The films of Dario Argento span the qualities of cinema as a whole. At their worst, his films are eye-glazingly boring. At their best, they resemble dreams manifested on a blank canvas, impossibly complex explorations of sight and sound, plumbing the relationship between the viewer and the viewed. His reputation as an active filmmaker has plummeted in the past two decades, and a consideration of his entire oeuvre makes for a potentially depressing exercise, given that fall from grace. Still, Argento has created films that transcend the too-often maligned horror genre. His filmography makes for a fascinating auteurist study in how a creator expressing an idiosyncratic viewpoint can produce wildly varying results.
Although the director’s standing may have been diminished by his lazy later work, prime Argento is at the forefront of cinematic discussions again. A remake of his most popular film, Suspiria, premieres this fall, with direction by fellow Italian Luca Guadagnino and starring Tilda Swinton and Dakota Johnson. Digitally restored prints of both Suspiria and Deep Red are making the revival-circuit rounds — recently appearing locally at the Tivoli and the Moolah theaters for midnight screenings. The director himself is in pre-production on a crowd-funded film titled The Sandman, featuring rock legend Iggy Pop. Given this renewed interest in his work, now is an ideal time to sift through this influential filmmaker’s storied career.
24. Dracula 3-D (2012)
Digitally created flies swarm around the townsfolk in Argento's sole 3D outing, perhaps attracted to this garbage heap of a movie. Argento's latest is also his worst, a film that would be ranked among the least accomplished films ever made if it managed to be anything but thuddingly dull. It's impossible to find the imprint of the once-masterful filmmaker anywhere in this Skinemax update of Bram Stoker's novel. The saturated Victorian look points towards a Hammer Films homage, but the cringe-worthy CGI sets and effects undermine the feature at every turn.
23. The Phantom of the Opera (1998)
Anticipating Dracula 3-D in reinventing a classic horror tale, Argento updates this oft-told story with a laughably inane script. Phantom's opening moments are the death knell for the director's former glory, as psychic sewer rats rescue a baby in a basket. Instead of the gonzo zoology at the heart of Phenomena, this film lacks any thematic core, piling inelegant, gory setpieces on top of its lackluster production and acting. The Phantom's (Julian Sands) awkward fever-dream fantasy in the middle of the film might have secured a MST3K-level condescending fandom for the film, but instead Phantom has rightfully been forgotten.
22. Giallo (2009)
A jaundiced film with a jaundiced serial killer, Giallo is unable to recapture a single spark of the somewhat defunct titular genre. It's an attempt by Argento to reinvigorate himself within his old stomping ground, but it resembles a degraded facsimile of his own work, not to mention that of his cohorts and forebears. The film’s nods to Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace (1964) don't balance well with the torture-porn violence of Saw (2004).
21. The Mother of Tears (2007)
Mimicking its art-restorer heroine Sarah (Asia Argento), the finale of director Argento's supernatural ‘Three Mothers’ trilogy (which includes Suspiria and Inferno) finds the director returning to his most well-known property in an effort to regain some tarnished glory. Unfortunately, the film's campy fun devolves into unbearable garishness and grotesquery, and — compared to the first two films in the trilogy — lazy, leaden direction and scripting.
20. The Card Player (2004)
A giallo for the nascent digital age, this The Silence of the Lambs (1991) knockoff has grown increasingly dull as time passes, with the achingly slow games of video poker featured in the film seeming more and more out-of-touch. A faceless serial killer promises to murder kidnapped victims if the police lose one of the aforementioned games. Law-enforcement officials are forced to watch the tortures on a live feed as the cards are revealed. It's a device that's understandably interesting to a director concerned with audience complicity and voyeurism, but unlike the conceit of the murders in Opera, Argento exudes little cinematic muscle to spruce up the proceedings. By the time the killer takes advantage of lead investigator Anna's (Stefania Rocca) trauma, the director re-purposes one of cinema's oldest and most ludicrous tropes — tying a woman to a train track — and murders it with boredom.
