a mysterious break-in (and subsequent probable murder) connected to a secretive medical facility. The BDSM connotations of the title suit the giallo genre perfectly, even if The Cat o’ Nine Tails is more of a cat-and-mouse tale, albeit one stuffed with incriminating photographs, incriminating notes hidden on corpses, poisoned glasses of milk, and the awesome spectacle of Malden wielding a sword cane.

Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971)

The third giallo in Argento’s “Animal Trilogy” follows a groovy rock drummer named Roberto (Michael Brandon) who chases down the shady character that’s been stalking him and accidentally stabs him in the process — as a figure wearing a terrifyingly cheerful mask snaps photos at a distance. A perplexing blackmail scheme follows, causing Roberto to seek the assistance of an “eccentric” private detective played by Jean-Pierre Marielle. Cult actress Mimsy Farmer co-stars as Roberto’s wife in a freaky whodunnit full of odd touches — the parrot named “Jerkoff” is one of my favourites, though the fact that the killer is revealed thanks to a “scientific” technique that allows a glimpse of the last thing a murder victim saw as they died is also excellently bonkers.

Deep Red (1975)

Another giallo that begins with a passerby witnessing a brutal crime — and then sees that witness become entangled in said crime — Deep Red stars David Hemmings (Blowup) as a jazz musician who becomes obsessed with solving the murder of a psychic who’s cleaver-chopped to death before she can name a killer she’s intuitively identified. This movie has just about every Argento go-to (Goblin soundtrack, black gloves, a quirky supporting role for Nicolodi, a traumatic event in the past that’s hinted at with disturbing flashbacks, a mysterious book that provides important clues, a twisted motive revealed only at the film’s climax…), and is ultimately as stylish as it is genuinely scary.

Phenomena (1985)

Is Phenomena the weirdest movie Argento ever made? Consider the evidence, starting with the fact that it’s the only movie he ever made in which Donald Pleasence (Halloween) plays a forensic entomologist living in a house full of bugs with Inga, his assistant, who also happens to be a chimpanzee. A Labyrinth-era Jennifer Connelly stars as the daughter of a movie star who’s sent to a Swiss boarding school, where she’s ostracised for being a bit unusual (she can communicate with insects) and pursued by an equally unusual killer who’s stalking the countryside. The supporting cast includes Nicolodi and another Argento regular-slash-protégé, Michele Soavi, who went on to direct cult films like Cemetery Man and Stage Fright.

Demons (1985)

Sorry, Two Evil Eye fans — this last spot goes to a movie Argento produced and co-wrote, but was actually directed by Lamberto Bava (son of Mario Bava, another Italian genre legend). Demons gets the nod because it’s a highly entertaining, disgustingly ooze-filled tale set in an old movie theatre, where an audience that’s settled in for a free horror screening realises (too late!) that the actual horror is happening all around them. And if you’re interested in further exploring the world of movies that Argento co-wrote, you might as well add another pair to the list: Lamberto Bava’s Demons 2, which continues the visceral terror of the first film, albeit in an apartment building rather than a theatre; and Sergio Leone’s highly acclaimed 1968 Once Upon a Time in the West, a spaghetti western that contains some telltale flashes of dread.

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