Born in Italy: The Argento Formula
Dario Argento was born in Rome in 1940, the son of influential film producer Salvatore Argento, and established Brazilian photographer Elda Luxardo. While these parental influences assured Argento’s filmic fascination from an early age, he assimilated influences from a wide range of the fantastic arts. These included the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau and Walt Disney, as well surrealist painting, the macabre literary works of Edgar Allen Poe and the delirious writings of Thomas De Quincy. In later years Salvatore Argento’s cinematic influence would be directly seen on the production credits of many of his son’s films, along with those of Dario’s brother Claudio, who acted as producer on many of his works.
As a director, Dario Argento very quickly established the status of a cult film phenomenon, whose works were praised and condemned in equal measure. Since 1970 he has directed 16 films, whose convoluted plotting, excessive visual style and unconventional gender twists have repeatedly upset established definitions of cinematic taste. Argento’s films are all marked by an elaborate use of camera work, lighting and musical score. However, any artistic labels applied to these images are complicated by his insistence on using them as backdrops to scenes of sexual violence. His reputation as a European master of the macabre willing to push on-screen images of violence to the limit has been confirmed by his high profile roles as script consultant/producer on celebrated gore classics such as George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Lamberto Bava’s Demons (1986), as well as the writer of Lucio Fulci’s posthumously completed project The Wax Mask (1997).
As with many of Europe’s leading post war directors, Argento began his career as a film critic for the Rome newspaper Paesa Sara before becoming a screenwriter for popular ’60s genres including westerns such as Une Corde un colt (Cemetery Without Crosses, 1969) and such war movies as The Commandos (1968). It was his screenwriting contribution to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon the Time in the West (1968) that brought him to the attention of Gofredo Lombardo of the established Titanus Distribution company. Lombardo asked Argento to fashion a screenplay for what was to become his first film: The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970).
Although now categorised as a ”horror” director, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is actually part of the detective fiction tradition popularised in Italy under the label of giallo. The term (which refers to the yellow dust jackets placed around detective novels) became synonymous with a series of films detailing the fate of amateur detectives who find themselves compromised by their involvement in crime and, as a result, are forced to go outside of the law to mount and unofficial investigation in order to prove their innocence.
Argento initiated the theme of the ill-fated male amateur detective with Plumage’s central character Sam Dalmas, an American writer living in Rome. While walking past a gallery one evening, Dalmas witnesses a violent assault against a woman by an unidentified aggressor. Becoming trapped behind the glass doors at the front of the gallery, he is discovered by police investigators who presume he is responsible for a series of sexual killings against women in the city. As a result, Dalmas is forced to adopt the guise of detective in order to prove his innocence.
In an important departure from American detective films of the period, Argento constructed his hero as an impotent investigator whose deductive errors actually result in the subsequent murders that dominate the remainder of the film. Using Dalmas’ recollection of the crime, the police mount an elaborate investigation which they believe can identify the killer down to specific features including the type of cigar he smokes and the type of suites he wears. Here, Argento’s parody of the crime procedures that dominate detective fiction are used to underscore the lack of faith he invests in his amateur sleuths. This is revealed in the finale, when Dalmas is shocked to discover that the woman whom he thought he saw being attacked in the gallery is in fact the film’s killer.
With his shock ending to The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Argento clearly signalled himself as a director playing with audience and critics’ expectations about the role of gender in the horror film. By manipulating many of the features of psychosexual thrillers (such as the “male” point of view used by the killer to stalk and survey future female victims), the unmasking of a female assassin proves a genuinely shocking revelation in the film’s finale. If this plot device indicated Argento’s scathing views of the ineffectiveness of traditional methods of detection as applied to sexually transgressive crimes, then this seems confirmed by an interest in deconstructing the mechanics of logical detection that would dominate many of his future films.
