|There are a lot of horror themed pages in my site and I would be remiss if I didn't mention Dario Argento.
Dario Argento is a respected director and filmmaker in the Italian horror movie niche. Born the 7th of September of 1940 in
Rome, Italy from the renowned cinematographic producer Salvatore Argento and his wife, the Brazilian photographer Elda
Luxardo. Being brought up in a creative environment, Dario was drawn into the obscure aesthetics, symbolism and representations
from a very young age.
He has stated in countless interviews how his imagination was highly influenced by Italian folk stories involving horrible creatures,
as well as those created by legendary German storytellers Hans Christian Andersen and The Grim Brothers. In his adolescence, he
also became fond of the literary work of famous American writer Edgar Allan Poe, having horror and tragic imaginaries deeply
rooted in his psyche from a very young age.
He attended a very conservative Catholic high school in Rome, and during his high school days he started contributing as film
critic and columnist for local film and arts magazines. Once his high school education was over, he decided not to attend college and
instead he chose to work as a writer for the Rome-based newspaper Paese Sera.
During his time as a columnist in Paese Sera he became close with people related to the Italian film industry, such as director and
producer Sergio Leone, for whom he worked as a screenwriter alongside his friend Bernardo Bertolucci for the now classic western
film “Once Upon a Time in the West” (Ital. C’era una volta il West) released back in 1969.
The Animal Trilogy.
The Leone film in which Argento contributed was incredibly successful, and that motivated young Argento to pursue his
screenwriting and directing ambition. His first movie, “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” (Ital. L’ucello dalle piume di cristallo) was
released in 1970 and it was received with high appraisal from both critics and the general audience.
“The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” marked an important milestone in the giallo genre, marking also the beginning of Argento’s
famous Animal Trilogy. The film was produced by Dario’s father, Salvatore, and included Tony Musante and Suzy Kendall as
Today, four decades after its release, “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” is considered to be one of the most iconic movies in
the horror genre, and a mandatory reference to the giallo genre. Most critics consider this film a monolith of the aesthetical violence
merged with a gruesome thriller plot, which soon after became Argento’s trademark.
The second Animal Trilogy film was “The Cat o’ Nine Tails” (Ital. Il gatto a nove code) released in the following year. After
Argento’s successful directing debut, this film was one of the most expected ones among Italian horror aficionados and film critics.
The Cat o’ Nine Tails was also produced by Dario’s father Salvatore Argento, and the music was also in charge of Italian
compositor and Dario’s friend Ennio Morricone.
This second film was somewhat acclaimed in Italy and the rest of Europe, and giallo followers usually claim that The Cat o’ Nine
Tails is a work of art blending both strong metaphysical symbolism and raw visuals. However, American critics were very strongly
disappointed with this film, considering it to have a shallow plot and a clumsy audiovisual development.
What’s more, Argento himself considers this film to be one of his least favorites, agreeing with most of the rough criticism he has
received throughout the years. The reason for this apparent disgust regarding the film might be rooted in the fact that it did not
outstand from Argento’s previous success, but instead it remained constrained between clichés and a completely non-innovative
His next film “Four Flies on Grey Velvet” (Ital. 4 mosche di velluto grigio) was released in 1972 and marked the ending of the
Animal Trilogy. Inspired in a story written by Luigi Cozzi, Argento brought this giallo film to life alongside with his father as
producer, and original writer Luigi Cozzi as his assistant director.
The criticism that “Four Flies on Grey Velvet” received is varied, basically because the visuals and the plotline are considered to
have gone in divergent ways. Visually, this film created a unique atmosphere and ambiance. The color palette, the speed of actors’
movements and frames, and the impeccable sequences created a very immersive environment. However, the plot is considered by
most critics to be cliché, old, with banal dialogues and a mediocre way of threading one idea to the next. Prominent film critic Roger
Ebert considered Four Flies on Grey Velvet to be “a badly dubbed and incoherent murder thriller” stating also that the film’s final
development was “so arbitrary we feel tricked”.
The giallo hiatus and Deep Red.
After finishing the Animal Trilogy, Argento took a step back from the giallo genre and dedicated his time and effort to directing
his new project titled “The Five Days” (Ital. Le cinque giornate) a comedy-drama movie shot both in Rome and Milan. The film was
produced by both Dario’s father, Salvatore, as well as his younger brother Claudio. The Five Days was released in December 1973
and the plot’s motif was the development of the 1948 anti-Austrian revolt in Milan.
“The Five Days” is considered by most critics and fans as Argento’s worst movie ever. This general rejection towards the film is
not only due to the genre swing made by the director, who was then somewhat consolidated as a giallo authority, but also because
of a horrible and even mediocre plotline development. “The Five Days” is neither a good exemplar of a drama-comedy, which is a
very popular genre in the Italian film industry, nor a fair exposition of the bloodthirsty aristocratic movement that it portrayed.
