R0BTRAIN’s Badass Cinema: Happy Dario-ween

So I hope everyone out there is having a great October. Mine has been has a little frustrating, as I really haven’t gotten to spend as much time with my usual lineup of horror films as I have in years past, but I’m trying desperately to ramp things up here for this last week. This is the one time a year that I really get to devote myself to the genre, and with November fast approaching, my time with the creatures of the night is coming to an end a lot faster than I’d like it too.

For this week, I turn my focus to my favorite Horror director; Dario Argento. I know Argento is a popular choice amongst a lot of genre fans, and to look at his ‘70s and ‘80s entries it’s easy to see why. At his best, Argento was the king of giallo, a subgenre of Italian horror that combined the sort of operatic trappings of Leone with the suspense stylings of Alfred Hitchcock. Typically the films of giallo would feature loud, moody pieces of music, coupled with stylish sets, a subjective camera from the point of view of its killer, and horrible, horrible violence. Argento often borrowed from Hitchcock, giving us wonderful camerawork and expert editing, but the director’s insane plots and reliance on style over substance seemed all his own. What Leone was to the Spaghetti Western , Argento was to the giallo film.

Unfortunately, like most Horror directors of his generation, Argento doesn’t seem to have the magic he once did. Apparently his new film, actually entitled Giallo, ended up being underfunded and pretty terrible. This would be in keeping with his last few films, which have been mediocre to downright atrocious, including 2007’s Mother of Tears, which was one of the worst movies to come out that year. Like George Romero, John Carpenter, and Wes Craven, Argento can’t quite connect with an audience the way he used to, and I’m afraid he’ll simply fade away into total obscurity if he doesn’t at least make one watchable movie soon.

Thankfully though, I’ll always have the director’s back catalogue. Filled with stylish, haunting cinematography and faceless killers, the Argento filmography is a genre fan’s dream. I’ve talked before about the film maker’s masterpiece, Suspiria, my all time favorite Horror picture, but today I’d like to go through some other favorites, from the gruesome hatchet murders of Deep Red to the complete insanity of Phenomena. All of these pictures are marked with the director’s distinctive style, and may not always make sense, but never fail to entertain.

Deep Red
Starring David Hemmings and Daria Nicolodi. Directed by Dario Argento.

After Suspiria, if you had to find the best that Dario Argento has to offer, most assuredly you’d want to go with Deep Red. In fact, the film may actually be a better example of Argento’s work and giallo as a whole due to the fact that this film is devoid of most of the supernatural elements present in Suspiria. Instead, what you get is a just a straight up murder mystery, with a musician played by David Hemmings trying to avoid getting killed after witnessing the gruesome slaying of a famous psychic. Teaming up with a plucky reporter (Daria Nicolodi), Hemmings’ Marcus Daly must try to get to the bottom of the crime, while bodies seems to pile up higher and higher around him in increasingly brutal fashion.

What Sets This One Apart?

As I said before, if you’re not into Suspiria and want to know what Dario Argento is all about, Deep Red is the way to go. Of all of his straight up giallo pictures, this one definitely has the most inspired violence, hitting us not only with bloody weaponry but attacking his audience with fears that burrow deep into your subconscious. One man gets his teeth smashed, a creepy clown doll foretells the death of an innocent, and another woman dies in a bathtub, not from drowning, but from scalding hot water. All of this is done with precise skill, creeping you out with Goblin’s (Dawn of the Dead) terrific score while Argento surprises you with just how good his camerawork can be.

Argento combines these with his wonderful love for interesting locations, such as a diner in Rome that looks an awful lot like the one from Edward Hooper’s Nighthawks, making it the setting for a Hitchcockian sequence where Daly witnesses the film’s first murder from hundreds of yards away. In the director’s hands, the city looks like the most interesting place in the world, but danger also lurks around every corner. Argento wants you to love what Rome looks like and makes it as beautiful as possible, but also exposes that part of the city as a façade. This is opposed to a film like Don’t Look Now, which makes Venice its setting and displays it as the gloomiest place on Earth in order to try and fill you with dread.

