Okay. Sit up straight, take a long, deep breath and a sip of bitter coffee, and get started. Not as easy as it sounds…
Years 11 and 12 (college, here in Tasmania) for me were when my opinion on film started transforming from avid, enthusiastic viewer to determined investigator. I wanted to both analyse every dusty cobwebbed corner of a movie and scour the globe to uncover both cinematic beacons and, more importantly, the more extreme hidden treasures dwelling in France, America and, most importantly, Italy. I knew the power that lay within significant films; sure, the power that everyone knows about and seeks out in entertainment and heart string-tugging, but also the power to shock, shake and assault the viewer through sheer originality and confronting, thematic images and audio.
I needed a break from the relentless Americana I had been indulging in for the past 5 or so years, having seen Kubrick’s The Killing (1956) more times than the average person quotes Pulp Fiction and being able to quote Goodfellas (1990) nigh word for word. I needed Gaspar Noe, Pascal Laugier, Takashi Miike, Michele Soavi, David Cronenberg, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Jess Franco. I needed Dario Argento… thankfully, I found him.
Constantly throughout his career blending beauty and brutality to create works of macabre mastery, Argento has forged a filmography that warms a very special place in my heart and stands well above his contemporaries, the most obvious being Lucio Fulci (The Beyond, Lizard in a Woman’s Skin). He is my favourite director and a true auteur; and these are, in my humble opinion, his top 10 films:
10. Sleepless (2001)
A return to his extravagant Giallo roots, Sleepless remains Argento’s best work post 2000 and also one of his most underappreciated, blending his trademark lush reds, violent knife murders, unsettling music and an obscure mystery (revolving around a poem written by his famous and talented daughter Asia) to outstanding effect. The appearance of The Exorcist’s Peter Von Sydow as retired police detective Moretti further establishes this as a satisfying and grandiose murder mystery worthy of far more recognition than it has been rewarded; also, the elongated opening scene stands as a true highlight of the great genre and sets the mood perfectly.
Is a beautiful woman murdered outrageously? As is custom, yes. The most iconic being that excellent scene-setter in the film’s opening.
9. The Stendhal Syndrome (1996)
While the Maestro crafted some truly terrifying and creative horror films, rarely did he set out to deeply disturb the viewer – claiming that beautiful women are far more enjoyable to see killed hints that he wants your eyes never to deviate from the screen through fear you will miss something spectacular. The Stendhal Syndrome is the exception to this. Disturbing almost to the point of ugliness, Argento’s tale of a young detective (Asia Argento, in one of her many performances for her father from Trauma onwards) who suffers from the titular ailment, leading to her being captured and both physically and mentally assaulted by the serial killer she is chasing still deserves its dues for its sheer vision alone. Det. Anna Manni sinks into a painting of the sea and kisses a giant fish, obscure graffiti comes to life and we see the effect of a bullet flying through a cheek in slow motion… this may be Argento’s ugliest film, but one can’t deny his ambition in a period of his career where many claimed he should give up directing.
Is a beautiful woman murdered outrageously? Hard one to answer… in a word, yes, but all the deaths here are truly unpleasant.
8. Phenomena (1985)
Jennifer Corvino (a young Jennifer Connelly) harnesses her ability to communicate telepathically with insects and befriends a crippled Professor (the great Donald Pleasence) with a pet chimpanzee in this completely bonkers but suitably eerie tale of a crazed murderer stalking the area surrounding the strange boarding school our heroine has been sent to. Featuring Argento’s then wife Daria Nicolodi (in her most regrettable role) and a soundtrack comprising of frequent collaborators Goblin and the not-so-frequently utilised Bill Wyman, Motorhead and Iron Maiden, Phenomena (Creepers in some countries) is every bit as nonsensical as it sounds, but it’s bizarre charm and stunning locations have ensured that it has stood the test of time as a true essential in the great man’s catalogue.
Is a beautiful woman murdered outrageously? Again, the film’s opening has this covered, as a girl (Argento’s older daughter Fiore) is stalked through the Swiss countryside before diving down a waterfall… minus her body.
