Dario Argento was born in Rome, Italy on September 7, 1940 and grew up amidst the world of cinema thanks to the professions of his parents. Elda a Salvatore, whom were both well known in the film industry: Elda was a model turned celebrity photographer while Salvatore worked as a PR executive for a government-funded film organization and later became a producer. As a teen Argento began writing for what equated to fan-made film journals and, after opting to skip out on college, was hired by Paese Sera a daily Italian newspaper as a columnist to review films. His budding profession as a movie critic eventually presented him with the opportunity to interview Sergio Leone, one of the most famous directors of the spaghetti western subgenre known the world-over for masterminding the Clint Eastwood-starring Man with No. Name trilogy. By all accounts, the two hit it off and Leona offered young Dario a life-changing proposition to bring him on as a co-writer for his next script. Argento accepted and after several months of collaboration received his first major screen credit with 1968’s Once Upon a Time in the West. In the wake of this high profile gig, Argento saw an influx of work in script writing and revising, allowing him to dabble in everything from war films to romantic comedies over the next couple of years.
Despite a steady stream of work as a writer in the late ’60s, Argento became creatively frustrated that no director other than Leone truly captured the essence of his ideas on screen. Inspired after reading Fredric Brown’s The Screaming Mimi and out of a personal desire to see if he could pull off a thriller, Argento wrote a 30-page treatment for what he would eventually fashion into the script for The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. After finding a producer who was willing to make the film, Argento boldly requested that a quality director and not some hack take the reigns directing. The producer’s initial selection did not receive Dario’s approval which led to his father’s suggestion that Dario just direct the film himself. A self professed loner, Argento was not keen on directing nor had any experience; however, his father’s persuasion and willingness to jump on board as co-producer coerced him into taking a chance. For all intents and purposes, Argento expected this to be a one-time experience, an anecdote almost comical in retrospect.
Hesitation on Argento’s part soon gave way to instinct, and in February of 1970 his directorial debut, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), was released in Italian cinemas. The whodunit murder mystery involving a black-gloved killer and flashbacks to an art gallery homicide helped pave the way for the giallo genre in a manner similar to that which Halloween would preface the slasher boom at the tail end of the decade. Argento’s film was unlike anything cinemagoers were being fed at the time – a stylistic, psychosexual, hyper-violent thriller – traits which would go on to define the giallo genre in a nutshell (for those unaware, the English translation of giallo simply means yellow, giallo films were tagged with this name since they were so similar to the yellow-covered pulp novels popular at the time). In fact, the film was so unlike other pictures being made that one of the producers was convinced it would be a train wreck after viewing dailies and made several unsuccessful attempts at having Argento removed from the director’s chair during filming. Upon release, the picture did, not set the box office ablaze in Italy; it wasn’t until a re-release followed in the wake of a wildly successful US run (which included a wonderful campaign claiming the film “out-psychoed Psycho”) that Italian audiences heralded the picture. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage may not have been the first giallo, but it was clearly unlike any before it. Argento had upped the ante and film fans responded by making “Bird” a worldwide success at the box office.
Dario’s debut quickly bred imitators as giallo films became a hot commodity in Italy and, more importantly, to international distributors looking to sell the salacious thrillers to foreign territories. Having officially caught the directing bug by this point, Argento began work on his second picture, The Cat O’ Nine Tails (1971). All the folks behind the film’s funding wanted Dario to essentially re-create The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, a notion Argento balked at. Out of spite, he purposely changed the film to avoid satisfying them, a scheme which backfired since Argento often cites this film as the least favorite of his work. The story was a farfetched concoction of a mysterious killer, a blind old man, a journalist, and an institution researching a drug targeted at the XXY chromosomal pattern, said in the film to be a genetic stimulus for criminal behavior. Despite Argento’s dissatisfaction with The Cat O’ Nine Tails, the film does portray a significant step toward what ultimately encompasses Argento’s style of film, perhaps no better exemplified than by the picture’s unnerving finale where the killer falls through a skylight and drops down an elevator shaft while having their hands torn to shreds attempting to hold onto the cables which propel the lift. The Cat O’Nine Tails did not wind up being the earner its predecessor was but it performed well enough that young Dario would be assured another chance at sitting in the director’s chair.
