As the BFI’s ‘Dario Argento: Doors into Darkness’ season begins, the reigning king of Italian horror discusses the ideas behind his most iconic films, the new generation discovering his oeuvre, and Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 remake of Suspiria
With Dario Argento’s gory, gorgeous giallo cinema, no matter the gruesomeness, the viewer cannot look away. So much so, the defining image of the Italian auteur’s filmography may well be in the 1987 horror Opera: a young singer, Betty, is tied up with ropes by a masked murderer who stretches her eyes with needles, ensuring she cannot blink; in front of Betty, her boyfriend is then stabbed repeatedly with a long, probing knife, as if the resultant screams and streams of blood are for her sick, perverse entertainment.
“That’s how I would like the viewers to feel at the BFI,” Argento jokes. “The inspiration was when I noticed viewers covering their eyes during scenes that were extremely difficult to shoot. I said to myself: I have to find a way to keep their eyes open.” It’s a compliment, though, if the audience, under duress, bury their head in their hands? “Not for me. As a director, the creation of those scenes are so complex, I want them to enjoy it, not be scared!”
In a hotel suite, Argento is happily chatting away, via an interpreter, to me during his visit to London for a BFI season titled “Dario Argento: Doors into Darkness”. Arguably the greatest and most influential horror filmmaker of all time, the 82-year-old director is responsible for genre classics such as Suspiria, Deep Red, and Phenomena. In fact, throughout May, BFI Southbank is screening the UK premiere of 17 brand-new 4K restorations, courtesy of Cinecittà, where audiences will stare in awe at Argento’s nightmarish visions, regardless of whether they have razor-sharp needles holding their eyelids apart or not.
With several of the films, the cinemagoers may not have been alive in the year they were released. “It’s normally teenagers that come to see my movies,” Argento declares with pride. “In New York, in Paris, and, two days ago, in Rome, the people in the lines outside were below 20. It’s incredible enthusiasm that these kids have towards my work.”
After all, Argento, known as the godfather of giallo, has always celebrated the colourful contradictions of his filmmaking style with a youthful, mischievous spirit. Both beautiful and brutal, the director’s slasher-thrillers are bloodbaths that treat stabbings as sensuous and sinister. That the victims are nearly always photogenic women has prompted accusations of misogyny, but the psychological themes, surreal humour, and meta-commentary on violence in cinema also complicate the onscreen action: 1982’s Tenebrae jokingly depicts a horror novelist whose fiction inspires copycat murders.
After starting out as a screenwriter in the 1960s (he co-wrote Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West), Argento made his directorial debut in 1970 with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, a murder-mystery that popularised numerous giallo tropes: a killer who strangles with black gloves, victims who coincidentally happen to be supermodels, and painterly cinematography that defies the B-movie storyline.
A few films later, Argento reinvented himself with two supernatural horrors, Suspiria in 1977 and Inferno in 1980, both so hypnotic in their fusion of lurid lights and ecstatic soundtracks that you accept the nonsensical plotline. However, Argento is dismissive of my romantic notion that he transfers his dreams to the screen. “For example, I got the idea for Deep Red when I was driving in traffic through Rome.” He describes a book he read about how scientists make discoveries. “One of the greatest inventors was riding a bus when he got this incredible idea. It’s the same with me: when I don’t think about my movies, that’s when the movies come to my mind.”
Is that why so many of his films, whether it’s Suspiria or Phenomena, start with protagonists riding in vehicles? “I don’t think my inspiration comes from driving, but it’s true, I put a lot of attention on people moving from place to place, because travelling is my first and biggest passion.” And one day he will fall asleep in a car and dream of a movie idea, thus pleasing my theory? With a laugh, he concedes, “Some come from dreams, some come from sudden inspirations, some come from studying.”
“As a director, the creation of those scenes are so complex, I want them to enjoy it, not be scared!” – Dario Argento
He describes the research into psychoanalysis that went into 1996’s The Stendhal Syndrome, in which his daughter Asia Argento repeatedly slips into a fantasy world, at one point kissing a huge grouper fish underwater. “It’s a dreamy movie, but not influenced by personal dreams… I’m really happy that young people are going to discover it.”
The Stendhal Syndrome marked the second of six times Asia acted in her father’s films, the most recent being Dark Glasses, released in 2022 on VOD and making its theatrical debut in the UK through the BFI season. Not only was it Argento’s return to the giallo genre, but it was his first feature since 2007’s Mother of Tears. (Technically there was 2009’s Giallo and 2012’s Dracula 3D, but even the season’s line-up is prepared to forget those existed.)
Curiously, Dark Glasses nearly featured the final musical recordings by Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo as a duo. “I wanted Daft Punk for the movie” Argento says. “I started working with them for the music, and I think they started to create something. But after a few weeks, I received a call from their agent, and he said, ‘Unfortunately Daft Punk are splitting.’”
Last year, Argento made his acting debut in Gaspar Noé’s Vortex, a move that, the Italian director says, was merely a favour to a friend, and he doesn’t plan to cast himself in his next film, and certainly not die in it, like I grimly suggest. “Being an actor on Gaspar’s set won’t change how I direct… (but like Gaspar) one of the reasons I attract young people to my films is because of my provocative character.”
As for what he’s doing next, Argento refers to a movie he will shoot in France – he immediately shoots down rumours it’ll star Isabelle Huppert, who he otherwise adores – and reveals he’s been offered a TV series. In terms of younger filmmakers he admires, he declines to name any specifics, even when I reference an interview in which he praises Hereditary.
Argento is more willing to offer his thoughts on another recent horror, Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 remake of Suspiria. Or, more specifically, that I call it a remake. “I did not the enjoy the movie so much, Luca Guadagnino’s one.” Why? “Just because I don’t understand why he took my movie. It’s not a remake. It’s another movie. It’s not clear for me the connection between our two movies.”
“When I shot my movies, I intended to give them a timeless atmosphere. They’re not relegated to the age they were shot” – Dario Argento
Whereas Guadagnino chose to set his Suspiria in 1977 Berlin (the leaked script had a cameo from David Bowie), Argento’s own Suspiria from 1977 is so otherworldly it exists outside of time. Could it be this timelessness that attracts teenagers to his retrospectives?
“When I shot my movies, I intended to give them a timeless atmosphere,” Argento says. “They’re not relegated to the age they were shot. My movies were popular in the 1970s, and then they became less popular. But when DVDs came out, they started circulating again, and a generation could educate themselves in my movies.”
Argento adds, “It took a lot of work for me to create Opera. If I could choose for one to be seen on the big screen, I suggest that young people go and discover Opera.”
‘Dario Argento: Doors into Darkness’ is at BFI Southbank until 31 May; selected films in the Argento season are available on BFI Player