Though English language horror films will forever make up the bulk of fright film consumption in western markets, occasionally scare fans like to dabble in foreign delights. Whether it is Mexico’s “Crying Woman” (The Curse of the Crying Woman (1963), Brazil’s “Coffin Joe” (At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (1963) or Japan’s Sadako (Ringu (1998), for those seeking something different a thriller from a foreign market can provide an extra frisson or two. Hollywood horror movies may be more accessible but their plot devices can become too hackneyed for scare devotees. By contrast many viewers are unfamiliar with cinematic history outside of the United States and Great Britain. The culture and influences of non-native filmmakers remains unexplored and the tales spun in their horror films are often new experiences.
One the most fondly regarded foreign markets is the Italian horror industry. Early steps in Italian horror cinema were influenced by the success of the Universal and Hammer studios, I Vampiri (aka. The Vampires (1957), La maschera del demonio (aka. Black Sunday (1960). Following the worldwide success of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) the country’s horror directors began to construct their own new brand of scary cinema. The basis of their new genre was a popular series of crime novels first published in the late 1920’s. Taking inspiration from the series yellow covers the genre was labelled “Giallo”. When the novels were first published they consisted of translations of titles from crime writers such as Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler and Rex Stout; consequently, when Giallo cinema genre took its first tentative steps it struggled to break away from these outside influences.
Slowly though, Italy started to craft its own style of thriller film. Director Mario Bava had started his film career as a cinematographer and one of his early employers was Riccardo Freda. Freda, disliking the horror genre, tasked Bava with completing his I Vampiri (1957) and Caltiki il mostro immortale (aka. Caltiki The Immortal Monster (1959) pictures. Bava’s work on Caltiki and subsequent horror hit Black Sunday (1960) marked him as a director with an eye for inspiring fright films. It was Bava’s La ragazza che sapeva (aka. The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) that was the cinematic birth of Giallo.
This opening salvo took more than a few pointers from the German “Krimi” genre, a style of film based on the works of British writer Edgar Wallace. Finally painting the Giallo into a category of its own, it was Bava’s second Giallo picture Sei donne per l’assaino (aka. Blood and Black Lace (1964) that set future standards. This graphic whodunit murder story, with a group of fashion models stalked by a masked killer, established many of the Giallo conventions. The presence of a black gloved, masked assailant was essential, along with heavily stylised, gore soaked set pieces and it was this latter element that Bava traded for intricate plot twists concerning the killer’s identity. To emphasize the visual power of the murders the female victims had to be beautiful and scantily clad. Despite this heady blend of violence and eroticism Blood and Black Lace faired poorly at the box office, taking only half of its production budget upon domestic release. Fellow Italian filmmakers took notice though, and the Giallo phenomenon began to breed.
Giallo movies of varying quality crept into theatres, La morte non ha sesso (aka. A Black Veil for Lisa (1968), Orgasmo (aka. Paranoia (1969), before a journeyman director from Rome tried his hand at this new underground genre; he would eventual create the Giallo’s most notable film. Dario Argento was the son of movie executive Salvatore Argento, but rather than follow his father into the industry he became a film critic. His scribing eventually led to industry work when he began a career as a screenwriter, collaborating with Sergio Leone and Bernado Bertolucci on the critically acclaimed Once Upon A Time In The West (1969). But the lure of the film camera was too great and Argento’s debut picture, the imaginatively titled L’uccello dalle plume di cristallo (aka. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), immediately placed him in the same bracket as his thriller contemporaries. An unofficial adaptation of the Fredric Brown Novel The Screaming Mimi, the film had a provocative visual style replete with lurid but vibrant displays of violence. It was also a commercial success. Further horror hits followed, including Profondo Rosso (aka. Deep Red (1975), before Argento decided to carry the Giallo genre into unexplored territory.
Suspiria (1976) marked the high point of the Giallo. Moving the genre away from its murder mystery origins Argento injected a large helping of the supernatural to provide a paranormal twist. In so doing, Argento created one of the most terrifying and beguiling movies of the era. We follow Suzy (Jessica Harper), an American ballet student who joins a dance academy in Freiburg, Germany. Before moving into the school Suzy stays with two fellow dancer friends in town. When the pair are murdered by a mystery killer Suzy reluctantly moves into the academy. Further shocking occurrences, including the death of Suzy’s friend Sarah, prompt her to investigate the history of the school. Suzy learns from a psychologist that the institute was founded by Helena Markos, an alleged witch, and that the school is a front to hide a coven of witches. To save her own life Suzy must confront the head of the school and destroy the evil academy in the process.