The reasons for Dario’s genre swing are still a mystery. He has spoken very reluctantly about it, implying a personal need for
experimentation as the main motive. But whatever the real reasons, Argento took the following year off and worked full time in the
writing of “Deep Red” (Ital. Profondo Rosso) which was quickly considered to be the most important piece of giallo filming in the
Argento’s masterpiece held French actress Macha Meril, English actor David Hemmings, and Italian actors Daria Nicolodi and
Gabriele Lavadia as protagonists. This giallo monolith included some uncommon additions to the genre, such as a twist of spiritual
and paranormal elements, with the plot revolving around a serial killer with black leather gloves being exposed by a psychic medium
called Helga Ulmann.
The movie was shot in the Italian city of Turin. Later on in his career, Dario Argento admitted to have chosen Turin as the perfect
scenario for Deep Redd because of the rising tendency of Satanist groups to perform their rituals in that city during that period of
time. He somewhat was looking for the film to absorb the overall occult and ritualistic ambiance found in that Italian city at the time.
Although some critics considered the film to be mediocre at the moment of the release –e.g. New York Time’s acclaimed film
critic Vincent Camby wrote in 1976 that “Deep Red” was a “bucked of ax-murder-movie clichés” and stated that Argento was a
director holding “incomparable incompetence”– the movie was later on considered a giallo genre classic and an important milestone
in Argento’s carreer.
The transition between the raw and gore-driven giallo traditional standards to a more complex, metaphysical and supernatural
narrative is transparent and tangible in Deep Red. This movie was clearly an inflection point in Dario Argento’s film trajectory,
whose following creations had a strong tendency to include supernatural elements into them, and it continues to be acclaimed by
many as the best Argento movie ever made.
The reason for the success of “Deep Red” is due to both the innovation in terms of framing and filming and the psychological
implications of the screenplay. Bernardino Zapponi helped Argento write the film, and they focused on creating relatable audiovisual
material that could inspire horror and disgust in the spectators. They mainly did this by adding common elements of everyday life into
the film –such as hitting furniture or getting boiling water in touch with the skin– and turning them into exaggerated and violent
audiovisual extravaganza that would awaken emotions of disgust, anxiety and horror in most spectators.
A curious trivia about this film is that Dario Argento initially wanted psychedelic rock band Pink Floyd to be in charge of the
movie’s soundtrack, but he failed in convincing the band to perform for the movie and ended up assigning Goblin, a local
progressive rock band, with the responsibility of providing the film with the very modern soundtrack he wanted.
“Deep Red” also marked Dario Argento’s breakthrough and crossover from an Italian giallo director known mainly inside of the
Italian borders, all the way to an international renowned filmmaker.
Many modern directors consider “Deep Red” to be a turning point in the history of cinema, and a lot of them have publicly stated
to have been inspired by the film. American filmmaker John “Master of Horror” Carpenter has stated in several occasions how the
influence of Argento’s Deep Red film was crucial to the making of his famous horror movie “Halloween”.
The First two “Mothers”.
After the positive reaction of critics and horror fans towards “Deep Red”, Argento moved on to the production of his second
trilogy known as “The Three Mothers” (Ital. Le Tre madri). These films grew increasingly apart from classic giallo aesthetics and
plotlines, as Argento flirted further and further with supernatural narratives.
The first film of this trilogy, “Suspiria”, was released in 1977 with an appealing casting including American actress Jessica
Harper, Italian stars Stefania Casini and Flavio Bucci, as well as Spanish LGBT singer, actor and performer Miguel Bosé.
The filming of “Suspiria” took place in modern cosmopolitan Munich. The plot revolved around a sweet young ballerina arriving to
the German city with the aspiration of becoming a ballet star, but then finding out about the academy’s somber and dark foundations.
“Suspiria” was produced using anamorphic format lenses and it was imbibed with Technicolor prints implying an overall surreal and
even nightmare-like ambiance. Suspiria was also Argento’s first movie to feature THX-certified audio and video, guaranteeing
viewers with a maximum quality sensorial experience.
“Inferno” was the second movie of the trilogy and it was released in 1980. In this opportunity, Argento went overseas to find
inspiration, considering New York City to be the perfect scenario in which the “Suspiria” sequel had to be brought to life.
In this opportunity, the plot begins with the disappearance of Rose Elliot (portrayed by Irene Miracle) whose letters to her brother
Mark (played by Leigh McCloskey) implied that three evil witches ruled the world and inhabited it, and that she was living in one of
the witches’ homes.
Argento kept the same bold-color, nightmare-evoking aesthetics that he had previously used in “Suspiria”, and he also
experimented a great deal with camera angles, camera movement and screen composition.
