An insight into the director deserving of the cult classic title
A raven impaled on a knitting needle; a man eaten alive by rats underneath the Rialto bridge; old brick stripped back to reveal a satanic shrine – all oozing in glorious technicolour lighting. This is a snapshot of the bizarre and iconic imagery that marks the work of film auteur Dario Agento, pioneer of modern horror and the Italian Giallo sub-genre. Agento began his career by writing for film magazines whilst still in high school, moving on to screenplay writing after graduation. He is best known for his work as a producer on the cult classic ‘Dawn of The Dead’ as well as a distinctive vibrant aesthetic with his brilliant use of gore and stories centered around the occult or supernatural. Unfortunately, the once great director has become somewhat unfashionable in recent years – perhaps his surreal style style failed to translate into the digital age – and he has not managed to recreate the magic present in his films of the 70s and 80s.
Suspiria is Agento’s undisputed masterpiece and has the unfortunate timing of being the first of a trilogy, dooming the sequels Inferno (1980) and The Mother of Tears (2007) to live in its shadow.
Luca Guadagnino, director of Oscar nominee Call Me by Your Name, is planning a reboot of the horror classic starring Dakota Johnson, Chloe Grace Mortez and Tilda Swinton, however, he has stressed the project is less a straight remake, “more a homage to the incredible, powerful emotion I felt when I saw it”. Focusing minimally on plot, Suspiria transcends the pulp fiction and slasher films it is inspired by, and moves into the realm of pure art. Argento is meticulous in his construction of striking art deco set pieces, cultivating a refined aesthetic – everything on screen contributes to the ‘out-of-time’ feel of the film and gaudy reds and greens bathe the screen in a hallucinogenic glow. The violence is brilliant, with the obviously fake quality that to me makes it all the more grotesque as various beautiful young actresses thrash around in barbed wire or fall 30 feet through a glass ceiling, drenched in neon-paint so bright it bears little resemblance to the quality of real blood. If you’re looking for a feminist film maker it is probably best to not get your hopes up, Argento is unashamed about his love for mutilating females in every way imaginable. “A woman in peril is emotionally affecting” he justifies “a man simply is not” however, perhaps this is open to critical interpretation, after all it is women who are taking the centre stage even if they are getting their eyes gouged out or being set on fire.
Inferno is the 1980 follow up to Suspiria and, as was probably inevitable, failed to live up the greatness of its predecessor, receiving mixed to negative reviews at its time of release. This is a shame as on its own it more than holds up and if it hadn’t had such an impossible legacy to live up to probably would have been received far better. Inferno does not possess quite the same amount of freakish beauty as Suspiria and, dare I say, sometimes lingers a little too long but still has plenty to offer in terms of style and certainly a lot more gore. The violence in Inferno is so utterly bizarre and far-fetched that it is hard not to laugh out loud, as I did during the famous rat eating scene, which only contributed to my thorough enjoyment of the film. However, sometimes this cartoonish quality moves past the point of irony and becomes corny, a costume supposedly emulating ‘death itself’ seems more appropriate for The Muppets than the climactic scene of a horror and distracts from the action; effects that may have been passable at the time have not aged well. Nevertheless, credit must be given where it is due that the majority of effects happen on camera without the aid of digital manipulation which can often make films feel so soulless. For example, the fire during the grand finale famously nearly spread to other nearby sets that were occupying the same studio. Overall the film holds up and definitely deserves cult status.
Agento did not just direct pure horror/slasher fics but is also considered a landmark director of the classic Giallo, a subgenre of Italian thriller that combined elements of crime fiction, exploitation, voyeurism and the traditional “whodunnit”, with films like The Bird With the Crystal Plumage and Four Flies on Grey Velvet. Deep Red, one of the most critically successful Giallo films, signifies a transition for Agento between two genres. The film still consists of the archetypal black-gloved Giallo killer, stalking beautiful women with lots of point-of-view shots of the murders, but more supernatural elements are incorporated, and Argento’s penchant for the occult and the satanic can be seen to emerge.
So if you enjoy realism, feminism, tightly-written plots or are the type of person who complains about gore looking ‘so obviously fake’ in films, Dario Agento probably isn’t the director for you. But otherwise. I highly recommend checking out his work because that way you can justifiably watch women getting sliced up since it’s just art! Also, watching edgy, niche films just proves that you’re a far more cultured person than everyone else.