Argento wrote the story with his then partner actress Darla Nicolodi who was inspired to concoct the tale after learning that the piano school she went to as a child also taught black magic. The movie’s title and its witchy premise was borrowed from Suspiria de Profundis, Thomas De Quincey’s follow-up to his renowned work Confessions of an English Opium Eater. Argento originally wanted to set the film in a children’s school, but retaining the Giallo element of striking young women in peril he moved the tale to a teenager filled dance academy. The fairy tale overtones remained though, fitting in perfectly with Argento’s incredible visual style. It is an approach to horror cinema that almost defies description. Through movies such as Il gatto a nove code (aka. The Cat O’ Nine Tails (1971) and Profondo Rosso the director honed a stylised presentation that moved the violence of his narratives away from cinema’s faux reality and into a dizzying nightmare realm.
Argento’s attack was on the senses. Logical narrative progression was jettisoned, replaced with a lilting storyline that barely holds onto its point A to point B sequencing, the same irrationality that is present in every nightmare. Visually, Argento already had all the tools he needed to startle the viewer. Beginning with the other-worldly glow of Suzy’s taxi ride to the academy, the director utilises his unsettling colour palette throughout the film. His trademark use of colour gels to add eerie flavour to the most mundane of scenes immediately places the audience on the back foot. Exploiting the technicolour process even further Argento removed specific colours from some scenes, whilst highlighting some shades in others. The director later revealed that he was attempting to emulate the look of Disney’s darkest movie, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937).
Aligned with the abnormal plot development this starting visual style makes for an uncomfortable journey. When the moments of violence arrive, Argento’s predilection for an intense image reaches a crescendo. So stunningly painted are the demise of Argento’s victims, none more so than the extravagant killing of Suzy’s flatmates in the movie’s first outburst of savagery, one begins to question their cinematic moral centre. Should movie violence be this artful, Argento marrying the beauty of his victims with the exquisiteness of their death in baroque settings? It’s as uncomfortable a question today as it was in 1976.
To complete his sensual assault Argento needed an exceptional soundtrack. A standard composer and orchestra combination would not do so Argento took the unusual step of turning to Italian rock outfit Goblin to provide him with the aural accompaniment he required. What Goblin delivered was as far removed from a traditional horror movie soundtrack as was possible to get without it being totally inappropriate. Their enchanting main theme was a foreboding nursery rhyme, intriguing the viewer before they were nailed to their chair by a crushing combination of tinkling melodies, thunderous drums, curious whispers and ear shattering screams.
Layering Goblins music over the films startling visuals proved to be a match made in hell, in the best sense of the word and the end product was a potent mix of Brothers Grimm fairytale and Giallo serial killer shocker. Such a combination had not been witnessed before. The nonsensical approach to the movies stopping points, a ceiling crawling with maggots, a room filled with the world’s largest collection of razor wire, would have derailed a lesser movie. But Argento overwhelmed the viewer’s eyes and ears to such a degree, most audience members just gripped their cinema seats and held on tight until the end, “The only thing more terrifying than that first eighty minutes of Suspiria … is the last ten”. What the climax lacked in narrative closure it made up for in bravura and frights, Suzy’s nail-biting confrontation in the bowels of the coven leaving the movie on a crescendo.
As is so often the case with groundbreaking horror, shock led to criticism and Argento was accused of being overly misogynistic and exploitative upon Suspiria’s release. The convoluted methods in which the film’s victims were killed were seen as unnecessarily graphic. The death of Suzy’s flatmate Pat (Eva Axen), whose face is shoved through a window before she is stabbed and hung causing her flatmate to be impaled on a large shard of glass, was a step too far for some markets. The scene was edited down to its bare bones for the US release and seen as the deciding factor in the German’s decision to ban the movie completely. But detractors overlooked Argento’s motivation, to create nightmarish canvas of mood and unsettling aesthetic. Where the movie was released it did good business at the box office, particularly for Twentieth Century Fox who distributed the film in the United States under its “International Classics” endorsement, elevating Argento into the league of horror directorial greats.