It was now clear and tangible that Argento’s leitmotif for the “Three Mothers Trilogy” involved ancient mythologies related to the
female personification of evil and magic. Specifically, Dario Argento’s trilogy was inspired in a prose poem wrote by Thomas de
Quincey in his book “Suspiria de Profundis”, in which he mixed traditional Greek and Christian mythology and cosmology with the
occult and the number three.
The main statement of the poem and the Three Mothers Trilogy by Argento is that, just like there are holy and benign trinities –
the Holy Trinity, the Three Graces and the Three Fates– there is also an obscure trinity hidden in the tangles of today’s world.
Argento brought ancient tales to modernity and overlaid a series of concepts and elements to fit his narrative and style, and he
managed to impeccably pull that off.
Argento’s transition from traditional giallo horror to the supernatural and spiritual horror was consummated in this trilogy. The
Three Mothers trilogy involves a series of events occurring in cosmopolitan modern cities derived from the intervention of Three
Sorrows: Lady of Sighs (related to the first film Suspiria), Lady of Darkness (related to Inferno) and the Lady of Tears
(corresponding to the belated 2007 release of The Mother of Tears film).
However, the release of Inferno was doomed in itself. It was a commercial success in Italy, but outside Italian borders its
showcase was very limited. In 1980 the Fox franchise went through major changes in its management, and many movies ended up
forgotten in a perhaps clumsy, perhaps intentional mismanagement of previously approved films. Inferno was not released for VHS
format until 1985, and spectators had to wait until 1986 in order to see it in theaters.
Due to this irregularity, the first wave of criticism was rather hostile. Being the highly expected sequel of the acclaimed horror
movie “Suspiria”, a lot of critics were left disappointed. Some stated that Inferno was a “much more conventional and unexciting
piece of work” with “weak performances”. Variety Magazine stated that the movie had a story lacking “both logic and technical
skills” adding that “it fails mainly because it lacks restraint in setting up the terrifying movement, using close-ups and fancy camera
angles gratuitously and with no relevance to the story”.
However, as time passes on, “Inferno” has slowly won further and further recognition, having some film critics considering today
that this movie is highly underrated, and worthy of praise. Film critic Nigel Floyd considers Inferno “horror cinema at its most
baroque: a simple libretto embroidered with elaborate, flowing camera movements, abstract blocks of colour, unsettling sound
effects” stating also that Inferno alone “justifies [Argento’s] cult reputation”.
The trilogy gap and the return to giallo.
After the release of “Inferno”, Dario Argento went back to the giallo genre and released the film “Tenebrae” in 1982. Asides
from including trademark giallo elements such as graphic violence, “Tenebrae” explored the subject of sexuality in a very audiovisual-
focused way, featuring homosexual scenes in a time when homosexuality was still taboo, and considered to be an aberration for
both European and American public opinions.
“Tenebrae” was definitely a bold return to the giallo genre, having the film including so much violence and disturbing content that
it had to be edited in various occasions. The edits commonly consisted in cutting off the most gruesome scenes, while leaving the rest
of the plot untouched. The original version was strongly demonized by the press and some public figures because of its graphic and
unapologetically violent nature.
This original motion film is strongly acclaimed and it is considered by many to be Argento’s most violent, bloody film due to the
high number of gruesome murder scenes included in it. This explicit violence lead to a wide number of censorship resolutions in
various countries, allowing the film to be showcased only at audiences older than 18 years of age.
Interestingly, Argento has publicly stated that his main inspiration for the production of Tenebrae was a series of phone calls he
had received from an anonymous movie spectator claiming that Argento’s work had damaged him irreparably. The phone calls
eventually turned into death threats from the anonymous fan to the director, and Argento took this series of events as the inspiration
he needed to write a film featuring violence just for the sake of violence.
Despite “Tenebrae” being a box-office failure, it is today considered a cult movie by critics and fans all over the world. American
film critic and author Maitland McDonagh wrote in her book about this director that Tenebrae is “in many respects (…) the finest
film that Argento has ever made”.
The phenomenal merge.
In 1985 Argento decided to make a merge between his two filming passions, combining elements of traditional giallo to his
particular interests in the supernatural horror sub-genre. He then wrote and directed the film “Phenomena”, starring American
actress Jennifer Connelly as Vera Brandt: a young psychic that communicates with insects and uses her power to find a serial killer
that murders women.
There was a lot of graphic violence on the screen, so when the original Italian film was to be distributed in America, New Line
Cinema edited the footage leaving more than twenty minutes out and promoting the film under the title “Creepers”. The most graphic
and bloody murder scenes were cut off, as well as some dialogues that, in the eyes of New Line Cinema executives, kept the movie
Phenomena was critically acclaimed and positively received by general horror fans as well as Argento cult followers. The
revenue derived from this film was substantial, making it a success in both continents and having many versions distributed for VHS,
DVD and BluRay formats.
