In all of my horror film watching over the last several years, one filmmaker stands out over all of the others – Dario Argento. While I have my quibbles with some of his techniques, the visuals alone are astonishing. So far, I’ve watched Suspiria, Deep Red, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Inferno, and Opera. Other than Inferno, the films listed above tend to be his most highly praised.
For the uninitiated, many of his films fall under the Italian horror/thriller subgenre or Giallo. Giallo, Italian for yellow, takes its name from the typical color of the country’s pulp novel book covers. The genre will usually include a black-gloved killer. While Suspiria doesn’t technically fall under this thematically, it’s often included in lists of Giallo films. There’s a clear throughline from Hitchcock to Argento and, despite his claims otherwise, a similarity to the films of Brian De Palma.
For Argento, there are other calling cards to his films beyond the visuals and Giallo tenets; the protagonist is usually someone creative (a writer, singer, dancer, etc.), a score by Italian prog rock band Goblin, violent and unexpected murders, and a twist ending.
About those visuals – Suspiria and Inferno share a sense of color and set design. While the latter is the weaker of the two as a film, it looks as good as the other. Even if saturated colors aren’t present (as is the case with 1987’s Opera), innovative camera moves and set design will be.
For all this praise, there are negatives. The films are typically dubbed (even with English-speaking actors speaking English dialog), as was the fashion in both these films and Spaghetti Westerns. The films can also be a bit repetitive – for example, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Deep Red have very similar endings. That said, the films are creative enough that it’s not a huge problem and it feels like he’s trying to improve each time. Let’s talk about music. Throughout most of these films, the music is great and fits well. But when there’s a horror moment, you’ll know it because the music by Goblin (or their keyboardist, Claudio Simonetti) will tell you how. This criticism may be a bit thin, but like Hitchcock and De Palma, women in his films are used, shall we say, interestingly. Even if the film contains a female lead (Suspiria, Opera), they are often damsels in distress or objects of desire.
I’d also recommend the Luca Guadagnino Suspiria remake. While they share many of the same themes and plot points (and even a cast member or two), they differ signifigantly.