Everyone loves a list. A top 10, top 20, top 100, it doesn’t matter. Lists rule.
I am certainly not immune to the charms of a good list, just as I am helpless before the majesty of Italy’s finest, Dario Argento. It’s the grand old man’s birthday today, so what better way to celebrate than by choosing his top 10 movies? By limiting it to ten, that means we can get away without mentioning his versions of Dracula and Phantom of the Opera, and that is best for everyone.
First, let me explain something.
I don’t care about plot. Nope, not one bit. I don’t mind of the acting is barely passable. I couldn’t care less if the special effects aren’t that great.
I’m here for the imagery, for the atmosphere. I’m here to be wowed by a total disregard for logic at the expense of shock. I’m here for the violence and the blood. I’m here for that aesthetically perfect moment when the music kicks in and perfectly matches the visuals.
I’m here for Dario Argento.
10. GIALLO (2009)
Yeah, I know, I know, everyone hates this damn movie. But on a level of pure enjoyment, I’d take this over Four Flies on Grey Velvet any day of the week. Dario’s bizarre reaction to the torture porn craze features Adrien Brody (remember him?) in a dual role, as a hilariously tortured cop and a, errr, yellow skinned serial killer. The whole thing is a mess, certainly, but contains enough flashes of style and honest-to-god suspense to make the 90 minutes positively fly by.
9. PHENOMENA (1985)
Phenomena is a bit of a fan favourite, for obvious reasons. Jennifer Connelly uses her telepathic bond to track down a killer in an all-girls boarding school, and along the way tangles with a mutant child, falls into a pool of maggots and meets a razor-wielding chimp. What’s not to like? How about the endless sequences of aimless chit-chat that aim to legitimise the preposterous plot with Argento’s absurd cod-science? The American version was retitled Creepers and was about 40 minutes shorter, and in some ways is a better film.
8. SLEEPLESS (2001)
Post-1985 Argento gets a real bad rap from people, but there’s plenty to enjoy in his millennial oeuvre. Sleepless pays homage to Argento’s favourite director – himself. It’s like an Argento best of, only not as good, but still pretty great. I don’t think I’m selling this well. It’s a fun film! Honestly! There’s a killer dwarf (OR IS THERE?), death by oboe, and a memorable leading role for Max Von Sydow.
7. TENEBRE (1982) aka TENEBRAE
Now we’re getting to the real good stuff. Tenebre is Argento at his most playful, stuffed with red herrings and an impossible to guess killer. Well, impossible for me anyway, but I never get these things right, which is one of many reasons that I’m not a detective.
6. DEEP RED (1975)
Generally considered Argento’s masterpiece and the ultimate giallo (Italian thriller), Deep Red, for me at least, is hampered by appalling pacing issues, particularly the quite extraordinarily tedious sequence where the lead investigates an old house. But even nudging two hours, when this film is on, it is on. Every shot is framed to perfection, the music is a prog-jazz-fusion from your worst/best nightmares, and the atmosphere is palpable. An influence on many a slasher to follow, but don’t hold that against it.
5. THE STENDHAL SYNDROME (1998)
I guess I should emphasise that this is my favourite Argento movies, and not meant to be taken as a definitive guide or something. You might not like Stendhal. A lot of people don’t. It’s nasty, it’s sleazy, the violence is uncomfortable and halfway through it just stops and turns into a completely different film. That’s right, all the good stuff! If you’ve not seen an Argento, then for goodness sake don’t start with this one, but for those that haven’t tried it, go in with an open mind and give it a go.
4. THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1969)
Argento really shot himself in the foot by starting off his career with one of his best movies. Bird is that rare film that finds a director effortlessly finding his feet with his first film. His work got more technically dazzling, narratively daring, and also much more extreme, but did he ever top the extraordinary opening gallery murder? Well, actually, yes he did, but that’s not my point. The point is, this is a damn fine flick, and one of the best places to start for newbies.
3. INFERNO (1980)
Argento’s follow up to Suspiria was basically a less operatic remake. Okay, only slightly less. The baroque lighting and stylised hyper-violence is here in abundance, and the dream logic of the plot keeps things trundling along nicely without ever really making much sense. But I didn’t come here for sense, guys, and if you did, then you must have missed the memo. This film is insane, and it doesn’t care.
2. SUSPIRIA (1977)
Even people who’ve never heard of Dario Argento have heard of Suspiria. Its one of those “horror films that its acceptable for non-horror fans to like” kinda movies, like Evil Dead II. Its odd, seeing as how Suspiria seems to perfectly embody everything that mainstream critics seem to hate about horror films. But who cares what those losers think? Suspiria is the kind of nightmare I wish I had every night, exhilarating, beautiful and utterly, utterly bonkers. So clearly his best film then, yes? Well stop right there, smartypants! We’re not done yet…
1. OPERA (1987)
Yup, Opera is my favourite. Hey, I’m as surprised as you! But there’s just something about Opera. It never lets up. Even incidental establishing shots become triumphs of surreal technical marvels. The set pieces are the most inventive and exciting he’s ever come up with, the violence is kicked up to a truly outrageous level, and has any image better encapsulated a director’s body of work than the one above? And for once, the pace never drags. Opera is lean and very, very mean. If I could, would I go back in time and urge Argento not to use heavy metal music to soundtrack the kills? Maybe, but maybe not. It certainly works better than in Phenomena. And without spoilers, I just love the ending. There, I said it. People seem to hate that final coda, but people are very often wrong. Are you one of them? Why not watch Opera and find out!