The Cat o’ Nine Tails was shot between September and October 1970. The film was shot on location in Berlin, Turin, and at Cinecitta Studios in Rome. Dario Argento and Dardano Sacchetti together mapped out the plot for The Cat o’ Nine Tails, and split the writing of the screenplay between them. However, because the production was set up on the basis of the first 40 pages of the script, and those pages were all written by Argento, Argento demanded that he receive sole screenplay credit. Being credited for story alone meant a substantial pay cut for Sacchetti, so this set off a bitter and publicized dispute between Sacchetti and Dario and Salvatore Argento (the film’s producer, and Dario’s father).
With The Cat O’Nine Tails you used an espionage background within the thriller formula. Why was this?
Dario Argento: I wanted a film with a more realistic background because I was interested in exploring the possibilities of the violence of the plot, the very realistic violence.
Such as the scene in which the victim is crushed in the workings of an elevator?
Dario Argento: Yes, that sort of thing. A very plausible occurrence.
In that film you used James Franciscus and Karl Malden. Were you pressured to use them rather than European actors?
Dario Argento: Yes, the distributors wanted them. Karl Malden was involved in a revival of the Actor’s Studio, the method acting idea. He was very good in his part.
By the end of 1971, Argento was already set to release his third giallo in his native land with Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971). The film was dubbed after the fact as the final chapter in Argento’s Animal Trilogy since each of his first three features fell into the giallo genre and included an animal reference in the title (ignoring the fact that flies are insects). This time out, Argento went a bit further into sci-fi territory with the film’s title actually referring to an image projected from an eyeball by some fictitious contraption, the idea being that the last image some one sees before they die can be permanently imprinted on one’s retina. With the aforementioned detail serving as the key clue to the mystery of who is blackmailing a musician who thinks he has killed someone, Four Flies on Grey Velvet does not always tread on the most stable ground in terms of storyline and believability. Yet this would come to be one of Argento’s most defining characteristics – style over narrative. Four Flies on Grey Velvet certainly saw Argento begin to fulfill his artistic capabilities, exhibiting more complex camera work alongside shocking on-screen violence. However, Dario continued to be frustrated by what he viewed as other directors copying his style and, as a result, decided that Four Flies on Grey Velvet would be his final giallo picture.
Is it true you originally wanted Michael York in the leading role?
Dario Argento: Yes, we did. Unfortunately he pulled out at very short notice and we got Michael Brandon instead.
And to do the soundtrack the heavy rock band Deep Purple was originally approached?
Dario Argento: We wanted them but they went on tour for six months in the United States and couldn’t fit it into their schedule. I used Ennio Morricone instead. It was the same thing when I made Profundo Rosso (Deep Red). I wanted to use Pink Floyd but they were about to tour all over the world and they said that maybe they could start on the score in eight months time. Eight months! The film would be showing by then! It was an impossible situation.
For the final scene of Four Flies you used a special camera and had great problems with it.
Dario Argento: Lots and lots of trouble. We worked on shooting the scene for two whole weeks! The problem was that we rented a camera from East Germany, from a University there. It was an incredible instrument, not used normally. It was a camera different from all others. It used a revolving prism instead of a lens and the film is kept in a bath of oil. And it’s so incredibly fast! It could shoot from 3000 frames a second to 60,000 frames a second! It was generally only used for scientific work. The main problem with it was, because the film is traveling so fast, you use up a huge quantity of film. A 20-minute reel in a second! The difficulty was capturing the exact moment of impact; many times we were too late or too early. Always too late or too early. Another problem was that the film would tear or even melt because of the heat generated. Many problems we had with it….