For instance, Argento’s second movie The Cat O’ Nine Tails (1971) featured the unlikely pairing of a newspaper reporter and a blind amateur detective who unwittingly uncovers a blackmail plot and subsequent string of murders occurring at a gene research unit. This film is viewed by some critics as the second instalment in the director’s ”animal” trilogy, so called because an animal features either strongly in the title, or in the dénouement of the crime under investigation. However, while The Bird With the Crystal Plumage proved an ”acceptable” animal because its relatively restrained plot mechanics were well received in foreign territories such as the United States, these two follow-up films were often criticised by Anglo-American critics, who felt that Argento’s brand of detective fiction abandoned rational methods of deduction in favour of near-fantastical and cine-stylistic lead excess. For instance, the resolution of The Cat O’ Nine Tails reveals the film’s killer to be an effeminate scientist, who discovers that he is afflicted by a pathological and abnormal XYY chromosome, which results in him dispatching the fellow researchers involved in his experiments. The rationale behind Argento’s next film, Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1972), proved even more unrealistic. Here, the oppressed hero/detective Roberto is pursued by an unidentified aggressor who blackmails him over an apparent act of murder performed in an abandoned theatre. The four flies of the film’s title refers to an image captured on a scientific device able to store the last object imprinted on the retina of a murder victim. In this case Roberto discovers that the camera reproduces an image of what appears to be four flies in motion.
This pseudo-scientific revelation brings to the protagonist not a release from his suffering but further victimisation and humiliation, as the killer is revealed to be his own wife Nina. Although Roberto was unable to correctly read the image that the camera reproduced, the film’s resolution reveals the flies to be an image on the amulet that Nina wears when she kills her victims. As with the male heroes from the previous two entries to Argento’s “animal cycle”, the detective here not only lacks the critical distance needed to solve the actual crime, but also faces death and mutilation as a result. As Nina reveals, her only reason for marrying the protagonist relates to the physical similarity that he bore to her father, whom she wanted to punish because of his ineffectual qualities.
While the meandering mechanics of investigation demonstrated in The Cat O’ Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet resulted in both films receiving a mixed reception abroad, it was also their pronounced and self-reflexive use of the cinematic medium that baffled some critics. For instance, both films displayed the complex constructions of cinematic time and space normally associated with art cinema. For Maitland McDonagh, the director’s attempt to fuse genre cinema concerns with arthouse sensibilities very much reflects the culturally specific background from which Dario Argento has emerged. As she states:
You can’t reasonably look at Argento’s work without bearing in mind the contradictory context from which he springs: one the one hand, the practical Italian film industry, with its relentless emphasis on genre and its quick and dirty production practices; on the other, the cerebral world of film criticism, with its inevitable emphasis on analysis and intellectual distance (1).
Moreover, this combination of the intellectual and the instinctual or visceral reflects the highly regionalised patterns of film production and consumption that writers such as Christopher Wagstaff have identified in post-war Italian moviegoing (2). This system of production arises from the need to maintain product profitability across the distinct urban sophisticated audiences of the North and the rural provinces of Italy’s South. What this system established was the desire to produce films that would appeal to both sophisticated and provincial audiences, as well as provide a stable source of economic return through sequels and fusion with related cycles. For instance, by introducing broadly political or psychoanalytical ideas into a complex narrative form, producers ensured that their films would be exhibited in what Wagstaff terms the prime visione (or industrialised first run theatres) populated by educated middle class audiences attuned to the complexities of art cinema. However, by punctuating these narratives with sequences of laughter, suspense, titillation and violence it ensures popularity for the product in provincial and rural terza visione or third run districts. Although Wagstaff notes that the type of thrill offered may vary dependant on generic constraints, location and historical period, he identifies a series of key physiological gratifications such as laughter, titillation and suspense.
For Wagstaff, the type of visual hybrid created by these curious movies can be defined as ”electrocardiogram cinema”, a mode of production whose multiple appeals offer very differing kinds of thrill to regionally distinct audiences. The writer’s analysis offers an explanation for the dominance of genre hybridity in Italian popular cinema and going some way in explaining why Dario Argento’s films increasingly sought to combine the supposedly distinct world of “rational” detective fiction with macabre traditions of supernatural horror. For instance, Deep Red (1975) centres on a psychic who discovers a dark and incestuous secret relating to the murder of a patriarchal figure in the mind of an unidentified audience member present at one of her seminars. This knowledge leads to the psychic’s violent murder, which is witnessed by Marc Daly, an English musician living in Rome. As with Sam Dalmas in The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, Daly becomes entwined in a crime he has fundamentally misjudged and this obsession forces him to adopt the role of detective.
