Dario Argento four-pack

Argento’s golden period was undoubtedly covered by these four movies, which are the epitome of both all that is good, and all that is bad, about much Italian horror: the near-complete disregard for plot logic, in favour of stylish set-pieces and a surreal, dream-like atmosphere. To celebrate the return of Tenebrae, out to rent on September 20th [1999] from Nouveaux Pictures, we look at the master’s finest works.

Suspiria (1977)

Rating: B+

Dir: Dario Argento
Star: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci, Miguel Bosé

Suspiria is a perfect example of giallo: there is much about it that is totally ludicrous, for example, someone climbing into a room and apparently failing to notice it’s filled with razor wire. But it is certainly one of the best-looking movies of all time, photography and lighting combining in brazen defiance of logic to create a truly nightmarish world. This is also an incredibly edgy film, where the most everyday of shots is turned, largely thanks to the amazing Goblin score, into something hugely ominous. Witness the opening, where our heroine simply walks towards a set of sliding doors at an airport – the way the sequence is constructed, you’re convinced something horrific is going to happen as a result.

Not that there’s any shortage of real horror, with a variety of spectacular kills, as Suzy (Harper) slowly uncovers a witches’ coven at her German ballet school, in what’s best described as Alice in Wonderland meets The Exorcist – and why won’t the teachers let her eat with her classmates? Now, as noted, there is little “reality” on view here; for example, police interest in the carnage is desultory at best. However, few movies have ever done a better job of capturing the colour-flooded style of the subconscious and its creations. Suzy gradually finds herself getting in deeper, until the night where the rest of the students have gone on a ballet trip, leaving her the only pupil in the school. This resulting finale is totally off-the-wall, combining black magic, zombies and telekinesis. And you know what? I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Inferno (1980)

Rating: C

Dir: Dario Argento
Star: Leigh McCloskey, Irene Miracle, Eleonora Giorgi, Daria Nicolodi

Inferno concerns itself with the same mythos as Suspiria, but is notably less successful, particularly in a second half which sinks largely to prosaic creeping around in a New York basement. This is a real shame, for the first half has some brilliant set-pieces, notably a sequence in a lecture theatre to the strains of Verdi: nothing happens, yet it’s terribly eerie.

Here might be a good point to mention Argento’s alleged “misogyny”: even I began to wonder if his critics might have a point, since while the men die quickly, the women are slaughtered in extended stalk-and-slash scenarios. The use of colour, blood redder than red, and torrents of rain, echo Suspiria yet the laughable moments, such as the pathetic “cat attack”, intrude far more. Maybe something to do with the presence of Lamberto Bava as assistant director? Whatever the reason, the result is disappointing.


Intermission – I-Spy: Dario Argento films

Score ten points for spotting each of the following:

  • Body parts going through glass
  • Rainstorms
  • Animal attacks
  • Women and ponds
  • Black-gloved hands
  • Prowler-cam
  • Death by stabbing
  • Very extreme close-ups

Tenebre (1982)

Rating: B-

Dir: Dario Argento
Star: Anthony Franciosa, Christian Borromeo, Mirella D’Angelo, Veronica Lario

Tenebre is not part of the Three Mothers trilogy, which remains unfinished (Argento has scripted part III, Mother of Tears). However, in style if not theme, it takes a similar line; though supernatural death is replaced by prosaic murder, it still takes place in a hyper-real and detached world, supposedly futuristic, not that you’d really notice. Alongside Bava, second asst. director was Michele Soavi (he also cameos), making this an all-star crew. Some of the film is sheer showmanship – there’s a bravura camera-swoop over a house which adds nothing to plot or atmosphere yet remains a classic – and the plot is daft even by Argento’s lax standards (murders inspired by a book is about the most sensible aspect of it all).

It’s fairly wordy, and the sexual undertones are much more overt than usual; while it doesn’t always work, there are enough moments when it all comes together to overcome this. It’s a good transfer, probably from the same source used for the Roan Group laserdisc, with the end theme music restored, and while the movie is cut, a mere four seconds are gone – here [285K] is the main missing bit…

That edit was finally waived for good by the BBFC in 2002. Civilization, somehow, managed to weather this decision. The most amusing thing is probably that I felt the need to warn people about the size of the postage-stamp GIF, taking up a whole 285 KB of their precious 1999 bandwidth. There are also two different spellings of the title, with and without an “a”; I’ve gone for the one without.

Phenomena (1985)

Rating: C-

Dir: Dario Argento
Star: Jennifer Connelly, Donald Pleasence, Daria Nicolodi, Fiore Argento

Phenomena sees Argento return to neo-supernatural goings-on in the girls’ school setting. Connelly (yum!) is the student with an affinity for insects who teams up with entomologist Pleasence (and his dodgy Scottish accent) to find the killer who is treating the school as an all-you-can-kill buffet. “It’s perfectly normal for insects to be slightly telepathic,” says Pleasence; yeah, whatever… Especially in a climax which redefines “incredible”, the mix of pseudo-science, psychology and supernatural doesn’t really work, though everyone strives to take it seriously. The signs of Argento’s subsequent downward, and apparently inexorable, spiral into total bollocks (plotwise, in particular) are readily apparent.