The Ford Five: Dario Argento Films
Those who have followed the blog since the beginning know that I am, and always have been, a huge fan of Dario Argento. Though most of his work since the early nineties has been either disappointing, unpleasant or downright awful, his work in the seventies and eighties has done more than enough to ensure that his name will feature highly on any list of the greatest horror directors. For this week’s Ford Five, I’m going to be counting what I consider to be Dario Argento’s five best films.
Most of his best work is already in the list, and having not seen Four Flies on Grey Velvet or The Black Cat (and finding The Cat O’ Nine Tails to be average), there wasn’t a lot of choice for honourable mentions. The most surprising exclusion will be his 1980 film Inferno, which many, including respected horror critic and author Kim Newman, consider to be his most underrated work. I do think Inferno is a great film, but ultimately, I just didn’t love it enough for it to get a place in the list.
Opera (A.K.A. Terror At The Opera) (1987)
The most underrated of all Argento’s Giallo films, Opera is an ingenious and thoroughly nasty thriller about a plucky opera singer, played by the likeable Cristina Marsillach, who finds herself at the mercy of a serial killer who tapes needles under her eyelids and forces her to watch her loved ones be murdered; if she opens her eyes, she’ll be blinded. Though the ending was rightly criticised as being somewhat silly and unrealistic, the rest of the film is a clear cut above the films Argento produced in the nineties. The concept is genius, the kills as violent as always, and though not a massively effective whodunit, there’s more than enough solid action to make it one of his best.
Deep Red (1975)
Some would claim Deep Red is Argento’s finest Giallo, or even his greatest film full stop, but I’ve never thought of it as being quite that outstanding. Nevertheless, Deep Red is a top notch thriller that features one of his most unpredictable twist endings. Music teacher Marcus, played by the slightly bumbling David Hemmings, investigates the murder of an acclaimed psychic after witnessing her brutal death by hatchet, through the window of her apartment. Not much more needs to be said about the plot (most Giallo films have incredibly similar ideas), but it needs to be said that Deep Red has not only some of his best soundtrack work, but his cleverest clue; the killer is revealed in the opening moments. Hemmings is a good leading man and the ending is horribly fitting, but I just can’t bring myself to rank Deep Red higher than the fourth best Dario Argento film.
After the abstract brutality of Suspiria and Inferno, Argento returned to the Giallo genre with aplomb, with the incredibly bloody Tenebrae. Home to one of Argento’s most famous shots (a two minute tracking shot just before a kill), Tenebrae is a brutal and ingenious horror that is a fine example of the skill Argento once had. Much like his other Giallos, the plot concerns a writer abroad in Italy, but this one is different; the killer appears to get killed off halfway through. The pioneer of the ‘villain appears behind hero’ shot, Tenebrae is easily Argento’s most underrated film, and a true masterpiece. It is telling of the quality of Dario’s early films that Tenebrae, one of my favourite films, is only in third place.
The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970)
One of the greatest debut features of all time, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage already showed many elements that would appear again and again through his work (an American abroad in Italy, a witness to a crime forgetting a key detail, an unexpected twist), but presented them in, overall, the most entertaining way. This is partly due to the quality of lead actor Tony Musante’s performance, one of the best of Argento’s leading protagonists. He’s likeable and realistic, and doesn’t behave in some of the sillier ways that get characters killed in later films. The opening scene, in which Musante witnesses a brutal attack whilst trapped between glass doors at an art gallery, is rightly praised as a masterpiece of disorientating camera work, insidious music and a sense of voyeurism and claustrophobia. …Crystal Plumage certainly has more humour and less gore than later works, but it is his best Giallo, with a disturbing and unusual killer. One of the finest horror/thriller there is, but ultimately, there was one film that just had to take the top spot…
The ultimate Dario Argento film, and possibly one of the greatest directorial achievements ever. Stylised after fairy tales and featuring just about every camera shot in existence, Suspiria is the work of a director far more interested in making scary, gory and beautiful works than using any sense of logic. The plot, if you can call it that, involves an American girl (played well by Jessica Harper) who arrives at a prestigious foreign ballet academy run by witches. I’ll be honest; the plot is mostly nonexistent. It’s instead used to showcase some of the most audacious scenes ever filmed. The opening involves a girl being hung through a stained glass window whilst her friend below is impaled on the shards, while later in the film we see a dog attack from the view point of a bird, a girl falling into a pit of barbed wire, and maggots raining from the ceiling. Despite its lack of logic and mostly indistinguishable performances, Suspiria is definitely Argento’s best film; utterly terrifying, incredible to look at, and home to, in my opinion, the finest horror score of all time.
I hope you enjoyed this week’s Ford Five, and I’ll see you again next time. Thanks for reading!
By Harry Ford