Deep Red remains a transitional film in terms of Argento’s development, both as director and cinematic stylist. As Maitland McDonagh has noted, the film is “relentlessly theatrical”, with its onscreen splatter being framed by winding long takes, ambiguous point of view camerawork and radical splits between sound and image tracks (3). The film’s allusion to the arthouse techniques pioneered by directors such as Michelangelo Antonioni is more than coincidence. Indeed, with his casting of the actor David Hemmings as the ill-fated amateur sleuth, Argento is clearly recalling his similar casting as Thomas in Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966). While Thomas uncovers an assassination hidden in the apparently innocent contours of a photograph, Marc unravels a murder mystery that entangles and implicates his closest associates. Whereas Thomas is literally swallowed up by his investigation during the ambiguous finale of Blow Up, the climax of Deep Red finds Hemming’s character seriously wounded after failing to recognise the film’s female killer as the mother of his closest Italian companion.
Fear at 400 Degrees: Suspiria and Beyond
While Deep Red demonstrated Argento’s ambition to incorporate the investigative drive of the giallo alongside elements of the supernatural, these elements were even more pronounced in his most famous film, Suspiria (1977). Here, this preoccupation with discovering the identity of a brutal murderer is spliced into the theme of a coven of witches dominating a German dance academy. Although the film’s supernatural setting signified a radical departure from his earlier giallo productions, Argento retained his favoured theme of ineffectual men who are dominated by aggressive women. This is seen in the film’s pattern of male characters who are dependant on the evil school governess and her female assistants. Argento presents these characters as responsible for some of the most shocking murders ever depicted in the history of horror cinema. For instance, a woman is stabbed to death and her mutilated body forced through a plate glass window (killing her companion in the process), a blind pianist is stalked and then savaged by his own guide dog, while another victim becomes painfully entrapped in a room full of coiled wire before having her throat cut.
While the uncompromising nature of these murders ensured its shock value and instant cult status, Suspiria is also famous for the excessive visual style that Argento created as a backdrop to these grisly murders. In particular, the film highlighted the director’s by now trademark features of disorientating camera work, vivid use of lighting and elaborate musical score (composed by his own house group Goblin). As with all art cinema, Suspiria is a film that requires contemplation. Its surreal compositions emulate the feel of an artist’s canvas, with individual scenes being more aesthetically pleasing than the film as a whole. In characteristic Argento style, the most cinematically charged sequence is the opening murder scene, which is saturated with primary colours and a near-hysterical soundtrack. Both of these features are so overpowering as to distract the viewer from the gory activities that the scene details. The unnerving force of the scene is once again testament to the director’s ability to manipulate every aspect of cinematic technology in his quest to expand the boundaries of horror cinema.
In Suspiria, the distinctive visual style was achieved through the use of outdated Technicolour film stock, which, in flooding the image track with an unnatural, unrealistic sheen, confirmed Argento’s wish to give the film a fairytale-like quality. Earlier examples of his technical innovation included the use of medical cameras in Four Flies on Grey Velvet, which were employed to capture the decapitation of (another female) killer. In the later Opera (1987), Argento constructed disorientating, panoramic camera operations to emulate the attack of vengeful ravens against a theatre audience harbouring a perverted killer.
Commenting on the cult status of Suspiria, Argento is often quoted as saying that he wanted to extend fear from a 375 degree centigrade experience to 400 degrees. While the film perfectly captures the director’s wish to take the genre to new heights of sensory experience, his subsequent work has been, at best, uneven. While the film’s sequel Inferno (1980) extended the theme of malevolent female forces at work in European locations, its style never equalled the dazzling heights of Suspiria. In the films of more recent years, one senses that the director has felt further embattled by the views of his critics (and the censors), who have repeatedly failed to see the merits of his technical and generic innovations. For instance, Tenebrae (1982) was banned on video in the UK during the 1980s because of British Board of Film Classification’s fears about its theme of sexual violence. One scene that provoked particular offence depicted a young semi-naked “woman” being beaten by one of her lovers. It was the centrality of this scene that provoked one critic, Mark Le Fanu, to argue that Argento was preoccupied with “devising novel and increasingly nasty ways” (4) of killing his female characters. However, the actress in the scene was actually a transsexual actor, once again indicating Argento’s ability to manipulate even the views of his outraged critics.
