Dario Argento’s Twisted Logic

by Smart

“The world of Dario Argento is one of twisted logic, rhapsodic violence, stylized excess; it is true Twentieth-Century Gothic with all the inversion, formal imbalance, and riotous grotesquerie the term can encompass” (McDonagh, 1991).

It was not long after the conception of cinema that Italy grew into a powerhouse of film production. In the beginning the majority of Italy’s films were historical epics with elaborate sets and costumes. As time passed and wars began and ended, cinema changed along with the world. The historical films became fewer and fewer and this allowed the neorealist movement to emerge and critique the decaying state of Italy’s society. Following this was a spree of spaghetti westerns, and then in 1970 came Dario Argento’s directorial debut. Argento became famous in the giallo genre and quickly established himself as one of Italy’s best horror directors. Many of his films were highly innovative in both their visual style and the way they challenged genre conventions. Argento has been crowned an auteur primarily due to his distinctive use of colour, lighting, camera work and musical score. His films revel in the macabre and frequently feature extreme sexual violence. Throughout his career his focus has shifted multiple times between giallo and supernatural films, with even a few attempts made to blend the two genres. He uses recurring narrative devices and character archetypes in his films. With his cult status and stylistic prowess he is able to draw large audiences while still maintaining his artistic integrity.

Argento’s first film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), set in stone a number of the conventions that have recurred throughout the rest of his career. The script was written by Argento himself and was based off Fredric Brown’s novel The Screaming Mimi. The film tells the story of a writer who is pulled into a murder mystery after witnessing an attempted murder in an art gallery. It was quite well received critically and pushed the giallo genre to the masses. The word giallo is Italian for yellow, as the genre was named after the popular Italian mystery and crime novels that sported yellow covers. The stories featured in those novels, and subsequently the films based on the novels, shared many of the same characteristics. They frequently revolved around whodunit mysteries where the story would conclude with the dramatic reveal of the killer’s identity. Eroticism appears frequently in giallo as women are almost always viewed in a sexual nature. In a simple sense giallo films are thrillers that feature explicit and imaginative murder sequences, elaborate mise en scène and often eclectic soundtracks. This combination of abundant sex and violence pushed the boundaries of the film going public. Argento has personally directed many of the most graphic sequences ever put to film. Giallos often revolve around a detective character, although this detective need not be a police officer or a professional as a normal man that is thrown into the fray can work just as well. The detective in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is an American writer living in Rome. By witnessing an attempted murder he is subsequently forced to take up the role of an amateur. As is common in Argento’s films, the amateur detective is both haunted and compelled by the mystery that drives the film.

Argento’s career then stepped up a notch with his 1975 film Deep Red, which was very well received by critics and audiences alike and is regarded as a quintessential giallo film. This time around the protagonist that must assume the role of a detective is Marcus Daly (played by David Hemmings). Daly is nothing more than a music teacher until he bears witness to a murder through the window of an apartment building. Much like in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage it is the act of being a witness that transforms seemingly regular characters into detectives that then involve themselves in tracking down a mysterious serial killer. Daly struggles throughout Deep Red to uncover an important clue that he knows he is missing. The failure to recollect or recognise a vital clue is a recurring theme in Argento films. Primarily this is because “Argento’s parody of the crime procedures that dominate detective fiction are used to underscore the lack of faith he invests in his amateur sleuths” (Mendik, 2003). This missing clue becomes the centrepiece of the film and is used to show Daly’s psychological obsession with tracking down the murderer.

Next came Suspiria (1977), which is the film that solidified Argento as one of Italy’s greatest horror directors. Suspiria left behind the typical format and conventions of the giallo genre and branched out into the supernatural. The surreal nature of Suspiria allowed it to avoid an emblematic narrative and focus more on aesthetic flare. In many ways Suspiria transcends the boundaries of the horror genre and becomes an art-film of the highest calibre. As Maitland McDonagh writes:

“You can’t reasonably look at Argento’s work without bearing in mind the contradictory context from which he springs: on the one hand, the practical Italian film industry, with its relentless emphasis on genre and its quick and dirty production practices; on the other, the cerebral world of film criticism, with its inevitable emphasis on analysis and intellectual distance.”

In this sense Suspiria is able to find a balance between these two worlds. Argento is a director capable of serving the needs of the social-economic system in which his films are made, while at the same exploring the craft and evolving as an artist. With the opening sequence of Suspiria, Argento was once again able to push audiences to their limits with a close-up shot of a blood soaked heart being repeatedly stabbed. Xavier Mendik observes that “The unnerving force of the scene is once again testament to the director’s ability to manipulate every aspect of cinematic technology in his quest to expand the boundaries of horror cinema”. Later would come Phenomena (1985) which was Argento’s first real attempt to combine the supernatural and giallo genres. It received below average reviews and was seen as signifying the beginning of a decline for Argento’s career. The supernatural aspect of Phenomena came from Argento’s fascination and preoccupation with animals. Jennifer Connelly’s character, Jennifer Corvino, has the supernatural ability of being able to communicate with insects, an ability which she uses to solve a series of murders. This obsession with animals has affected many of Argento’s films, most obviously those in the so-called ‘animal trilogy’, although animals do frequently appear right through his filmography.