18 - 19. “Pelts” (2006) / “Jenifer” (2005)
Masters of Horror was a reprieve for many genre filmmakers who could no longer get big-screen work produced and/or widely distributed. The Italian master churned out two of episodes for the short-lived anthology series. "Pelts" is a much gorier and less interesting reiteration of "The Black Cat," whereas "Jenifer" proves only slightly more interesting. The latter — a lusty story written by its star, Steven Weber — gave Argento some fresh meat to chew on. Although its intermingling of sex and violence is well-trodden ground, the director challenges viewers to accept the lead's downward spiral into sexual oblivion via a siren with a mean, flesh-eating mug. The circular nature of the tale resembles prime Twilight Zone, but it's too bad the visuals rarely reach prime Argento.
17. Do You Like Hitchcock? (2005)
Originally produced for Italian television, this cheapie benefits from its relative lightness and its director's fondness for the Master of Suspense. The film is primarily concerned with the most surface-level of Hitchcockian motifs, borrowing the central conceits of Rear Window (1954) and Strangers on a Train (1951) when a film-studies college student plays peeping Tom to his attractive female neighbor, catching her in what he believes to be a murder-swap conspiracy. It's possible that with sufficient time and budget, the film could have been a more adventurous exploration of Hitchcock's cinematic language, as in Brian De Palma's Femme Fatale (2002), the poster of which is displayed in a video store that is central to Hitchcock?'s narrative. As it stands, it's a comparatively inoffensive late Argento offering.
16. The Five Days (1973)
The Five Days is the most conspicuous outlier in Argento's canon. A political farce set during the Austrian occupation of Italy, it resembles a twisted hybrid of Sergio Leone's Duck, You Sucker (1971) and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). (The latter having been written by Argento, Leone, and Bernardo Bertolucci.) Argento largely fails to strike the correct balance between broad comedy and brutal violence in The Five Days. Still, it’s a film made by a director honing his finest skills, and on that basis alone it’s worth the viewer’s consideration.
15. Sleepless (2001)
Sleepless is David Fincher's Zodiac (2007) as giallo, only without the ecstatic joy of its creator's implementation of the cinematic apparatus. It's a rote, decades-spanning police procedural that, while having all the hallmarks of the director's previous gialli, is never truly elevated by its occasional dips into stylishness. Given that Argento casts master Swedish actor Max von Sydow against relatively unknown and less-capable Italian thespians, it also works as an interesting case study in performances in Argento’s films. As with many of the director’s works, Sleepless requires a suspension of disbelief regarding the gulf between actual human behavior and the often-dubbed, wide-eyed nature of the characters who populate his worlds.
13 - 14. “The Tram” / “Eyewitness” (1973)
Door Into Darkness represents Argento and Italian television’s attempt to reinvent the director as the Hitchcock of the 1970s: a four-episode anthology series that only lasted for one season. Argento helmed two episodes himself, showcasing his filmmaking development on a smaller scale. “The Tram” is the television work that most resembles Argento’s big-screen features. It’s a fairly standard police procedural heightened by the director’s trademark exploration of space. A literal investigation of movement within a frame unfolds when it’s discovered that the bend of a city bus allows for a murder to take place. Shades of Vertigo and Rear Window appear when the lead investigator ropes his girlfriend into dangerously replaying the night of the crime. This leads to the bravura climax set in a train station, where gorgeously gliding camera movements abound.
In “Eyewitness,” a woman stumbles onto a murder and then narrowly escapes being killed herself. She is forced to replay the events in her mind when the police are unable to turn up a body. Her own personal life isn’t quite what it seems to be; it turns out that it’s her husband and his girlfriend who are stalking her in an attempt to pin the murder on her. This Gaslight redux is mostly notable as a microcosm of the director’s interest in perspective and sight. The uncredited Argento took over this episode from Roberto Pariante — his assistant director on The Bird with the Crystal Plumage — and “Eyewitness” retains a meta-layer of perspective shifts, reflecting Argento’s use of another’s footage for his own ends.
