From The Deuce
Dario Argento (born September 7, 1940 in Rome, Italy) is the son of producer/film executive Salvatore Argento and photographer Elda Luxardo. Although he started his career in film as a movie critic, he would also write for various magazines before graduating high school. After high school Argento decided to skip out on college and took a job working for the newspaper Paese Sera. While working there Argento began work as a screenwriter. One of his first projects was the spaghetti western “Once Upon A Time in the West” writing alongside Bernardo Bertolucci. After the release of the film Argento started working on his directorial debut that would cement him into horror history with “The Bird With The Crystal Plumage”. This film was a success in Italy and was one of the films that regularly played on 42nd street in New York City for an extended time period.
After the success of “The Bird With The Crystal Plumage” Argento focused in on the Italian thriller and giallo market, really making a name for himself. The world “giallo” actually means yellow in Italian and it refers to the Italian mystery novels that were being released at the time. These books had a yellow cover and were quite similar to the American pulp noir magazines that were on newsstands at the time.
Although many credit film maker Mario Bava with the invention of the “giallo” film with his 1963 film “The Girl Who Knew Too Much” but Argento took the formula and made it his own. After making “The Bird with The Crystal Plumage” Argento moved on to make two more “giallo” films that would really make their mark with “The Cat O' Nine Tails” (1971) and “Four Flies on Grey Velvet” (1972) that along with “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” are considered Argento’s “Animal Trilogy”. Although the three films have nothing in common with each other outside of their involvement with animals, that’s how these films have been categorized for years.
At this point Argento moved on to some of the strangest projects of his career as he made a “giallo” that was for Italian television that he did completely uncredited called “Eyewitness” or Testimone oculare in 1973. It is also of note that Argento co-wrote the project along with well known Italian director/writer Luigi Cozzi (Contamination, The Killer Must Kill Again). From there he went on to make another made for TV “giallo” in Tram II in 1973 that he was billed as “Sirio Bernadotte”. Finally breaking his streak of consecutive “giallo” films he made the movie “The Five Days” in 1973 that was actually a comedy. Strangely enough this film is hardly talked about among Argento’s other films and is proof that the director really had an effect on people when working in the horror realm, somewhere he would spend the rest of his career.
Then in 1975 he would change the world of “gialli” forever when he released what many (myself included) consider the best film of that type in “Deep Red”. “Deep Red” would not only change the game as far as the “giallo” went, but it also marked a very monumental moment in his career as well as changing horror forever. “Deep Red” was the beginning of the working relationship between Argento and Claudio Simonetti. If that name doesn’t ring a bell then this one probably will, as he was a composer and member of the Italian band “Goblin”. “Goblin” would go on to work with Argento several more times throughout his career and in the process becoming the exemplary band when it came to soundtracks. Also “Deep Red” would inspire a whole genre of “gialli” with this film as well as many other directors the world over. Argento himself even has a cameo of sorts in the film like in many of his “giallo” films as he dons the black gloves that the killer wears and his hands show up on screen several times throughout.
In 1977 Argento would make a film that would blast him into legendary stratosphere for the remainder of his career with the classic film “Suspiria”. Considered by many to be his best film “Suspiria” is a landmark film that honestly deserves that praise that it always has gotten. Although it’s not a “giallo” this film certainly uses the “giallo” conventions to its advantage, even though the movie is more of a witch movie than anything else. It’s bright and prominent colors are something of wonder and honestly set the film apart from just about everything that’s ever been made because of it. The film is truly a work of art and has been compared to a moving painting because of how visually stunning it is. It’s also kicks off something that would be a major part of Argento’s career which is the “Three Mothers” trilogy that would be followed up on in his 1980 film “Inferno”.
In the middle of “Suspiria” and “Inferno” Argento then collaborated with American horror film master George A. Romero by being responsible for getting his classic film “Dawn Of The Dead” made. Argento had contacted Romero to do a follow up to his classic zombie masterpiece “Night of the Living Dead” and had some financing lined up through the foreign market. That allowed Argento to edit and oversee the version to be screened in Europe and happened to feature more Goblin music as well as a shorter running time.
In 1980 Argento went on to make “Inferno” which was the second film in the “Three Mothers” trilogy. The film was mainly given the go ahead because “Suspiria” was such a financial success. Not only didn’t the film go on to do the business that “Suspiria” did but it was mainly panned by critics as well. Personally I’m a huge fan of Argento and this is one of my least favorite of his works too.