If Argento has a masterpiece other than Suspiria, it’s Deep Red. The movie is a rock solid thriller with an amazing visual style and contains some of the best scenes of horror ever filmed. There isn’t an ‘80s slasher that compares to Deep Red’s ambition and inventiveness, with perhaps Halloween coming in as the only subgenre representative with as much to give to its audience. While Argento’s output has been sorely lacking for nearly two decades, it’s his early films like this one that earned him his comparisons to Hitchcock, even if he wasn‘t able to completely fulfill that promise completely later on.

(AKA: Unsane)Starring Anthony Franciosa and Daria Nicolodi. Directed by Dario Argento.

In the scheme of things, Tenebre isn’t necessarily a top tier giallo from Argento. While the kills, the score and atmosphere are all great, there isn’t anything particularly groundbreaking about the film, especially when compared to Suspiria or Deep Red. Still, there’s something very homey about watching the movie, which has the film maker clearly in his comfort zone. This was Argento’s seventh horror flick behind the camera and pretty much had it down to a science at this point.

What Sets This One Apart? 

There are two things to really recommend about the film and three if you count the terrific array beautiful Italian women in the cast. Of the two main points, the best thing I love about the film is the story, which has a killer copycatting the murder sequences from the novels of American writer Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa), who is on a book tour in Rome at the same time. With Neal as the main suspect for the killings, he tries frantically to clear his name, which leads to one thrilling sequence after another. Also, there’s a pretty extreme twist at the end of the film that I admire for its sheer audacity. I won’t spoil it, but it definitely keeps you guessing. This may not be the best of the bunch here, but don’t have any doubts about it being a winner.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage
Starring Tony Musante and Suzy Kendall. Directed by Dario Argento.

Argento’s first film is a terrific example of his potential, and a sort of run up to Deep Red with yet another tourist in Rome, Tony Musante’s Sam Dalmas, witnessing a murder and then getting stalked by the killer. Once again, Argento makes Rome look like a living painting with his gorgeous sets, but no one is safe as a serial killer with a straight razor cuts down one innocent victim after another. Maybe not Argento at his best, but not far off either.

What Sets This One Apart?

The opening murder is a stunner, with a woman getting slaughtered inside an art gallery while Tony Musante’s character is stuck on the outside of the gallery’s window, powerless to stop it. That sequence, coupled with another where the only thing between a killer and his latest victim is a wooden door with a peep hole, are worth seeing the movie for. Plus, this one has an amazing Ennio Morricone score, reminiscent of both the Goblin scores that would eventually be associated with Argento’s films and the Spaghetti Western scores Morricone built his career on.

Starring Jennifer Connelly and Donald Pleasance. Directed by Dario Argento.

Phenomena pretty much represents Argento at his most insane, but still rather brilliant. The movie stars a very young Jennifer Connelly as Jennifer Corvino, a young telepathic girl who keeps witnessing murders in her dreams as she sleepwalks. Being helped by a local scientist, played by Donald Pleasance, the situation seems to be getting worse as the murders intensify, and other telepathic abilities manifest in the young girl. This all leads up to a bugnuts crazy climax involving a monster, a chimp and thousands of a insects, making Phenomena about as mad a horror film as they come.

What Sets This One Apart?

Did I mention this movie was insane? Not to spoil too much, but you learn early on in the movie that Jennifer Connelly’s character has the ability to control insects with her mind. There is so much stuff in this film that this ends up just being a subplot in the movie. Not crazy enough? How about the fact that a major character in Phenomena is a chimpanzee with nearly a complete story arc and an appetite for revenge? Or maybe that some of our heroes in this flick are an army of flies? If you’re looking for as much lunacy as possible in your horror, I suggest this movie whole-heartedly.

Dario Argento may be an acquired taste, but once you’ve caught on, there’s a lot of fun to be had with his work. His best movies are unpredictable, sometimes vile, and often wonderful. Unlike the people behind the Saw franchise, this is a film maker with an intention of bringing you an artistic achievement just as much as he wants to shock you. Not all of his films are masterpieces, and some of his newer films are hardly watchable, but in his prime Argento was in a rare class of horror director, and at the top of his game, there was really no one that was better.

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