7. Trauma (1993)
Asia Argento plays Aura Petrescu, a troubled, anorexic teen who escapes from a psychiatric hospital and is cared for by recovering addict David (Christopher Rydell), only to be sent back home where her parents are both beheaded in the pouring rain; a theme that may hold a key as to who this killer is in this off-kilter thriller.
Argento’s first American feature, Trauma really does play out more like a Lynchian nightmare than the grotesquely luscious Italian creations audience’s had become accustomed to, and as a result divides fans right down the middle. Personally, I’m an advocate. The off-white and industrial blue colour scheme helps create a detachment that strangely acts in the film’s favour, causing discomfort and disorientation which lead to a lasting impression being formed in the mind of the audience. This impression is helped also by the appearance of cult actors Piper Laurie, Frederic Forrest and Brad Dourif, special effects by the Master of Horror Tom Savini (Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Maniac) and a haunting score by Pino Donaggio (the mesmerizing highlight being the track Ruby Rain). Trauma is an unfairly maligned curious film, and more-than worthy of re-discovery.
Is a beautiful woman murdered outrageously? Does a decapitated head speaking as it rolls across the floor count?
6. Inferno (1980)
The second part of the renowned ‘Three Mothers’ trilogy, Inferno ditches Suspiria’s famous German location and sets its macabre majesty in lurid depictions of New York and Rome, where we are introduced to the powerful witches Mater Tenebrarum (the Mother of Darkness) and Mater Lachrymarum (the Mother of Tears), with the oldest and wisest of the three Mater Suspiriorum (the Mother of Sighs) having been unleashed previously in the iconic Freiburg ballet academy. With a narrative far more detailed than Argento’s other supernatural fare, Inferno expands the universe he created 3 years earlier and in battling a debilitating illness conjured up enough nasty ways for people to die (eaten alive by rats being the most unique) to have this artistic stunner included on the infamous Video Nasties register. Also, it should be noted that the lighting is nothing short of spectacular and the music by Keith Emerson essential in the film’s success. Inferno is a truly Italian film, and a convoluted head-trip that demands to be seen.
Is a beautiful woman murdered outrageously? Every murder is outrageous… but one involving a guillotine sticks in the mind.
5. Opera (1987)
Argento’s second most self-referential film (see Tenebre below for his first), Opera deals with his disdain for viewers that avert their gaze in his more grizzly murder scenes, and his desire to force them to watch what he has poured his energy into creating. Opera understudy Betty (the beautiful Cristina Marsillach), gets her chance to take centre stage in a performance of Macbeth when its star is shockingly hit by a car just outside the theatre; she believes in the myth that Macbeth brings bad luck to all who perform in it, and is most certainly proved right, as she is tied up with needles taped to her eyelids, forcing her to stare as the people close to her are killed by an obsessed psychopath. Needless to say, this is not family viewing.
The ending is unfortunately misguided (though not as awful as some suggest) and some of the usage of CGI dated, but the stylistic flourishes on display here are truly awesome, led by a dazzling point-of-view shot of a crow circling the opera house which at the time was the envy of all cinematographers. Argento would later go on to make his own version of Phantom of the Opera (of course, starring his daughter), but this stands as his true love-letter to the art-form that inspired some of his greatest achievements.
Is a beautiful woman murdered outrageously? Yes. Mira (Daria Nicolodi) learns the hard way not to peek through a key-hole when the assailant on the other side has a handgun.
4. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is the one that started it all; Argento’s first effort as director after his time spent as a film critic and writing credits including Sergio Leone’s final say on the western, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). Few could’ve predicted its astounding success, both financially and critically, and within 2 years he had made and released two terrific giallos in the same mold: The Cat O’ Nine Tails (1971) and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971, very close to making this list), with all three featuring intricate scores by the masterful Ennio Morricone and now commonly referred to as his “Animal Trilogy.”
The establishing shots here act not only as an introduction to the graphic, schizophrenic thriller to come, but with our American writer trapped between 2 sheets of glass, unable to intervene in the violence playing out on the other side in the midst of imposing works of art, it works as a crystal ball into what will be commonplace in his classics such as Tenebre (1982) and Opera (1987). Argento’s Animal Trilogy, and this its outstanding chapter, represent one of the absolute defining moments in Italian cinema that would usher in a brand new wave of renowned filmmakers and keep a dying industry afloat.
