The Saturday Auteur

Dario Argento: the god of Giallo – nightmare tales in neon hues
By Lorenzo Ottone | Film+TV | 10 April 2021
This article is part of The Saturday Auteur

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Etched in neon light, Dario Argento‘s supernatural visions pull you close whether you like it or not. While your eye is lead to the aesthetically stunning shots, a darkness waits in the shadows that is equally inviting – if you’re into that: we are.

Since making his debut in 1970, the Italian director has carved out his own unique visual signature within the horror genre, delivering otherworldly nightmares with stylish aplomb. Born in Rome in 1940, Argento’s work is synonymous with the genre thanks to a string of flawless films made between the early-70s and mid-80s – providing key contributions to what would be a cinematic revolution in narrative and style.

Still, Suspiria by Dario Argento, 1977

Ominous synth

By cutting his teeth as a screenwriter for the likes of Bernardo Bertolucci and Sergio Leone among others (his name can be found in the Once Upon a Time in the West credits), Argento learnt first-hand from the great masters of post-WWII Italian cinema. Making his directorial debut in 1970 with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Argento tapped into the nascent Giallo genre (the label assigned to Italian neo-noir, thrilling films often produced on a big budget) with his own psychedelic art house perspective. 

Although Argento operated during other Giallo giants of the time, like Lucio Fulci and Mario Bava, the young filmmaker’s stylistic vision took the genre to new dimensions. If Giallo represented a career-high for Fulci and Bava, for Argento it was the starting point in a string of hard-hitting blockbusters. His revolutionary use of the camera alongside his unparalleled ability to create asphyxiating suspense through colour and music (working with Ennio Morricone first, and progressive band Goblin later) saw him re-define the genre and become its go-to figure.

Versatility and an ability to understand shifting cultural trends were also pivotal in keeping the maestro’s work relevant for over two decades. Think, for instance, how the colour palettes shift from saturated reds to shades of electric blue as we progress into the 80s, or how Goblin’s Moog-driven scores compare to the thrilling and psychedelic orchestral elegance of 70s Morricone. If his early Animal Trilogy worked in bridging the gap between Giallo and horror, the following Three Mothers trilogy and, mostly, Phenomena (1985), showed Argento fusing horror and the paranormal, drawing inspiration from literature (Stephen King, for instance) and unlocking new avenues of expression for the genre.

Still, Inferno by Dario Argento, 1980

A matter of taste

The flair Argento instils even in the goriest of his cuts is permeated by a quintessentially continental style, something that simply cannot be traced in the works of his American counterparts.

From photography to chromatic solutions, the use of music to interior design (consider the alienating minimalist art gallery in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage or the velvet-clad interiors of Suspiria’s boarding school) Argento’s films elevated the lavish aesthetic of late 60s Italian softcore and Giallo films to a whole new level by combining it with the gory traits of horror. The result is a stylistic hybrid that defeats the test of time and is enjoyable of multiple levels.

Argento’s stylistic intuitions, paired with the opportunity of an expanding international market in the 70s and 80s helped the director establish himself beyond his native borders (unlike many of his Italian contemporaries), and becoming an important stylistic reference for American filmmakers.

Still, Tenebrae by Dario Argento, 1982

The role of the woman

Argento’s sense of modernity is not entirely rooted in his directing techniques. The Italian was far ahead of his time in assigning a relevance and psychological complexity to female characters that had not previously existed. Under Argento’s direction, women transition from being accessory characters, mostly playing the role of victims, to multi-faceted and influential, presenting beguiling juxtapositions of both good and evil.

Take, for instance, the manipulative and supernatural witchcraft nature of the Mater Suspiriorum contrasting with Betty’s pure and innocent soul in Suspiria. Similarly, Phenomena’s Frau Brückner takes advantage of her charisma and position of chaperone to manipulate the young Jennifer Corvino in a crescendo of asphyxiating scenes, where the girl uses her telepathic powers to save herself from death.

Four Flies on Grey Velvet, by Dario Argento, 1971

The second film of the ‘Animal Trilogy’ – where all the murders are linked to zoomorphic elements – possibly succeeds best in explaining why Argento claims the genre as his own. It’s not every day that a Giallo – instead of opening with a suspense-infused theme – kicks off with furious drum beats paired with a throbbing human heart (a technique similar to the one adopted in the first Suspiria murder). This visual transposition of Burroughs literary cut-outs, scored by a wildly psychedelic Morricone number, made Quentin Tarantino’s jaw drop on multiple occasions.

Four Flies on Grey Velvet also highlights Argento’s use of humour through the character of private detective, Gianni Arrosio (Jean-Pierre Marielle). One of the director’s most beloved characters, the investigator disrupts the film’s rhythm with witty one-liners that succeed in heightening the film’s tension. Crucially, Arrosio represented one of the first times Italian cinema had featured a complex and empathetic homosexual character without resorting to insensitive stereotypes and well-trodden cliche.

Still, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, by Dario Argento, 1971

Zombi by George A. Romero, 1979

Not an Argento-directed film, but one that serves to demonstrate his sublime editing skills. Originally directed by George A. Romero under the name of Dawn of the Dead, Argento stepped in to aid his colleagues by granting the funds needed to complete filming. In return, Argento asked and obtained the rights to the European distribution of the film, which he edited to create his own, masterful director’s cut. Re-scored by Goblin and distributed under the name of Zombi, both Romero’s and Argento’s versions brought significant commercial success, initiating an unofficial spin-off series across Europe.

Still, Zombi by George A. Romero, 1979

What to watch by Dario Argento:

  • The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, 1970
  • Deep Red, 1974
  • Suspiria, 1977
  • Four Flies on Grey Velvet, 1971
  • Phenomena, 1985

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