12. Trauma (1993)
Trauma could be the name of any of Argento's horror efforts, but it is particularly apt for this feature. The characters' past sins certainly amount to one sticky web of tangled issues, especially in the case of the lead, played by Asia Argento, making her debut in her father's filmography. It's the director's first feature-length English-language production set stateside, but his European sensibilities create a confounding dissonance within it. Stuffed with whack-a-doodle, half-baked ideas seemingly conjured by Piper Laurie's insidious psychic, it's best enjoyed as a purely visual display of the director's unique abilities with his camera.
11. “The Black Cat” (1990)
In adapting "The Black Cat" for the Edgar Allan Poe diptych Two Evil Eyes — the other half is helmed by George A. Romero — Argento mounts one of his most audacious works. Working in the States and exclusively with English-speaking actors for the first time, the director uses the opportunity to work through the limits of filmic depictions of violence. Harvey Keitel is an abusive crime-scene photographer who becomes one of the most deplorable murderers in Argento’s oeuvre when he murders his girlfriend and walls her body up in their Philadelphia brownstone. A diabolical figure who configures his own comeuppance via one particularly unkillable feline, he’s the inverse of the obsessive wall-crumbler played by David Hemmings in Deep Red. “The Black Cat” feels like an admission of guilt for a director accused of deep misogyny throughout his work, but forcing audience self-identification with the killer also knowingly fingers the viewer as complicit in these acts.
10. Phenomena (1985)
It may be unfair to compare this bewitching oddity to Argento's much better Deep Red, but Phenomena works in a manner similar to the latter film, in that it chronicles the seemingly disparate horror preoccupations of its maker. It's his ultimate statement of humanity's animal instincts and our role in the food chain, complete with insects controlled by a human psychic, an entomologist with a live-in chimpanzee assistant, and a serial killer with a thirst for blood. The zoological alchemy results in a much wonkier mix than Deep Red, but it's still a worthy entry for its sheer weirdness.
9. Inferno (1980)
Inferno was an attempt to take Suspiria to a global scale, extending the former film's grand conspiracy of witches to New York City and Rome. It's closer to the bananas funhouse of Phenomena than its origin point, but the film provides Argento with opportunities to mount some of the oddest and yet most satisfying moments of horror in his canon: a dive into the spirit-infected waters of underground NYC; a gross-out scene in which an antique dealer’s body is consumed by rats; and the Satanic insanity of the climax, which the director would attempt to duplicate in The Mother of Tears, to lesser results.
6 - 8. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) / Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) / The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971)
Credit for the invention of the giallo goes to Argento’s horror hero Mario Bava, who introduced world cinema to the pulpy Italian-novel subgenre with The Girl Who Knew Too Much in 1963. However, Argento's first three films constitute the apex of the form. He uses the standard ingredients — a black-gloved killer, protracted slash-and-kill setpieces, mingling of sex and death in a labyrinthine plot — but with his "Animal Trilogy" he elevated the genre into more artful territory. Bird flips the skeezy gender politics of the giallo on its head; Four Flies extends notions of voyeurism into more murky waters; and Cat convolutes its murder mystery to a point of deconstructionist abstraction. They're all incredible, dazzlingly stylish starting points for ideas Argento would soon perfect.
5. The Stendhal Syndrome (1996)
The Stendhal Syndrome is the director's closest approximation of Vertigo (1958): a bifurcated narrative pitting the demure brunette against her cool-blonde self. Masculinity at its most destructive violently rips her psyche into two as she sublimates her trauma into bloody revenge. Her relationship to art, with the titular affliction, reflects her already shaky relationship with reality, making her perpetuation of her own abuse supremely tragic. This is the “least fun” of Argento's great films, with the added awkwardness of the repeated rape and sexualization of a character played by his own daughter, but it's also the last of the director’s truly great features.
