As his one-time collaborator Sergio Leone had already done with the western, giallo icon Dario Argento rehabilitated a depressed genre (horror) using new and improved tools available to European filmmakers in what was, at the time, a fairly new set of industry conditions created by international co-production fever. With continuing advances in production technology (camera, grip, electrical, film stock, lighting, lenses), and their particular specialty, post-production sound, a handful of Italians grew to prominence by taking the long way around the Bergman and Antonioni-dominated arthouse.
Both heir to, and progenitor of, the horror-slasher-splatter mode, Argento’s work is chock-a-block with extravagant set pieces of graphic violence committed against defenseless (usually female) characters, by a perpetrator who remains unknown to the audience, as well as the journalist/detective/busybody protagonist, until the final moments. He would feed inspiration into major American genre films like Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, for which he served as a kind of uncle and midwife, and (indirectly) De Palma’s Dressed to Kill. It was the peculiar qualities of Argento’s style that set him apart: with 2nd-rate scripts that were made even stranger through the disharmony of wall-to-wall dubbing (however meticulous), his movies integrated baroque color filters and production design with soundtracks that relied on rock and creepy synth arrangements in equal measure.
Instead of trying to improve on or mitigate the absurdities of a given premise, Argento would double down: in Phenomena, after Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly) witnesses a gruesome (and typically ornate, glass-involved) murder, she falls through a crumbling stone balcony, dangling by her torn nightgown from an exposed nail. She’s then hit by a car; rescued and/or possibly manhandled by the car’s German occupants; thrown from it into the woods; rescued by a monkey. This early sequence only hints at the strangeness still to come. Hand Argento a conventional movie, he would be lost at sea. Somehow, the perfect storm of his predilections (nubile maidens put to the tricked-up sword, or the straight razor; an irrelevant limpness of narrative; shock colors and gothic design schemes) gives him sustenance.
What to see?
- Phenomena (1985) [Blu-ray]
- Inferno (1980) [Blu-ray]
- Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) [DVD]
- The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971) [Blu-ray]
- The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) [Blu-ray]