Is a beautiful woman murdered outrageously? A prostitute, in one of the film’s most iconic images.
3. Tenebre (1982)
From this point on, while I have a clear favourite, any could be considered Argento’s best film… Tenebre takes out third place simply because as ingenious as it is (and it is simply astonishing as an example of a film only one director could possibly make), there are no real spine-tingling moments such as in the films listed below; however, these scares are replaced with an icy cold plot more meta than even Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (also featuring John Saxon). The story of an American writer Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) who travels to Rome to promote his new murder mystery only to be confronted by the police and entangled with a killer using his novel as inspiration to commit grisly murders, stands so obviously as Argento speaking of his own experience with critics and, more significantly, censors, its a joy for fans to behold. Upon being interrogated by the police, Neal states: “Let me ask you something? If someone is killed with a Smith&Wesson revolver… Do you go and interview the president of Smith & Wesson?” while this isn’t the best line in a film full of glorious pulp, its as if its coming from the mouth of Argento directly, saying violent people do violent things because its inherent, not because of the nastiness they see in his works.
There are 3 points that can sell Tenebre without anything else being said: it features a tremendous score by Goblin, the greatest single tracking shot of all time (which should be seen by anyone interested in movie-making) and the bloodiest axe murder in screen history. Enjoy.
Is a beautiful woman murdered outrageously? Multiple, there is a real reason this was a video nasty. The aforementioned axe murder may just take the cake though.
2. Deep Red (1975)
Its hard to articulate the feeling of watching Deep Red for the first time. In a way it feels like a re-discovery of cinema; an affirmation of the love you may have for it and a celebration of the emotions it can conjure. It is a perfect film; the story of a serial killer with a hidden, dangerous psychosis tracked by an experimental jazz musician with threats mounting in a claustrophobic manner has such an impact upon its final reel that the desire to re-watch it is instant. The adrenaline-pumping Goblin score, the mechanical laughing doll, close-ups of eyes and murder instruments and beautiful bold reds solidifying this as no.22 in my top 30 films of all time.
There is not much else to say. If you’ve seen it, you love it, and if you haven’t, you should. Deep Red is a masterpiece of not only Italian cinema, but cinema in general, and was responsible for the bringing together of possibly the most successful, if volatile, partnership of director and actress of all time.
Is a beautiful woman murdered outrageously? Would it surprise you if I mentioned there is a murder at the film’s opening? With psychic Helga unable to stop her unfortunate fate.
1. Suspiria (1977)
My 8th favourite film of all time, the greatest work of Gothic beauty ever made and also the finest example of the power of lighting and colours to compliment a story this side of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948), Suspiria is the very definition of a must-see film for cinema aficionados off all tastes. Taking their cues from the twisted side of classic fairy-tales, Argento and Nicolodi created a haunting, unpredictable, feral work of art that features enough drops of candy-coloured blood and amazingly detailed sets to ensure its legacy will last many more lifetimes.
Is a beautiful woman murdered outrageously? The double murder containing the stabbing of an exposed heart and impaling by falling glass is possibly the most discussed of all these ‘misogynistic murders’.
Argento’s complete filmography is as follows:
Director – The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), The Cat O’ Nine Tails (1971), Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971), The Five Days of Milan (1973), Deep Red (1975), Suspiria (1977), Inferno (1980), Tenebre (1982), Phenomena (1985), Opera (1987), Two Evil Eyes (segment “The Black Cat” 1990), Trauma (1993), The Stendhal Syndrome (1996), The Phantom of the Opera (1998), Sleepless (2001), The Card Player (2004), Do You Like Hitchcock? (2005), Masters of Horror episodes Jenifer (2005) and Pelts (2006), Mother of Tears (2007), Giallo (2009), Dracula 3D (2012).
Producer – Demons (1985, directed by Lamberto Bava), Demons 2 (1986, Lamberto Bava), The Church (1989, Michele Soavi), The Sect (1991, Michele Soavi), The Wax mask (1997, Sergio Stivaletti), Scarlett Diva (2000, Asia Argento).
Check out our other Director Top 10s and Retrospectives:
Agree? Disagree? Let us know below!