One thing I love about rating film franchises is that each film, no matter how mediocre I might think it is, gets some attention. So even if I dislike a film, readers are still potentially introduced to a movie that they might like, and I can't be faulted for ignoring a film. Dario Argento is one of my favorite directors, and I imagine if I were to make a horror film or write a scary story, it would have elements of Argento splashed throughout. I have not seen all of his films, and even if I had, that would be quite a list. So I decided to pick my top five Argento films. Easier said than done. I found myself having difficulty figuring out which films to leave off (though, I'll admit there were a couple that easily didn't make the cut). After that struggle, I decided to go easy on myself and not rank these films. So, what you see here are my top five picks for a nice Dario Argento marathon, in no particular order (well, OK, in alphabetical order), and with the strong reminder that the one or two films you are shocked not to see on the list were likely thisclose to making it.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage: Fittingly, the first alphabetically is also his first feature-length film. It is also a very good indicator of where his work would go, mixing slasher elements with mystery and detective work to create one of the most well-known giallo films ever. In the film, Sam Dalmas witnesses an almost deadly attack. In fact, had he not been there, the attack would likely have ended in murder. Instead, he is left stuck between two panes of glass as he watches Monica Ranieri nearly lose her life. Normally, a witness like Sam would provide a statement to the police and then have nothing to do with the crime. But in what would become true Argento fashion, Sam cannot shake that night's events. He is able to provide a testimony, but he is not satisfied with it, knowing that he is not quite remembering everything about the attack. The missing piece of information bothers him, as he knows that it is a key piece of the puzzle, so he remains an active part of the investigation, putting both himself and his girlfriend in a world of trouble. The film weaves seamlessly between mystery and slasher, creating a number of tense moments. There are also twists and turns in the plot, and the audience easily becomes as invested at figuring out the mystery as Sam is. While many of the elements in this film become Argento's trademarks, it is not, perhaps, the most “Argento” of all Argento films. Still, it is an amazing first film and one that is still fun to watch even after you know all of the secrets.
Deep Red:After a few feature-length films under his belt, it was clear with Deep Red that he'd hit his stride. Much likeThe Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Deep Red centers around a mystery. This time, musician Marcus Daly witnesses the murder of psychic Helga Ulmann. Again, glass plays another key part in the scene, although this time instead of being caught between glass, Daly (standing outside) only notices the crime when Ulmann's body is thrown through her apartment window. He quickly runs upstairs to try to help, but he is too late. Once again, Daly relays his testimony, but is severely bothered by a detail that doesn't quite add up. While the general set up of Deep Red is similar to Bird, and there are some other similarities throughout both films, they are still two distinctly different movies and stories. While the missing piece of the puzzle in Bird is a great plot twist, I think that Deep Red's revelation is also scarier (and it will definitely make you want to re-watch the first part of the film).What Argento does in Deep Red that he did not do in his first film is dabble with more horror elements. Yes, both are a blend of mystery and slasher, but Deep Redalso incorporates more horror by the use of a strange child's song that plays throughout the film, more graphic murder scenes, and one scene with a doll that is guaranteed to give you nightmares! Throw in music by Goblin, and this film is quintessential Argento viewing.
Opera: For some reason, I don't feel this Argento film gets mentioned as much as it should. Perhaps it was the timing, being released after some of Argento's best films and just before his work, according to some, started to decline. I don't think his films declined, necessarily, but I do agree that his films hadn't progressed in the way his early works did. It seemed like instead of reaching new heights or improving on what he'd done before, he fell back into a comfortable niche. Had Opera been released within a year or two of Deep Red, I think it would be a larger part of the Argento conversation, but its placement towards the late '80s (and the “newest” of his films on this list) often leaves it forgotten. It shouldn't be. Opera is scary. It has great music (I mean, it is called Opera after all). It has some amazing scenes, including the needles taped to eyelids scene that is probably one of the most ubiquitous Argento images you will find. How it offers such an image without being more widely loved is beyond me. The final scenes that take place amidst the backdrop of the Swiss Alps are also among my favorite images in an Argento film. This movie also differs from Deep Red and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage in a significant way. Many of Argento's early films focused around a male protagonist. While there were plenty of female characters in a variety of roles, including some that often aided the protagonist, Argento abandoned that trend (with the exception of Tenebre), after Deep Red and his remaining '70s and '80s work focused around female protagonists. Opera continues this pattern, focusing on Betty, the up-and-coming opera star.
Phenomena: If The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a testament to the compelling storytelling Argento conveys when he uses restraint, Phenomena is the testament to how satisfying it is when all the restraint goes out the window. The film is a combination of some of Argento's boldest and craziest choices. It follows Jennifer Corvino (played by Jennifer Connelly in one of her first film roles, just before she faces the Goblin King in Labyrinth). Unlike many of the Argento protagonists before her, Jennifer is not an average citizen in the wrong place at the wrong time (don't get me wrong, that is also part of her story); instead, she possesses the ability to communicate with insects. Along with insect telepathy, there is a chimpanzee attendant and a twist in the storyline that I won't divulge but certainly fits in with the tone of the film. Plus, there is a delightful appearance by horror icon Donald Pleasance. But wait, there's more! Along with music by Goblin, the soundtrack includes tracks by Motörhead and Iron Maiden. I don't think I need to say anything more about this film. I'm sure you're already watching it!
Suspiria: Almost as fitting as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage being first in this list, Suspiria's rounding out of the list works since it is perhaps Argento's most popular film. Following Suzy Bannion's time at a dance academy, Suspiria offers some of Argento's most frightening, beautiful, and haunting imagery, and propelled his work to a new level. While some of his early work is compared to Mario Bava (certainly not a bad person to be compared to), this film is completely Argento. While it maintains the elements of mystery, the elements of horror are upped even more than in Deep Red by adding heavy doses of the supernatural. Like many of his films, it begins with the protagonist witnessing an important event; however, instead of seeing a murder, Suzy only sees the victim, becoming one of the last people to see her alive. She also notices that the woman yells something, but due to the storm Suzy could not quite make out the words. It becomes clear rather quickly that there is more going on with the killer than in some of Argento's earlier works, leading to a finale that is often reported as one of the scariest endings to any horror film.
Bathed in blues, greens, and reds, the color palette of the film stands out from Deep Red (which was the last Argento film released before Suspiria) in a stunning way. Jessica Harper was a great casting choice, and she certainly showed that Argento's decision to switch to female protagonists was a great choice. And Harper is in good company, with a cast that also includes Joan Bennett and Udo Kier. The film is so beautifully crafted, each image, color, movement all mean something, all help convey the tone and the direction of the film. The opening scene, in which Suzy arrives and hails a cab to the academy is so well done that I often show it to my first-year students. I show the scene without sound, and have them analyze the tone of the film just through the visuals. And the opening murder sequence is one of the best horror scenes ever. Part of Argento's “Three Mothers” trilogy, Suspiria still works as a stand-alone film and as one of the scariest horror movies of all time.