October is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “31 days of horror.” Don’t bother looking it up; it’s true. Most people take that to mean highlighting one horror movie a day, but here at FSR, we’ve taken that up a spooky notch or nine by celebrating each day with a top ten list. This article about the best horror films directed by Dario Argento, ranked, is part of our ongoing series 31 Days of Horror Lists.
A shining star in the candy-apple-red galaxy of Italian genre filmmakers, Dario Argento is easily one of horror’s weirdest, most eclectic, and longest-serving sons.
Born in Rome in 1940 to a family steeped in showbiz, Argento began his career as a humble film critic, which led to screenwriting credits on an assortment of genre flicks being produced cheaply in Italy at the time (look closely, and you’ll spy Dario’s name alongside Sergio Leone and Bernardo Bertolucci amidst Once Upon a Time in the West‘s story credits).
Today, the name “Argento” has become synonymous with most North Americans’ understanding of what Italian Horror has to offer: namely knives, knives, and (you guessed it) more knives. This man’s directorial debut (!) was The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. The only way you top that is by continually upping the black leather gloved ante with a string of genre flicks so stylish, twisty, and sharply shot that your name sublimates into an adjective. Whether he’s blasting commissioned soundtracks from prog-rock greats like Gobin and Keith Emerson or pushing shrieking actresses into pits full of barbed wire (Suspiria), maggots (Phenomena), or waterlogged corpses (Inferno), nobody does it quite like Dario.
Earlier this year, Argento’s first feature in ten years, Dark Glasses, premiered at The Berlin International Film Festival, where it was greeted as a long-overdue return to form from the grandfather of giallo. What better time, then, to sing the maestro of murders’ praises with a look at the director’s top-ten horror films. From supernatural genre efforts to more grounded (but no less bloody) murder mysteries, here are Dario Argento’s best horror films as ranked by Rob Hunter, Anna Swanson, Chris Coffel, Brad Gullickson, Jacob Trussell, Valerie Ettenhofer, and yours truly.
10. Dracula 3D (2012)
Is Dracula 3D a good movie? Absolutely not. Does it bring anything new to Bram Stoker’s iconic text, a story that has been told and re-told time and time again on the big screen? Also no. Does the 3D element at least provide a fun, unique gimmick? Not really. What Dracula 3D does have, however, and what narrowly secured it a spot on this list, is this: it is, quite frankly, impressively bad.
There’s a scene in this movie (which premiered at Cannes, by the way) where Dracula transforms into a praying mantis for absolutely no reason. Some of the visual effects in this film are monumentally terrible. So bad that they do a full loop de loop back into being good, actually. Rutger Hauer, sweetie, blink twice if you need help. (But also, this film stars Hauer as Van Helsing, so for that casting flourish alone, this Argento disasterpiece eeks out its last-ranked place on this list). (Meg Shields)
9. Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971)
While returning home from band practice, drummer Roberto Tobias finds himself stalked by a mysterious, trench-coated man. So far, so giallo. When a knife emerges, a struggle ensues, and Roberto accidentally kills his would-be assailant. Then, from the shadows, a masked figure emerges with a camera. Roberto’s crime might have been an accident, but now there’s photographic evidence that seems to suggest otherwise. Soon, the drummer’s life begins to fall apart; a feeble plaything being squeezed by an unknown enemy dead set on ruining, and likely ending, his life.
Boasting a stellar Ennio Morricone score and incredibly imaginative and striking photography by Franco Di Giacomo, Four Flies on Grey Velvet also includes a killer Freudian twist and the same oddly comedic gait that permeates Deep Red. Arguably one of Argento’s most overlooked films, this bloody gem is a must for any self-respecting fan of the Italian genre master’s work. (Meg Shields)
8. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)
The Bird with Crystal Plumage is a prototypical Argento flick that never quite goes to extremes in a way that would make it stand above the films ranked higher on this list. There’s a black-gloved killer and a witness drawn into the investigation. Sam, the writer, thinks he can get to the bottom of the horror. But just when he thinks he’s done it, another layer is revealed. The Bird with Crystal Plumage‘s best bits exist in its final scene, after the Scooby-Doo moment. There is a ghastly history behind the killer that injects heartbreak and humanity into not only them but those around them. The violence in the film is but the final domino in a long string of dominos. And we’re left to wonder whether such agony can ever really end. (Brad Gullickson)
7. The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971)
Much like the torture device of the same name, Argento’s 1971 giallo is a bloody good time depending on who you ask. And good news, friends, you are in the company of the depraved! The first collaboration between Argento and Luigi Cozzi (the man responsible for the VFX in Phenomena, among other artistic triumphs), The Cat o’ Nine Tails is Argento’s least favorite of his own films (or at least it was when he said as much in 2010’s Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds). This condemnation is wild because the middle entry in the director’s unofficial “Animal Trilogy” is an absolute hoot.
The film tells the tale of a blind former journalist’s attempt to solve a string of serial murders that have something to do with a pharmaceutical company with a stake in top-secret genetic research. This film literally has a plotline about a special chromosome that makes you a murderer. It has one of the most bananas train deaths ever committed to the screen (Dario thought we’d like to see a man pinwheel limply beneath the tracks, and Dario is correct). It even has a killer score by the master himself, Ennio Morricone. Cat o’ Nine Tails is proof that when he’s just fine, Dario is more captivating than most. (Meg Shields)
6. Inferno (1980)
The film that firmly established Dario Argento’s Three Mothers mythos, what Inferno may lack in a cohesive story and dramatic murder set-pieces when compared to Suspiria, it more than makes up for in fully tilting towards gonzo supernatural storytelling. The tension may not be as taut, but the grisly games Argento plays with his characters remain ever-present, specifically when a swarm of rats devours a man in Central Park before being dispatched by a nearby cook in a food truck. As someone whose most horrifying memory of New York City was seeing a literal throng of rats congregates on a street corner on the outer edges of Tribeca (I’m talking “Rat King” level here), let’s just say Dario got at least one thing absolutely right in his brief jaunt to the Big Apple. (Jacob Trussell)
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