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Still from "Suspiria"
Still from "Suspiria"

The dA-Zed guide to Dario Argento

X-rated and hyper-saturated, Argento’s oeuvre is a master class in eye-popping visual horror

With legendary Italian filmmaker Dario Argento turning to crowd-funding to secure the budget for his next project (The Sandman, starring Iggy Pop), while a remake of his classic Suspiria goes into production starring Dakota Johnson and Tilda Swinton, it feels like as good a time as any to reintroduce the maestro of gore to a whole new generation. Below is a beginner’s guide to the man behind Deep Red, Inferno and Opera

A IS FOR ASIA

Dario’s daughter Asia appeared in several of his films, taking the lead in 1993’s serial killer thriller Trauma. She continued acting – cameoing in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antionette – moved into directing (The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things) and found time to occasionally DJ. “I never acted out of ambition,” she says. “I acted to gain my father’s attention. It took a long time for him to notice me – I started when I was nine, and he only cast me when I was 16. And he only became my father when he was my director.”

B IS FOR BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE

Argento’s directorial debut is considered a landmark entry in the giallo genre (basically Italian murder mysteries, known for having loads of red herrings/killers in black gloves/excessive violence). The story begins when an American writer living in Rome witnesses the murder of a woman in an art gallery, and gets stranger from there. Intense, violent, with eccentric supporting characters and a twist to kill for – it’s worth seeking out.

C IS FOR CAT O NINE TAILS

In 2001 Argento stated Cat O Nine Tails is the least favourite of his films, though he’s made so much garbage since then, we can’t imagine that’s still true. His second film definitely isn’t as bad as he makes out, featuring an intriguing blind lead teaming with a reporter to solve a twisted murder. Successful in Europe, Tails flopped in the States, which might explain why Dario was so keen to distance himself from it.

D IS FOR DRACULA 3D

Speaking of garbage movies, Dracula 3D is one of Dario’s most recent films, and it’s definitely his absolute worst. It’s basically soft-core porn with all the nude scenes cut out, replaced by bad CGI of a giant praying mantis seemingly edited in to bulk up the runtime. “I had wanted to do Dracula many years ago but I could not find the way into it,” Dario says. “Now we have the new technology of 3D and that changed my mind about doing this. It is possible to represent Dracula in a new way that looked more natural. With the depth, something changes and the audience feels as though they have been pushed inside the screen.”

E IS FOR ENNIO MORRICONE

The iconic composer collaborated with Dario on his first three films, which are frequently referred to collectively as Argento’s ‘animal trilogy.’ Morricone’s described this period as ‘avant-garde.’ “I used the avant-garde music when scoring films as an experiment,” he says. “I wanted to experiment with going deep into the traumatic recesses of the film. And I used this music when I wanted to describe a certain kind of trauma, when the situation was very, very difficult or when something horrible had happened.”

F IS FOR FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET

Argento’s third film is disorientating, complex and packed with tension. Centring around a prog-rock drummer who’s being blackmailed following the death of a fan, Argento throws dream sequences, crazed plot-twists, and Hitchcock-influenced shot choices into the mix, creating a head-spinning experience. Uncomfortable sexual politics mar the film, making it an awkward modern watch.

G IS FOR GOBLIN

Prog rockers Goblin are so connected to Dario Argento, the director’s even partly responsible for their name. Originally called Cherry Five, Claudio Simonetti and pals changed their title to something a bit spookier when Dario asked them to soundtrack Profondo Rosso. They’re probably best known for their memorable Suspiria score (try watching it without bellowing ‘WITCH’ to yourself for days afterwards), because it’s amazing.

H IS FOR HORROR MUSEUM

Weirdly, Argento has his very own horror museum in Rome. To get to it, you have to get through a tightly packed memorabilia store (forget ‘exit through the gift shop’, this is more ‘enter after fighting your way through horror junk’) called Profondo Rosso. But should you pass that test, you’ll find yourself descending into a creepy basement stuffed with props and costumes from several of Argento’s movies. And, um, stuff from Star Wars and A Nightmare On Elm Street, for some reason.

I IS FOR INFERNO

Frequently referred to as a thematic sequel to SuspiriaInferno can be enjoyed on its own, and is actually one of the most overlooked horror flicks of the 1980s. Cutting between an American college student in Rome and his sister in New York, the siblings investigate a series of killings with witchy origins. Surreal and scary, Argento’s described it as his ‘purest’ film.

J IS FOR JUNO

Diablo Cody is clearly a diehard Argento fan. Her 2009 gore-flick Jennifer’s Body is obviously influenced by the director’s work, and she even managed to shove references into her non-horror pregnancy drama, Juno – with Ellen Page’s title character taking any opportunity to label Argento as the greatest horror director of all time.

K IS FOR KICKSTARTER

In 2014, Argento turned to crowd-funding to secure the budget for ‘his most horrific film ever.’ Titled The Sandman, the film was pitched to star Iggy Pop as a masked serial killer who murders his victims with a lethally jagged melon spoon. Dario’s target? $165,000. He secured $195,633 within a month, and The Sandman is now underway.

L IS FOR LEADING LADIES

Dario has stated that over 70 per cent of his films have women in the lead role. However, before we hand him a prize for services to feminism, his motivations aren’t entirely honourable. “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 or man. I certainly don’t have to justify myself to anyone about this. I don’t care what anyone thinks or reads into it. I have often had journalists walk out of interviews when I say what I feel about this subject.”

M IS FOR MOTHER OF TEARS, THE

The final part of Argento’s ‘Three Mothers’ trilogyThe Mother Of Tears came 27 years after the previous instalment, Inferno, hit cinemas, and 30 years after the first part, Suspiria. Sadly, it wasn’t worth the wait, with its baroque supernatural plot – concerning an archaeology student (Asia Argento) accidentally releasing a witch from an ancient prison – dividing audiences and critics alike.