Paradoxically, when the director did tone down his depiction of violence for the 1993 film Trauma, it was panned as uninspired by both fans and his most ardent journalistic defenders. With The Stendhal Syndrome (1996), Argento experienced an aesthetic return to form, by punctuating the serial killer’s activities with breathtaking (and often disturbing) images of art. The film was noteworthy not only for its extreme images of assault and sexual violence, but also for the impassioned central performance by the director’s daughter Asia Argento, who has become a consistent collaborator in his recent works.
With his most recently released film Sleepless (2000), Dario Argento experienced a triumphant return to the giallo, in a film that detailed the dark legacy of a dwarfed detective fiction writer wrongly accused of murdering a series of young women. With its frenetic opening chase and murder sequence onboard a speeding train, the film recalled the slick and stylised murder scenes from Suspiria, while the film’s swooping autonomous camerawork was also reminiscent of earlier Argento arthouse horror experiments such as Deep Red. This film seemed to confirm Maitland McDonagh’s earlier view that “The world of Dario Argento is one of twisted logic, rhapsodic violence, stylised excess…Argento’s camera is alternately enthralled and repelled by ripe flesh and blood drenched fantasy” (5). It remains to be seen if Argento’s forthcoming film Card Dealer (2003), which deals with a serial killer dispatching female victims live on a webcam broadcast, will consolidate his reputation as a director able to take the horror genre to new heights of stylistic complexity through the fusion of atrocity and artifice.
As Director and Producer – see the Internet Movie Database for additional film production/screenwriting credits
The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo) (1970)
The Cat O’ Nine Tails (Il gatto a nove code) (1971)
Four Flies on Grey Velvet (Quattro mosche di velluto grigio) (1972)
The Five Days of Milan (Le cinque giornate) (1973)
Deep Red (Profondo Rosso) (1976)
Inferno (Infierno) (1980)
Tenebrae (Tenebre) (1982)
Phenomena (1985) also known as Creepers
Opera (1987) also known as Terror at the Opera
Two Evil Eyes (Due occhi diabolici) (1990) co-directed by George A. Romero
The Stendhal Syndrome (La Sindrome di Stendhal) (1996)
The Phantom of the Opera (Il fantasma dell ‘opera) (1998)
Sleepless (Nonhosonno) (2000)
Card Dealer (Il Cartaio) (2003)
Do You Like Hitchcock? (Ti piace Hitchcock?) (2005)
La terza madre (Mother of Tears) (2007)
Dracula 3D (2012)
Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1978) also script consultant
Demons (Demoni) (Lamberto Bava, 1985)
Demons 2 (Demoni 2) (Lamberto Bava, 1986)
The Church (La Chiesa) (Michele Soavi, 1988)
The Sect (La Setta) (Michele Soavi, 1991)
Chris Gallant (ed.), The Art of Darkness: The Cinema of Dario Argento, Surrey, Fab Press, 2001.
Maitland McDonagh, Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento, London, Sun Tavenfields, 1991.
Xavier Mendik, Tenebre/Tenebrae, Wiltshire, Flicks Books, 2000.
Articles in Senses of Cinema
The Poetry of Light and Dark: Luciano Tovoli and Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas
Dario Argento: Giallo and Profondo Rosso (Deep Red) by Tyson Wils
Special double issue features Dario Argento.
Website dedicated to Argento. Contains plenty of information – news, reviews and interviews.
Fistful of Dario
Tribute page that has a large media list of everything related to Dario Argento.
Dario Argento – Master of Colors
Another website with plenty of information, images, interviews and links.
Slant Magazine – Dario Argento’s Dreams
Contains full reviews of his films.
- Maitland McDonagh, Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento, London, Sun Tavenfields, 1991, p. 31.
- Christopher Wagstaff, “A Forkful of Westerns: Industry, Audiences and the Italian Western” in Richard Dyer and Ginette Vincendeau (eds), Popular European Cinema, London, Routledge, 1992.
- McDonagh, p. 123.
- Mark Le Fanu, “Tenebrae” (review), Films and Filming, September 1983, p. 36.
- McDonagh, p. 8.