If there is one thing that has remained consistent throughout Argento’s entire career it is his extravagant visual and aural style. The two most important and distinctive aspects of this are his use of colour and music. In Deep Red and Suspiria the use of music is critical to generating atmosphere and adrenaline. The music for both films was composed and played by Italian rock band Goblin. Their use of electronic keyboards and string instruments greatly aided Argento’s films as their music was able to match his eclectic visual style perfectly. Goblin has worked with Argento on the majority of his films, making them almost always identifiable in relation to him. Another key technique in Argento’s filmmaking repertoire is his use of long tracking shots. The most memorable of which appears in Tenebrae (1982), where the camera actually moves across the entire exterior of a house, simulating the perspective of the approaching murderer. Combining a long take with a probing and observational camera creates a very voyeuristic feel which is especially suited to the type of sexual horror films Argento makes, and these long takes often utilize around an anonymous point of view. The audience is looking through the eyes of a killer who has not yet been identified in the film, and often even their sex has yet to be established. This ambiguity forces the audience to assume the role of the voyeur as they have no tangible character with which to identify and associate the point of view.

Argento has always been recognised as an innovative filmmaker. This may be seen in his unconventional takes on film and genre standards, or in a new and original use of technology. In Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1972) a specialised camera was used that was capable of recording an entire reel of film in less than a second. By doing this, Argento was able to show an extreme slow motion shot of a car crash. In Suspiria Argento has the camera fly down a suspended wire towards the ground. This gives the feeling of something darting towards a person standing on the ground, threatening them from above. Another trademark of Argento is the use of old photo stock. This technique is responsible for the dazzling and rainbow-like use of colour in many of his films. The dramatically changing colours in Suspiria are produced using outdated Technicolour stock, which Argento used to give the film a striking visual intensity. Even late into his career his lust for innovation continued, as The Stendhal Syndrome (1996) was the first Italian film to feature CGI.

A common motif in Argento films is that of unconventional gender roles and twists. This frequent misuse of pre-existing and accepted conventions in his films often caught audiences out and turned critics on their heads. For instance, in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage the big reveal at the end of the film is that the murderer was in fact the wife, and not the husband as the viewer had been led to believe. In traditional horror films the serial killer has almost always been a man. Because of this institution it became ritual for there to be female victims who would be stalked and then murdered by the male killer. This was an outlet for sexual frustration and hostility in society, and in turn gave horror films a very chauvinistic feel. “On the face of it, the relation between the sexes in slasher films could hardly be clearer. The killer is with few exceptions recognizably human and distinctly male; his fury is unmistakably sexual in both roots and expression” (Clover, 1987). For Argento to turn this around was his way to reject the necessity for an archetype serial killer who fitted the gender role of a perverse male with intimacy issues. Argento’s films do however present explicit sexual content in other ways. There are a number of occasions in his films where beautiful women are murdered when they are naked, or at least close to it. The violence is often sexual in nature; a woman may be dominated and then stripped before being killed. “Argento favours glass and mirrors on a fairly consistent basis, scarring and dispatching his actresses in an assault on the ‘narcissism’ the films so fetishistically construct” (Hunt, 2000). To counter this kind of overt patriarchy, Argento would have male characters that were feeble and easily controlled by women. This is shown strongly in Suspiria where the evil force responsible for the murders is revealed to be a coven of witches, all obviously female. These female witches controlled the school and all those within it, manipulating any men that came into contact with them. Another striking example of Argento’s penchant for gender reversal comes in Deep Red. Here the final twist reveals that the killer is, once again, a woman. She is portrayed wearing black leather gloves and has heavy white makeup on her face. This costuming is done to mimic that of the typical male serial killers found in horror films, who wear white masks to hide their faces, which were often deformed.

Dario Argento is a director that has made a name for himself as not only a commercial horror film director, but also as a talented and innovative art film director. He brought giallo films to the mainstream and changed future horror films forever. His visual style is astounding, inventive and entirely his own. Colour, lighting, camera movement and music all work in unison in Argento’s films to create thrilling and frightening atmospheres and action. His narratives are often unconventional and challenge accepted norms. He reverses gender roles while at the same time exploiting sex in the most violent ways imaginable. Argento has pushed boundaries while remaining an asset to the film industry. He is a one of a kind director and one of the greatest visionaries to come out of Italy.