In 1982 Argento returned to the “giallo” film that he cut his cloth on with “Tenebre”. In the film a writer who is on a publicity tour for his newest murder mystery when he ends up getting entangled into a real life murder mystery himself. There’s a killer on the loose and seems to be a big fan of the writers novels, even so much that there have been evidence at several murders that the killer ripped out pages of the book and left them at the crime scene. Argento himself has admitted that the story itself came from an incident he had with a fan in which the person would repeatedly call day in day out confessing that he wanted to kill Argento. Also legendary John Saxon appears in the film in a pretty memorable role as well.
In 1985 however Argento started working on another film of his own called “Phenomena” that starred a young Jennifer Connelly and Donald Pleasance. For some reason though there was about 30 minutes cut from the film in its US release and was retitled “Creepers”. The soundtrack also featured music from “Goblin” as well as rock bands like “Iron Maiden” and “Motorhead” too. 1985 also marked the year where Argento would go on to write some very prominent horror films for some of Italy’s up and coming directors. He would write the screenplay to Lamberto Bava’s 1985 film “Demons” as well as the script for it’s follow up “Demons 2” in 1986.
1987 would see the director go back to doing what he was best known for and that was the “giallo”. He would make the film “Opera” also known as “Terror at the Opera” which I have always felt is his most underrated film. It’s the story of a young opera singer who is about to catch her big break, but it just so happens that it’s one of the most unlucky ones a young actor or actress can have. It’s to star in Macbeth as Lady Macbeth herself, which starts a whole chain reaction of events for Betty as people all around her are being killed. Only it’s happening all in front of her face as the killer actually tapes nails under her eyelids and ties her up so that she as a front row view to the murders. It’s very well done and has always stuck out to me as one of Argento’s best films. Many critics consider it to be Argento’s last great film. The film however was plagued with tons of problems during it’s production however with actress Vanessa Redgrave pulling out before production started, on set issues with Dario Nicolodi and Argento, mishaps on set in general, and even Dario’s father passed away during the making of the film.
In the 1990’s we would see Argento continue his work as his first project was a collaboration between himself and the man who he worked with on “Dawn Of The Dead” in George A. Romero. He and Romero combined to make “Two Evil Eyes” which was a two story film with Romero tackling one and Argento doing the other. Both of them were to make film adaptations of their favorite Edgar Allen Poe stories as Romero was to make “The Facts in the Case of Dr. Valdemar” while Argento made “The Black Cat” starring Harvey Keitel. He then went on to write and direct “Trauma” in 1993 with his daughter Asia in one of the main roles. In 1996 Argento wrote and directed the very underrated film “The Stendhal Syndrome” starring his daughter Asia again and happened to be the first ever Italian film to include CGI (Computer Generated Imagery).
Since 2000, Argento has still managed to keep busy even with limited funding and tons of issues when it comes to getting the films made. In 2001, Argento made “Sleepless” which was a return to his giallo roots and many found that to be his artistic return to the genre. It’s filled with nods to a lot of the director’s prior work and stars Max Von Sydow in the leading role.
In 2004 Argento brought his flare for the “giallo” film into the new age of technology. In “The Card Player” a police inspector is challenged by a murderer to play a game of poker in which he uses people he has kidnapped as the prize for the game. Although the film is certainly a pretty slick giallo in my opinion, it’s not one of the director’s revered films as it has had quite the lukewarm response by fans since its release.
2005 saw Argento return to the small screen of television with his film “Do You Like Hitchcock” which is clearly a nod to the master of suspense. It’s filled with references to Hitchcock and even the film itself uses a lot of Hitchcock’s suspense techniques that really make it quite the unique film.
Also Argento would make a mark in the US around this time with his involvement in the first two seasons of the “Masters of Horror” series. He would do two episodes of the show one of them called “Jenifer” based off a story from “Creepy” Magazine, and the gorefest “Pelts” in the second season. Both shows are considered by many the two best episodes that the series ever had.
Recently though Dario has been hard at work on the third film in the “Three Mothers” trilogy with the movie “Mother of Tears”. While it’s sure to be a classic to some and trash to others the film itself feel like Argento channeling the late Lucio Fulci with over the top gore sequences and a narrative that is at best difficult to follow. Only time will tell if the film will mark the return to greatness that Argento had in the late 60s into the 70s but time will never be able to take away the make that the man has made on the genre. Although Mario Bava might have put Italy on the map as far as horror films were concerned, Argento was a big part of the reasons for it staying on the map as long as it has over there. He’s one of the greatest visual directors of all time and his work will continue to be inspiration for generations of film makers to come. (Written by Ed Demko - 5/5/08)