A hand, sheathed in black leather, fingers wrapped around a razor—or maybe a meat cleaver—rises dramatically. It alone occupies the screen. The glinting blade pauses briefly at its apex, then plummets, slashing pale flesh, the blood a garish shade of red pouring in runnels, spraying walls and floors. A woman’s face contorts into a look of anguish—eyes wide, mouth agape, white teeth bared. Maybe she raises weakly a hand in futile protest, maybe she gets out a pitiable call for help before falling dead to the floor. Maybe the killer photographs her. Flashes of eyeballs, or palpitant gray matter, appear on screen, a suggestion of the ubiquity of danger, of psychological turmoil. The body lays supine, limbs protruding at awkward angles. The head might have smashed through a pane of glass. It’s all theatrical, orchestrated with a cruel and terrific deftness.
It’s a familiar scene, this brutal but beauteous killing, a recurring image presented with variations and alterations in the films of Dario Argento, who luxuriates in the glorious sights and sounds of death and perversion. This slaying could be from The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, his directorial debut, shot by Vittorio Storaro, which engendered an eccentric new approach to horror, or its follow-up, Cat o’ Nine Tails. It could be from Deep Red, perhaps the apex of the giallo genre, or Tenebrae, his self-vivisecting response to the critics who greeted his work with vitriol, or maybe Opera, his final masterpiece, which features prominently the image of eyeballs threatened by pins (stemming from a joke Argent once told about forcing his audience to keep their eyes open during the gory parts of his movies). Each of these films features the most immediately identifiable characteristics of Argento’s aesthetic: the leather-bound hands, the gleaming razors, the enigmatic murderers shrouded in shadow, the eschewing of physics and familiar rationale in favor of aberrant, outrageous depictions of violence, which he always films with obsessive heed and care. Few filmmakers have been depicted the maiming of the human body with such neatness. From 1970 to the late 1980s, Argento was as consistent as any filmmaker alive. He had an established look and feeling to which he adhered, but which he altered, manipulated, from film to film—which evolved, became self-aware. There’s a sense of comfort in the familiarity of his style, in the gorgeously choreographed carnage, a sense of excitement in the minute variations. Beautiful women, and sometimes men, are stalked and torn up by psychotics for reasons that do not, ultimately, matter. Be it witches or paperback horror writers, deranged mothers or spurned lovers, the identity of the killers, the mystery of who and why, is secondary to the Grand Guignol affectations.
Gangly and tall, lissome, with a gaunt skeletal face and deep-set eyes, Argento looks like a character from a classic Universal horror film. Like Hitchcock and his cameos, Argento appears often, albeit evasively, in his own films. He supplies the hands of the murderer in at least three features—The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Deep Red, and Tenebrae—and lends his voice to Suspiria, Tenebre, Phenomena, and Opera. He makes fantastical horror, films that aim not simply to frighten but to enfold and entertain, to settle in the mind like the splinters of broken dreams. Imbued with visual and aural indulgences—blood the color of candy, prog-rock scores as apt for dancing as for killing, extreme close-ups and worlds distorted as if culled from the imagination of an anxious child—his body of work is replete with wild, variegated nightmares. His films are populated by lunatics and their victims, by pretty young things and libidinous men, darkened corners, fragile panes of glass. Argento didn’t create giallo, but he came close to perfecting it. Building on the foundation laid by genre progenitor Mario Bava, whose camera movements and penchant for gleefully morbid pulp stories and histrionic violence begot the film genre (and later inspired the slasher trend like a bastard spawn,) Argento made an insalubrious style of horror into an oneiric form of art. Argento’s films are lacerating and surreal, untethered to the rules of logic, piercing and fragmented like shards of shattered glass.
Argento often ran afoul of censors, and his films were sometimes butchered by American distributors. The most egregious example is Deep Red, from which 22 minutes were hewn—scenes of humor, romantic interest, gore from the balleritic death scenes (the reason one watches an Argento film), even scenes expounding upon the (admittedly nonsensical) plot. Yet even as a skeleton of its original self, flensed of much of its meatier moments, Deep Red remains a hallucinatory, often brilliant experience. David Hemmings, in a role that feels like the spiritual cousin of his unwitting witness in Antonioni’s Blow-Up, plays a jazz pianist who sees his downstairs neighbor’s murder. When his picture ends up in the paper, festooned with a headline proclaiming him the sole witness, the killer, garbed in a brown raincoat and, of course, leather gloves, comes after him. Deep Red marks the first collaboration between Argento and prog-rock band Goblin, who became his regular musical consorts after the director had a falling out with Ennio Morricone. The dichotomy between the fusillade of dancey guitars and synths and the intemperate violence imbues the film with a strange, almost comical air, rendering the bloodletting fun instead of revolting. The camera seems to flinch, much like the audience, rather than dwelling, as the music grooves.