Two years later, the motion picture “Opera” was released onto theaters. This giallo film kept a sober and elegant overall
aesthetic, featuring a bel-canto star played by Cristina Marsillach and a series of murders related to the production of Verdi’s
Opera was the second film having THX-certified visuals and audio quality, and since the moment of its release it was considered
to be an impeccable work of art. The murder sequences, the plot and the performances have been highly appraised by critics and
cinema connoisseurs, making “Opera” one of the most important and commercially successful movies by Argento.
By the late 80s and early 90s, Dario Argento had participated in more than a dozen films in the roles of director, producer and
screenwriter, having both terrific and critically acclaimed pieces, as well as terrible dismissed ones. However, film critics and the
general audience now agree that Argento’s golden age ended after the “Opera” film was finished and showcased.
Almost ten years after the “Opera” film was released, Argento came back to the screens with his film “The Stendhal Syndrome”
(Ital. La Sindrome di Stendhal) starred by Dario’s daughter Asia Argento. This movie received different reviews, with most film
critics recognizing that this was a fairly good movie, but definitely not Argento’s best work. Despite the somewhat soft plot with
nothing particularly relevant nor attractive to it, “The Stendhal Syndrome” was Argento’s biggest box-office hit.
Later on, he directed and screenwrote “The Phantom of the Opera” (Ital. Il fantasma dell’opera) a film adaptation of the world-
famous Gaston Leroux novel, giving way to a much more mainstream aesthetics while leaving behind the giallo genre almost
completely. The movie also featured Asia Argento as the leading actress and was heavily criticized by film experts and overall
audiences. In the words of Slant Magazine, this film “seemingly signaled the demise of a great auteur”, verbalizing the thoughts of
almost everyone familiar with Argento’s work.
In 2001 the film “Sleepless” (Ital. Non ho sonno) was released. The movie starring Max von Sydow represented yet another
“return” of Argento’s work to the giallo genre, and it was a complete box-office success both in Italy and the United States. Critics,
however, consider this film to be cliché, dull and lacking of any particular traits to appraise.
“The Card Player” (Ital. Il cartaio) was the last film of this phase of unfortunate and mediocre films. This movie tried too hard to
recover Argento’s authority as a giallo director, but it failed miserably. Critics have stated that the plot “unfolds as a tired, thoroughly
conventional police procedural that might as well be titled CSI: Roma” indicating that the film’s quality was equivalent to that of a
prime time American TV show, instead of being equivalent to the director’s early high-quality films.
Maitland McDonagh’s book “Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento” harshly reviewed The Card
Player, stating that the screenplay went “to so little trouble to hide the killer’s identity that even inattentive viewers will know who’s
to blame long before the police figure it out”, implying that the mediocrity of the film resided in the very foundations of filmmaking:
the screenplay and plot.
Unfortunately, Argento’s career did not recover and it still hasn’t. The sad streak of terrible films by Argento went on and on, all
the way to May 2012, when the “Dracula 3D” film was released.
The once renowned cult director of giallo horror genre did not resist the temptation to jump to mainstream filming, despite having
several box-office successes in his history that would have been sufficient proof of how needless this mainstream conversion was.
Argento’s career as a filmmaker reached the highest point in the 70s and 80s, and it has since then fallen down in a disastrous
manner, giving absolutely no signals of potential recovery for those looking forward to enjoy the quality that this director usually
brought to the screens.
The last Mother.
Argento always intended to finish the “Three Mothers Trilogy” despite the seemingly detachment from it in his subsequent work
“The Mother of Tears” (Ital. La terza madre) was released in 2007 and it featured Dario’s daughter Asia Argento as lead
actress. This fantastic gothic fantasy piece completed the trilogy in a seamless way. The same bold-color, nightmare-like aesthetic
was kept intact despite technology additions, maintaining the audiovisual continuity that most fans and critics were yearning for.
The film was very much expected by the general audience and the critics. The response was very varied, with many appraisals such
as the one found in the Rotten Tomatoes website saying “Dario Argento’s ‘Mother of Tears’ completes the trilogy with the same
baroque grandeur and soggy 1970 sensibilities”, as well as some harsh criticism like the one written by film critic Nathan Lee for
The New York Times in which he stated that “The Mother of Tears” was “silly, awkward, vulgar, outlandish, hysterical, inventive,
revolting, flamboyant, titillating, ridiculous, mischievous (…) cheap, priceless, tasteless and sublime”.
Dario Argento is, without a doubt, an obligatory reference for horror fans. In his early career, he was one of the most important
exponents of the giallo horror genre, having many films worthy of appraisal. However, in a sad and perhaps incomprehensible twist,
he grew further apart from his roots and ended up working for the mainstream filmmaking industry, disappointing many in the way.
Suspiria has since been remade with Chloe Grace Moretz and Dakota Johnson starring.