In the wake of a nearly four-month shoot during the tail end of 1974, Dario Argento unleashed what many consider the finest giallo ever crafted, Profondo Rosso aka Deep Red (1975). One of the most cohesive narratives in Argento’s cannon, Deep Red is set in Turin and tells the story of an English pianist named Marcus (David Hemmings) who randomly observes a psychic being brutally murdered by a black-gloved killer (as in all his films, the hands of the killer are actually played by Dario himself). In similar fashion to Argento’s previous giallo pictures, Marcus recalls a particular moment that he feels is vital to solving the mystery if only he can retrieve the details of what he observed from his memory. Along for the ride is a reporter who serves as Marcus’ newfound love interest, played by Daria Nicolodi, who would soon become Argento’s longtime companion, mother of his daughter Asia and frequent collaborator. Argento’s trademark violence was again taken to graphic new heights
The climax is one of the smartest the genre has to offer, playing off Argento’s typical Giallo plot device of uncovering the mystery from within one’s own mind, rather than relying solely on red herrings to advance the story. The finale delivers a abrupt and hyper violent demise for the film’s black-gloved killer as her necklace becomes entangled between a moving elevator and its closed gate, inevitably leading to a rather slow and unsettling decapitation. Another of Deep Red’s most appealing aspects, and one not to be overlooked, is the wonderful score performed by the musical group Goblin. An Italian progressive rock outfit headed by the brilliant Claudio Simonetti, Goblin were brought on board Deep Red after composer Giorgio Gaslini and director Dario Argento did not see eye to eye on the direction of the film’s music. Although replacements, Goblin was able to produce one of the most classic cinematic scores in giallo history, fusing their prog rock sound with a heavy-handed influence of jazz. In fact, jazz music has always been a staple of the giallo. Argento had previously worked with renowned composer Ennio Morricone for all three films in his Animal Trilogy, each with their own distinctly funky jazz arrangement and moody atmosphere. The music found in Giallo films typically included pulsing percussive arrangements. With such a distinct mixture of plot themes, it makes perfect sense that this genre of film would be just as much of a mixing pot musically as thematically.
Deep Red was shot mainly on location in Turin, Italy in sixteen weeks. Argento chose Turin because at the time there were more practicing Satanists there than in any other European city, excluding Lyon. His original working title for the film was La Tigre dei Denti a Sciabola (The Sabre-Toothed Tiger).
Co-writer Bernardino Zapponi said the inspiration for the murder scenes came from him and Argento thinking of painful injuries to which the audience could relate, as the pain of being stabbed or shot is outside the experience of most viewers. The close-up shots of the killer’s hands, clad in black leather gloves, were performed by director Dario Argento himself. Argento was convinced that having all the killing scenes performed by himself would be quicker and easier than teaching the moves to an actor, who would require endless re-takes to perform everything to the director’s satisfaction. The film’s special effects, which include several mechanically operated heads and body parts, were made and executed by Carlo Rambaldi.
The character played by David Hemmings is very similar to the one played by Tony Musante in Bird, an artist with a mental block who cannot work. This seems to be a recurrent theme, the artist who cannot create.
Dario Argento: Every writer, to some extent, writes about himself, slightly autobiographical. It comes from the soul. In each of my characters there is a little of me. Not strictly autobiographical but a little piece of my soul.
Deep Red has more violence than your earlier films.
Dario Argento: Movies had got more violent. In fact, the whole world was more violent. In Italy, especially, we had a lot of terrorism, as you had with the I.R.A. in London. Terrible, horrific killings on the streets. Maybe something touched me. I shot Suspiria in Germany during the period of the Baader-Meinhof gang and the violence all around was incredible. When we were shooting the scene at the airport a bomb went off very close by and one of the huge windows was blown in. Pow! Several people were badly cut. For three months we shot in Germany and we could feel the fear on the streets.
Deep Red was heavily cut.
Dario Argento: Nearly an hour was removed! In Paris there were three versions playing, one hour and 25 minutes, one hour and 35, and one hour and 45. In February we were there and we saw the cut version for the first time and the shock! [Raises his arms] I said what has happened? What have they done! But now we have bought the film back and it will be shown in Paris in the original version for the first time in the next couple of months.
Daria Nicolodi: There were only two scenes not tampered with, the opening and the scene with the arm-wrestling. The rest was ruined. It made no sense at all, people would disappear and re-appear for no reason at all.
One version has the killer falls into the lift and then it cuts to the end titles.
Daria Nicolodi: It was incomprehensible.
In Britain we have the full version on video.
Dario Argento: Really! Fantastic. They played the full version on American television when we were over there.
