Weekly Top Five: The twisted beauty of Dario Argento | Bleader

Weekly Top Five: The twisted beauty of Dario Argento


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A dizzying shot from The Bird with the Crystal Plumage
  • A dizzying shot from The Bird With the Crystal Plumage
This weekend, Italian horror director Dario Argento's 1980 film Inferno screened at Music Box as part of the theater's midnight showings, providing me the perfect opportunity to dive into his work. Equally influenced by the likes of Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock, and Edgar Allen Poe—and in turn a direct influence on Brian de Palma, John Carpenter, and Quentin Tarantino—Argento's work is a unique mix of class and crass, marked by its elegant mise-en-scene as well as its fixation on death, gore, and sex. He primarily works in the style of giallo, an Italian offshoot of the thriller genre that almost exclusively involves murder, serial killers, amateur detectives who are often suspected of committing the murders themselves, and femme fatales, while incorporating themes of paranoia, sexual obsession, and mistaken identities.

He's not for every taste—many critics have written him off as a mere stylist with a flair for flamboyance—but he appeals to those cineastes with a certain appetite for excess. Nobody makes films quite like Argento, and I find his singularity fascinating, even when he's at his most tawdry. Catch my five favorite after the jump.

5. Do You Like Hitchcock? (2005, Spain/Italy) This coy, playful made-for-TV thriller represents a rare bright spot in Argento's scattered late period. Fresh off his disastrous The Card Player, Argento delivered this slight but deceptively clever homage film, tipping his hat not only to Hitchcock but also Mario Bava and Thomas De Quincy. The constraints of television censorship pushed Argento into the realm of innuendo, uncharted territory for a decidedly explicit filmmaker, resulting in a unique tension not found in his other work.

4. Suspiria (1982, Italy) An obvious choice, but why deny a classic? The supernatural story barely makes sense—an American dance student enrolls in a prestigious German arts academy only to find that it's run by a coven of witches—but then again, the pleasures of an Argento film are rarely found in its narrative. Splashes of color and movement make for a delirious visual style that perfectly suits the dizzying, ramshackle story, or as J. Hoberman aptly puts it, "Suspiria is a movie that makes sense only to the eye (and even then . . .)"

3. Deep Red (1975, Italy) This arthouse slasher experiment stands next to Suspiria as Argento's most highly regarded work, a just distinction reinforced by the film's continued praise from audiences discovering Argento for the first time. Its freewheeling camera and demiurgic use of color are virtually unparalleled in the horror genre. A classic giallo about a British pianist (played by David Hemmings) who witnesses a murder only to wind up the chief suspect, the film represents the ideal entry point into the Argento oeuvre.

2. Sleepless (2001, Italy) This one is likely reserved for only the most dedicated Argento enthusiasts. A return to the giallo style that defined his early career, the film is every bit the equal to his most revered work. The film also features some of Argento's most inventive camerawork as he rhythmically alternates between high angle, low angle, and POV perspectives—an elaborate scene set aboard a speeding train is perhaps the most exhilarating sequence he's ever committed to film.

1. The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970, Italy/West Germany) Argento's first film and the one I most often return to. Exuberant and innovative, the film remains the gold standard by which all giallo are judged, dexterously employing elements of mistaken identities, amateur detective work, and sexual promiscuity bathed in violence and intrigue. Eloquent montage and mise-en-scene clash with the lurid subject matter in ways that are disarming yet enthralling, in a manner only Argento could achieve.

Honorable mentions: I'm far more forgiving of his late period than I probably should be, but I remain a fan of both Mother of Tears (2007) and Giallo (2009), his admittedly sloppy, self-referential thriller starring Adrien Brody. Of the earlier period, I'm partial to Four Flies on Grey Velvet, which only recently became available on DVD.

Drew Hunt writes film-related top five lists every Sunday.