To cash in on Suspiria’s success Argento’s earlier film Profondo Rosso/Deep Red was confusingly renamed Suspiria 2 in western markets. Argento had his own sequel in mind, announcing not long after Suspiria’s success that it was the first part of a trilogy. As the nineteen seventies came to a close the director set about filming part two, Inferno (1980). The movie tracked Suspiria’s narrative structure fairly closely, this time following hero Mark (Leigh McCloskey) and his attempts to track down his sister Rose after her disappearance in New York. Unbeknownst to Mark, Rose has discovered the book “The Three Mothers” which details the existence of three sisters who wield dark powers. The sisters, a trio of witches, dwell in three buildings specifically designed for them, one in Rome, one in Freiburg, and one in New York. Rose realises that her apartment building is in fact the witch’s New York home.
Though the movie provided the sort of story exposition that some critics complained was missing from Suspiria, detailing the Three Mothers mythos over the opening scene, Inferno failed to match its predecessor. Argento himself had been seriously ill during part of the production and had even called in assistance from Mario Bava for parts of the movie he was unable to shoot. Perhaps a result of its difficult production Inferno played like a series of disconnected set-pieces. As creepy and visually arresting as some of them were it made for a disappointing whole. Even a soundtrack from prog-rocker Keith Emerson failed to live up to the high-standard set by Goblin four years earlier. Much of its horror reputation in Europe stemmed from its status as a "video nasty", failing foul of the DDP after a scene of a cat eating a live mouse was slotted in to the movie.
Recalling the underwhelming box office performance of Suspiria, Twentieth Century Fox did not agree to a full theatrical release for Inferno. As such the movie was left to gather dust until 1985 when it was released as a straight-to-video product, a limited theatrical release in New York following a year later. Commercially the movie was a failure. Reviewers were equally unsympathetic in their write-ups, pointing out that Argento’s flamboyant presentation trampled the scares this time around. Far from the sub-standard offering it was made out to be at the time Inferno simply failed to live up to the masterwork it had to follow.
Argento took a break from his witchy exploits for a while. A more traditional Giallo movie followed with Tenebrae (1982), a serial-killer thriller that returned Argento to the roots of the genre. Antagonising the critics once again, the movie was swept up in the UK “Video Nasty” panic of the early eighties, only receiving a release in the United States under the unflattering new title Unsane after heavy cuts. A further melding of Giallo and supernatural story elements led to Phenomena (aka. Creepers (1985), but critics and fans were still unmoved. An updating of Macbeth followed in 1987 with the lavish Opera (1987), while the director controversially subjected his actress daughter Asia Argento to repeated rape scenes in La sindrome di Stendhal (aka. The Stendhal Syndrome (1996).
Then seventeen years after part two of his “Three Mothers” saga, Argento completed the story with La terza madre (aka. The Mother of Tears (2007). The action moved to the home of the final “Mother”, Rome, where Asia Argento took the starring role of Sarah, the heroine who tackles the last of the three evil sisters. In an era neck deep in CGI coated product, Argento’s knack for elegant and impactful cinematography struggled to stand out. Visually interesting the storytelling may have been but critics once again bemoaned the lack of narrative common sense, overly complicated exposition slowing down the movie to a painful crawl at times. More than that though, it appeared Argento himself had lost his way. Whilst he was once known for making the most visually stunning horror films, the director now seemed to be coasting. His output post 2007 only got worse, with the likes of Il Cartaio / The Card Player (2004) and Giallo (2009) making fans long for a time when an Argento film was must-see horror cinema.
The hurdle that Argento’s final “Three Mothers” instalment failed to overcome was the plot obstacle. Movies live and die by their scripts and stories. It takes a truly stunning picture to place plotline on the backburner and rely purely on presentation to guarantee a successful final product. Suspiria remains one of the few pictures in cinema history that used style alone to scare an audience out of its wits. To achieve this, the techniques had to be original, bold, thought provoking and evocative. Argento hit all four of these nails on the head, and a few more besides. That his subsequent pictures highlighted his inferior story writing skills belays his ability as the horror fans visual master. It takes a strong constitution to spend time in Argento’s feverish world of dark dreams and terrifying oeuvre, its haunting blues, its eerie greens and its threatening reds. The conventional scary movie fan need not apply.
See also Inferno (1980) and The Mother of Tears (2007)