Dario Argento: No, C.B.S. Suspiria has been on cable, uncut, but Deep Red and Cat O’Nine Tails have been on the networks. In Canada too.
Deep Red is still playing in the States, under the title The Hatchet Murders.
Dario Argento: I don’t like that title, it’s cheap. We’d like to get back the distribution rights and re-release it under the original title. It’s a fight. All the time. If you make a film normally it’s all right, the distributors are helpful and cooperative. But if you make a film that’s a little strange, a little bizarre, then all the time it’s a struggle with them.
How do you feel about censors cutting your films?
Dario Argento: Oh….very sad, very sad. In Italy the censor is very old and there are many judges and psychiatrists who analyze you. Me!
Daria Nicolodi: When Dario has to go before the censor board, for days beforehand he is nervous and trembling. You can’t imagine how they cross-question you.
Dario Argento: The psychiatrists examine you and ask you about your life and work, and then they decide whether your film can be shown or not. It’s a horrible experience.
You had Carlo Rambaldi on special effects, now known for creating E.T. and the creature in Possession.
Dario Argento: Yes, I used him for many of my pictures. He’s a great friend of mine. I think he’s a genius. His mind never stops, he’s very, very intelligent. Some people who create special effects are just technicians but Carlo is an artist. He has built all the machines and inventions drawn by Leonardo Da Vinci. Not models but the full-size things. All working.
Dario Argento’s first unabashed foray into the world of supernatural horror came courtesy of Suspiria (1977). The origins of the story behind Suspiria have been an issue of contention for decades with Dario and Daria having differing opinions on the matter; Argento claims the story idea was birthed from a multitude of inspirations including the writings of Edgar Allen Poe. witchcraft and his own headmistress in school. On the other hand, co-writer Daria Nicolodi has stated that the story is a retelling of an experience her grandmother had at a music school which taught black magic to its students combined with Thomas De Quincey’s writings of the Three Mothers. Regardless of where the idea for the story is rooted, Suspiria offered a turn in Dario Argento’s directorial career that comfortably positioned storyline in the passenger’s seat. A visual tour de force, Suspiria is probably the picture most guilty of giving Argento the reputation as a director of style over substance.
Blazing across the screen like a technicolor nightmare, Suspiria’s story revolved around an American ballerina named Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) who begins studying her craft at a German dance academy. Upon Suzy’s arrival at the school, a string of grisly murders begin taking place along with other unexplainable events thanks to a coven of witches who occupy the teaching staff. The leader of the coven is one of the Three Mothers, going by the name of Helena Markos and also known as the Mother of Sighs. Dario did not segue into creating a more supernatural tale, instead opting to dive head-first into the occult. In fact, Suspiria would serve as the first entry in Argento’s “Three Mothers Trilogy,” with the companion pieces to Suspiria also abandoning the director’s giallo profile – but more on that later.
Argento’s original intent with Suspiria was for the girls attending the school to be adolescents rather than the college aged women featured in the final product; he wanted girls age, 11 to 14, but the distributor scoffed at the idea. This paved the way for Argento to make such stylistic decisions as raising the door knobs in the film well above standard height in order to give off the impression that the women in the picture were much smaller. Although minor, details such as this along with the cinematography and beautifully saturated color tones – not to mention the pulse-pounding original score by prog rock group Goblin all served to create a cinematic disorientation for the viewer. With the story put to the wayside in favor of audiovisual excess, Argento’s psychedelic fairy tale was n infamous for including some of the most intricate death scenes ever put to film at the time it was released.
Why did you assign Goblin to the soundtrack after Pink Floyd dropped out?
Dario Argento: Goblin was a new band and this was their first major work. The oldest of them was only 18. They were very talented and I wanted to give them a break. I like to work with young people. In my first picture I was young too. People with experience tell you that you can’t do this and you can’t do that. For many people in my crews it’s their first film. It’s young, busy and enthusiastic. No one says, “I have experience and I say you can’t do this”. In The Bird with the Crystal Plumage the cameraman was Vittorio Storaro, working on his first film. Now he has two Oscars, for Apocalypse Now and Reds.