N IS FOR NARRATION

Dario does all narration in his films. Also, whenever a male murderer’s hands are in shot, Argento insists on using his own. We’re not going to say he’s got a god complex, but he certainly enjoys ephemeral offscreen control.

O IS FOR OPERA

Many fans consider Opera to be Argento’s masterpiece. However, making the multiple perspective murder mystery isn’t a happy memory for Dario. “The opera we used in the film was Macbeth, which has a tradition – also in the theatre – of being bad luck. People all warned against using it, suggested using La Traviata or La Bohème, and I said, ‘This is just a story, don’t be foolish,’ but maybe they were right. With Opera I had a lot of English crew – that was something new for me – and I learned many things from them. Overall, though, it was a terrible experience. You know, many cuts were made after I was finished, even though I protested. Many things happened. Vanessa Redgrave was scheduled to be in the film, and she pulled out. One of the actors was crushed by a car. I was engaged to be married, but by the end of the picture that was finished. My father died during the shooting… all kinds of things. But I felt I had started with Macbeth, so I had to finish. And anyway, there could be no ravens in Cosi Fan Tutte.”

P IS FOR PROFONDO ROSSO

An influence on everything from Dressed To Kill to SawProfondo Rosso AKA Deep Red is Argento’s best thriller, packed with satisfying clues and reveals that make it even better on second watch. “Deep Red is my favorite movie,” Argento says. “The character David Hemmings plays is very much based on my own personality. It was a very strong film, very brutal, and of course the censors were upset. It was cut by almost an hour in some countries”.

Q IS FOR QUALCUNO HA TRADITO

AKA Every Man Is My Enemy, working on Qualcuno Ha Tradito’s script was one of Argento’s earliest jobs in cinema. However, it contains so little of what makes his work memorable, we can’t imagine he did much more than a spellcheck to it. With that in mind, tracking down this existential jazz-filled safecracker story is for completists only.

R IS FOR REMIX

French electro artists Justice remixed Argento’s Tenebre soundtrack to create their 2007 song “Phantom”. Dario had no idea the soundtrack had been sampled until his daughter Asia (a DJ herself) told him about it, and they briefly considered suing the duo. However, composer Claudio Simonetti is credited on the song, so at least someone’s getting royalties.

S IS FOR SUSPIRIA

If you only watch one Dario Argento movie, make it Suspiria. Basically several things that shouldn’t go together – Disney movies, Satanic horror, prog rock, puppet dogs, fairytale storytelling, dream logic and bullied ballerinas – combining to create one of the most memorable movies ever made. The plot follows dancer Suzy Banyon as she arrives in Germany to join a prestigious ballet school, discovering demons and witches are already there. It’s far weirder than that description makes it sound.

T IS FOR TWO EVIL EYES

In the late 80s, Dario Argento had a vision of a film constructed from four iconic horror directors’ new takes on Edgar Allen Poe’s classic spook stories. In the end, only Argento and his friend George A Romero (Night Of The Living Dead) took part. Romero delivered a relatively straight modern update of The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, Argento decided to twist The Black Cat into a series of Poe homages, starring Harvey Keitel. Neither story is either director’s greatest work, but they’re bloody/sick enough to pass a Sunday afternoon’s viewing.

U IS FOR UNDERWATER

One of Argento’s most iconic scenes was filmed underwater. Inferno features our lead heroine forced to swim through a flooded basement room, for no apparent reason – the moment seems led more by dream logic/Argento’s admiration of Fellini than by a desire to make narrative sense. It looks like it was difficult to shoot, but according to Irene Miracle it was more enjoyable than it appears. “There was a heat wave in Rome at the time of shooting the underwater scenes, so I was thrilled to be able to spend my days at work in the cool water. I’ve always been a great swimmer and just imagined myself a mermaid in those days in the water tank. This was the most interesting and fun part of filming with Inferno.”

V IS FOR VEGETARIAN

His films might be drenched in blood and gore, but Dario refuses to stick flesh on his dinner plate. “You know, insects have souls, too; they’re telepathic…amazing. People want to save the whales and dolphins, but nobody wants to save the insects. I’m a vegetarian, because I don’t want to kill things to eat,” he says.

W IS FOR WESTERNS

Despite being known for horror, Argento started out in the western genre. He wrote Once Upon A Time In The West with Sergio Leone, and even directed Five Days In Milan (1973), a cowboy flick mostly forgotten by everyone except his most obsessive fans. A box office flop, it drove the director back to terror, leading into arguably the greatest period of his career.

X IS FOR X CERTIFICATE

Unsurprisingly, because Dario enjoys shoving as much crazy violence as possible into his movies, all of his best films have been given the dreaded X. Despite the fact it limits his potential audience, Dario wears the certificate like a badge of honour – with Dracula 3D the latest of his films to earn it (despite not being particularly gory, or especially sexually explicit).

Y IS FOR YELLOW

Giallo is the genre Argento is probably most associated with – he even named one of his films after the genre. Translated from Italian into English, giallo literally means ‘yellow’ – as the genre was named after a series of Italian crime novels, which had distinctive yellow covers.

Z IS FOR ZOMBI

Zombi is the Italian title of Argento’s edit of George A Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead sequel, Dawn Of The Dead. Argento had the rights to re-edit the film for international distribution, and his cut is pretty fascinating. Unsurprisingly, he added his pals Goblin to the soundtrack, and lost a full 20 minutes from the version Romero premiered in Cannes. Zombi has less exposition, and generally runs at a faster pace. As a result, some fans prefer it. The combination of Romero and Argento’s versions means it’s still the most successful film in the series in box office terms.