Dario Argento Triple Bill

“I like women, especially beautiful ones. If they have a good face and figure, 
I would much prefer to watch them being murdered than an ugly girl” 

With statements like that, Italian director Dario Argento was never likely to be invited along to the Feminist Film Critic annual ball, unless it was to be torn limb from limb in an garish, blood-soaked death scene. Nor was that attitude going to endear him to film censors who have taken a dim view of such sexualized violence and forced cuts upon every single one of Argento's pictures. Nonetheless, perhaps Argento is the only horror director honest enough to speak his mind - can you remember the last slasher film that didn't feature a pretty girl being murdered? 

Dario Argento started off as a writer (most notably on Once Upon a Time in the West), but made his name as a director in the giallo genre of films in the 70s and 80s. Giallo is the Italian word for ‘yellow’ and takes its name from the colour of the pulp fiction book covers from which many of the films were adapted. Typically, these were lurid murder-mysteries with far-fetched plots and a healthy dollop of violence, gore and sex, and sometimes violent gory sex. Argento was the cream of the crop, elevating trashy material with his use of colour and sound, as well as the inventive use of the camera to capture striking shots. You know that killer's point-of-view so common in horror films? Argento helped popularize that, often using his own hand as a stand-in for the killer's. Here's three to watch.

Deep Red (1975) is a fairly implausible, but pretty good whodunnit, which sees amateur sleuth Marcus (David Hemmings) investigating a murder he has witnessed. It has a tricksy flashback element, red herrings galore, some unsettling moments and impressively grisly deaths (anyone squeamish about a teeth-to-corner of table interaction should avoid) to enjoy. That said, it is a little baggy and unevenly paced - there's a real lull as Marcus arm-wrestles a woman and drives around in the crappest car I have ever seen in the movies, for no apparent reason. Plus Hemmings, recalling his seminal role in Blow Up, is a rather bland lead. However, it picks up well and builds to a satisfying finale. In particular, this features a great use of the 'punctum', a key component of giallo which refers to an inconsequential detail within a larger picture which subsequently becomes important. In this case, it's the fact that Marcus (and we, the viewers) have actually seen the face of the killer early in the film, if only we'd been paying full attention. I guarantee you'll be using the rewind button to double-check.

Suspiria (1977) is an influential horror, a firm cult classic and often cited as Argento's masterpiece. In a departure from the giallo genre, this is more of a supernatural horror, as an American ballet student discovers her new dance school is run by a coven of witches. Much of its reputation stems from the bravura opening sequence, which features a couple of girls (yes, pretty ones) who meet with inventively blood-splattered deaths. It's a great shock opening, but thereafter the superficial characters bounce around in an increasingly confused plot, although the disjointedness suits the nightmarish feel and there's a couple of good shocks. However, despite the visual flourishes, it's more likely that the impressively horrible soundtrack by Italian progressive rock band Goblin will be the thing to send shivers down your spine, as they contribute a discordant, screechy soundtrack which will put your teeth on edge. It certainly unnerving - I  can't think of anything as horrible to listen to, except perhaps those fellas One Direction.

Tenebrae (1982) just pips Deep Red as the best Argento film I've seen, and it is certainly the best of the infamous, but mostly crap, 'video nasties' that were banned in the UK in the 80s. It's not the most polished film and the shlocky plot requires major disbelief suspension as the twists pile up along with the corpses, but it's actually a sly deconstruction of giallo genre, including Argento's own output. It was Argento's response to the repeated accusations of misogyny and the sadistic portrayal of women in his earlier works. Argento based the plot on his own experiences of being stalked and this subtext raises it a notch above the norm. Thus, it has a dark vein of humour and can be seen as a meditation on the relationship between art and life, and how the two can often reflect each other. Indeed, Argento admitted that "after making all these films, I would probably be a pretty good murderer". Even if that passes you by, there's enough of Argento's trademark visual and audio flourishes to keep the attention, including a superb camera-crawl sequence around the outside of a building which took three days to film. And of course there's some laughable, but still welcome, gratuitous nudity. Well, even if it has serious undertones, you wouldn't want him to actually sell out completely, would you?

Argento's films aren't perfect and won't be for everyone. They are messy and a bit uneven, and the copious amounts of redder-than-red fake blood will no doubt elicit some laughs from viewers more used to modern special effects. His output since the 80s has been decidedly patchy, but his influence on modern horror is clear to see, not least in the quote at the top of the post. Next time you see a pretty girl bite the dust in a horror film ask yourself, 'Would you prefer she was ugly?'

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