Though he primarily made giallo films, a genre inspired by the mysteries of Agatha Christie, Edgar Wallace, and other pulp writers (mystery novels were, in Italy, identifiable by their yellow-striped covers), Argento’s best known and most acclaimed film, Suspiria, is a purely supernatural horror movie. Deep Red had hues of the supernatural, but Suspiria delves wholly into the fantastical, and almost resembles a cruel mutation of a children’s tale with its coven of witches lurking in a German dance academy. It is saturated with the fervor and chaos of burgeoning sexuality; it writhes with angst. Argento originally intended to set the film at a school for pubescent girls (something he would later do with Phenomena), but settled for a coterie of twentysomethings. A young dancer named Suzy (Jessica Harper) arrives at the dance academy as another young girl is frantically leaving. It is, of course, raining, one of those dark and stormy nights. This second girl is soon slaughtered by something more entity than person in the most fanatically, perversely aestheticized set-piece of Argento’s career, a spiraling, dizzying murder that is as majestic as it is grotesque. Fulvous eyes appear in the bruise-colored night before a hand, mottled and mutilated, fingers inhumanly long, shatters the window, squishing a woman’s face into the remaining glass. A knife is pressed into her torso, the squishy sound mingling with the percussive score. She’s bound in wire, placed upon a yellow-and-red stained glass skylight, her chest hacked open so her palpitating heart is revealed and then stabbed. Her head falls back, she crashes through the glass, the wire wraps around her neck as her head snaps at an awkward angle and glass shards hurtle down, impaling another girl. Blood spurts, as Reverse Shot’s Fernando F. Croce put it, in “Pollack splashes.” The Sylph-like grace of the camera and the sugary pink of the building, with Goblin’s infectious score wailing, belies the cruelty of the deaths. The rest of the film isn’t quite so vicious, although there is a room inexplicably full of coils of barbed wire, and a maggot infestation, and a blind pianist is mauled to death by his own seeing eye dog. But nothing in the film matches the brazen rancor of this opening set piece.
Inferno, Argento’s follow-up to Suspiria and the second in a trilogy about witches (the third film, Mother of Tears, failed to come to fruition until 2007, and turned out to be an abomination), is perhaps his most visually striking, with its rosy reds and aquatic blues, vast tenebrous rooms rife with ominous alcoves and long, forlorn hallways doused dreamily in single colors, staircases that descend into otherworldly darkness, the crepuscular lighting of a New York conjured on sound stages without even a vague semblance of realism. Though less renowned than Suspiria, Tenebrae,or Deep Red, it remains his most baroque film, a riotous rococo masterwork. It is a film ungoverned by reason, compelled only by style and a compulsion for a kind of Grimm’s Fairy Tale-inspired macabre. A classical music student studying in Rome travels to New York after receiving a cryptic letter about witches from his sister, who believes a witch may be residing in the basement of her building. The first murder happens offscreen, 35 minutes into the film, almost an eternity following the outlandish ferocity of Suspiria’s opening act, and comparatively tame. A man staggers on screen with a knife sticking out of his throat, collapsing on top of a young woman who is then stabbed in the back. It’s simple, unembellished. Compared to the beating heart, exposed and stabbed repeatedly, the impairment by tumbling shards of glass, and the fetishistic close-ups of a face stretched into the silent shout of death that make up Suspiria’s ostentatious initial double-murder, this is restrained for Argento. But Inferno builds in intensity, and absurdity, like a fire engulfing a dilapidated building. It ascends to vertiginous heights as a prog-rock mutation of “Va Pensiero” swells and the Chthonian faux-New York is revealed to be a writhing bastion of evil. At one point a legion of rats eat a man, who exclaims, quite aptly, “Rats are eating me!” It’s an Argento film that gradually transmutates into a hyperbolic augmentation of an Argento film.
Despite the lugubrious nature of his films, Argento maintains a dexterous, sometimes silly sense of fun. Think, for instance, of the car chase in Cat o’ Nine Tails, which features a gag of a garden hose squirting cops through the open window of their car as they pursue a suspect. It’s a silly, throwaway moment, more Police Squad! than horror, in a film about a blind man (Karl Madden, having a hoot) trying to catch a serial killer. Or Phenomena, a film about Jennifer Connelly communicating with insects, which has a chimp as a supporting character. (Dogs, bats, rats, cats, birds, chimps, bugs—animals are as capable of violence as humans in Argento’s world.)
After two decades of mayhem and murder, Argento accrued his share of detractors, critics and moviegoers who found his prodigious inclination for stylized, comely sadism gratuitous and revolting. His response was Tenebrae, a film that can now be seen as a precursor to Brian De Palma’s Body Double and Raising Cain (the latter of which apes the revealing shot of the killer). In it, a best-selling American horror writer arrives in Rome to find that a serial killer is drawing inspiration from his latest book. The plot becomes convoluted to the point of lunacy, a labyrinthine entanglement of twists and usurpations replete with red herrings and gotcha reveals, a sentient send-up of the silly, sordid whodunnits on which Argento built his reputation. The film, brightly lit and colored with pale shades of gray and stark whites, devoid of the dreamy colors and chiaroscuro lighting of Inferno, has a wry technical virtuosity, a tongue-in-cheek cleverness. One incredibly elaborate shot begins by peering into a window at a beautiful woman vexed at her female lover’s loud music, then rises up, traversing the entire roof, then dropping to another window to peer at the other woman before sinking further to show the killer’s hands. It seems complicated for the sake of being complicated, perusing roof tiles for seemingly no reason other than bravado superfluity. It’s at once impressive and mundane, a complex achievement and a pointless display of prowess.
Though it pains fans of Argento’s films, it must be addressed: his output for last 20 years has been notoriously awful, rife with forgettable films and egregious misuses of immoderate and slovenly CGI. But it’s doubtful that anyone will remember Argento for the detritus he made in the waning days of an otherwise illustrious and influential career. They’ll remember Goblin’s eerie lullabilic theme from Suspiria, all those hands in black leather, the operatic murders. They’ll remember a filmmaker who had a brazen and unbridled vision for horror, who changed the vocabulary for the genre.
Dario Argento runs September 21 – 28, 2018 at the Metrograph in New York.