4. Tenebre (1982)
Tenebre anticipated Body Double — by Argento’s American counterpart Brian De Palma — by two years. Both films act as bombs lobbed at a critical establishment that saw only misogyny and self-congratulatory style from the two directors. With these works, both filmmakers doubled down on these aesthetic markers with acidic cynicism, counter-subverting their own previous subversions while retaining a cinematic glee. It doesn’t come as a shock when the killer is revealed to be the film’s novelist hero (Anthony Franciosa), as he's already stuffed pages from his book (also titled Tenebre) into one of his victim's mouths. The film intelligently tackles the role of the author within his own work, as well as his responsibility in releasing it into the world. Its self-reflexive moments cheekily reveal themselves on multiple viewings, as the film accumulates layers of meaning that reveal the agony and the ecstasy of creation. A complex work in narrative, thematic, and architectural design, Tenebre also features the most original and danceable score in Argento’s filmography, by his frequent collaborators, Goblin.
3. Opera (1987)
Spectacle and spectatorship are dangerously intertwined in the aesthetics of Opera. The killer is an Argento stand-in here, taping needles under his audience's eyelids in an effort to force them through torture and catharsis. The director fascinatingly implicates himself as a perpetrator of violence while using his skills as a master filmmaker to seduce the viewer into giddy awe of his violent Rube Goldberg machines. Nonetheless, Argento never loses sight of the trauma he inflicts in his artist-as-puppet-master role; here, his heroine succumbs to the cycle of violence in the film's final moment of self-reclamation.
2. Suspiria (1977)
Suspiria stands alongside Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941) and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as one of the most visually stunning cinematic creations ever mounted. Like the former films, this disco-inflected nightmare was fashioned by a creator firing on all cylinders, using every square inch of the frame to showcase his cinematic brawn. To enter it is to suspend all notions of reality and surrender one’s psyche to a dream-like experience. Suspiria is so visually spellbinding that its artfulness almost upends the All of Them Witches fairy-tale plot. However, the film’s fury of neon light works like the dance-school instructors' poisoning of American student Susie (Jessica Harper), infecting the viewer's nervous system and enveloping them in its conspiratorial web. The film furthers Hitchcock's notions of sex and death being perfect bedfellows by mounting the most deliriously sensuous kills up to that point in cinema's history, only later surpassed (arguably) by Argento himself.
1. Deep Red (1975)
Deep Red is Argento's supreme compendium, chronicling all of the director's themes with precision and playfulness: film's ability to alter reality within spaces and memories; excavations of the past to reveal an always-present buried paradigm; and the dialectical nature of gender, sex, and violence with their cultural imbalances. It's all the more miraculous that it appeared so early in his directorial career — a kind of pronouncement of mastery carefully spinning webs outward toward the future. Thrusting the audience through the red-velvet curtains onto an arch proscenium in its opening, the film is confidently aware of its own importance and giddy filmic prowess.
Hitchcock’s other great acolyte, Brian De Palma, is compared to Jean-Luc Godard more often than is his Italian cohort. Yet Deep Red showcases Argento's postmodern deconstruction of symbols throughout art, history, and cinema — much like the early “movie-movies” of the French New Wave director. Casting David Hemmings as the protagonist whose perception and memory becomes warped as he investigates a murder is to put a fine point on Deep Red's interpolation of Antonio's Blow-Up (1966). However, the film never feels slavish to cinematic history, creating contrasts with the inexorable way that the characters' pasts dictate their fates. The film is also remarkably fun, a dreamy and violent puzzle box featuring dazzling setpieces buttressed by the romantic comedy between Hemmings' jazz musician and his girl Friday played by Daria Nicolodi, Argento's then-wife. Somehow at once wonky and perfectly calibrated, Deep Red is one of cinema's great masterpieces, featuring a final image as haunting as any in film history.