Argento began his career as a screenwriter, his most well known work most likely being his contribution to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Western Once Upon a Time in the West (1969). It would not take long for Argento to embark on a film making career in his own right however, beginning with the 1970 production Bird with the Crystal Plumage Argento began writing and directing his own pieces; creating horror based films that included elements of the thriller and mystery genre. This relatively new combination would become known as the “giallo” genre: “thriller Italian style” or “spaghetti thriller”.
After a brief respite away from the horror genre Argento returned to it later in the 1970’s with what many critics have termed the best or most influential giallo film of all time; Deep Red (Play trailer).
The film includes all the now easily recognizable tropes of the giallo genre; a mysterious killer runs rampage committing mass homicide in various violent and creative ways. The on screen violence was ground-breaking at the time and there was a great deal of controversy surrounding the film’s world wide release; ultimately the film was not a financial success but it is now often cited as an example of Argento’s auteuristic film making traits.
Argento’s next film is the cult horror Suspiria (1977), a violent and surreal horror that marks a breaking away from many of the traditional tropes of the giallo genre. The film is the first in Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy, a series about three ancient witches residing in modern cities and places the plot and characters of each piece as secondary to the audience’s sensory experiences of each piece.
Suspiria (1977) was known for its visual and auditory experimentalism, the use of bright and vibrant colours and the progressive rock soundtrack (provided for the film by European band Goblin) serve to highlight the violence and supernatural elements of the film which tells the story of a ballet student who travels to Germany to study at a prestigious school only to learn that the academy is run by a coven of witches.
The followign scene (which contains violence) demonstrates the way in which Argento uses both on screen noise and the soundtrack music to disorientate the audience and make their experience of the death scene all the more discomforting.
After the critical and financial success of Suspiria Argento went on to work with American director George A. Romero on the second film in his Living Dead series: Dawn of the Dead (1978).
The often garish visuals inherent in Argento’s films are often complimented or juxtaposed by extended periods of silence; citing a lesson learnt whilst working alongside Leone Argento said:
“Films are all speak, speak, speak, speak! I don’t like speaking. I like silence.”
Using long, lingering shots (particularly following the advent of the steadicam in his pieces Tenebrae (1982) and Phenomena (1985) which, either through the use of distinctive soundtracks or a notable absence of noise draw the audience’s attention to the darker, mysterious and often gory aspects of a scene Argento further established himself as a master of the horror genre.
Though he is still making films Argento’s more recent fare, including the concluding part of the Mothers trilogy, Mother of Tears (2007) have been considerably less successful than his earlier work. However the tropes first established in some of his earliest work, from the Cat O'Nine Tails (1971) through to Terror at the Opera (1987) and Trauma (1993), remain some of the most important aspects of the modern horror film, whilst Argento himself has been cited by directors such as John Carpenter as being incredibly influential to their own film making style.
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