There was a gap of some two years between Deep Red and Suspiria. This was a very different film compared to your earlier work. Why was this?
Daria Nicolodi: We were fascinated by the idea of the supernatural, the European supernatural. We spent a lot of time going around Europe and studying the background, lots of places and towns in Germany and Switzerland with a history of black magic.
Dario Argento: In Dorna in Switzerland they have a strange community called the Rudolph Steiner Community set up in an immense house.
Daria Nicolodi: They study, apparently, rhythms and dance and magic. That place was the inspiration for Suspiria.
You had the music recorded before the film started shooting and had it played on the set.
Dario Argento: Yes, I wanted the cast to really feel the terror. We did a lot of shooting late at night in very empty sound stages with the music playing. It was very effective-even I was affected by it. I did the same thing with Inferno.
Where did you find Jessica Harper?
Dario Argento: I saw her in Phantom of the Paradise, the Brian DePalma film, and thought she would be perfect.
Why was the film mixed in four-track stereo? The sound was astounding but it was only for certain cinemas.
Dario Argento: I studied using Dolby and then decided that four-track is better, the sound is much more powerful. More expensive but the sound is excellent. I also used out-dated old Kodak stock, a formula nearly 40 years old. Then when the film was processed it was processed using the old three-pack process, again very old and never used these days. You can alter the look of the film in the lab by those means. The same process was used a lot in the early 50’s, as in War Of The Worlds. Republic Films and their ‘Trucolor’. Very striking. I can’t use it again because Suspiria used up the last of the stock. There’s no more left anywhere in the world. Except in China. Their film industry still uses some three-pack. All the old processing and printing machines were sold to China some years ago and the old stock went with it.
You’ll have to go to China if you want it.
Dario Argento: Maybe. I’m thinking about it.
Daria Nicolodi: Some of our films have been shown in China.
Dario Argento: Yes, I’m only the second Italian director to have his movies shown in China. They debated it but finally let them be shown. Fang: You two worked together writing Suspiria and Inferno.
How do you collaborate?
Daria Nicolodi: With Suspiria I think I contributed the look of the film. I added the world of dancing and mystique which is specifically feminine and can be seen in the film, which is different from Dario’s other films. I think that’s my input.
Dario Argento: Daria’s feminine world.
Actually there are very few males in the cast.
Dario Argento: Yes, only really three.
Daria Nicolodi: And Pavlo, the Rumanian.
Dario Argento: He was the big servant with the horrible teeth.
Is it true that you found him working in an Italian post office.
Dario Argento: Yes, that’s true. Italian post offices can be strange places.
There’s a scene reputed to be cut from all the export prints where the servant is cut in two by a falling sheet of glass and his organs tumble all over the floor. Can you confirm this?
Dario Argento: No, that scene was never shot, we never wrote it.
Daria Nicolodi: We ended the film with the Black Mass and the burning of the building but never any scene with the servant.
Just a rumour.
Dario Argento: Sounds good, perhaps we should put it in.
When Suspiria was a big hit in Japan they re-released Deep Red and called it Suspiria Part 2.
Dario Argento: Yes, that’s incredible, that’s absurd! A ridiculous thing to do. People would be very surprised when they saw it. It is a realistic movie whereas Suspiria is fantastic.
It was only a matter of time until Hollywood came knocking at Dario’s door. Twentieth Century Fox came on board to finance Argento’s second entry in The Three Mothers Trilogy. Inferno (1980). Thematically similar to Suspiria, Inferno shifts the action to New York City where a young woman named Rose (Irene Miracle) rightfully suspects the Mother of Darkness is inhabiting her apartment building. She soon sends a letter to her brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey) telling him of her suspicions; he immediately travels from Rome to New York in order to help his sister. Reportedly very ill at the time, Argento penned the script amidst spending a couple months during the winter of 1978, holed up in a hotel room in New York with a view of Central Park. Perhaps this was foreshadowing the events to come, as Inferno would prove to be one of the most grueling films Dario would ever direct. According to Argento, working with the studio was a nightmarish experience since they tinkered with every part of the filmmaking process from casting to the feature’s eventual haphazard release. Due to changes at the top of Fox’s studio regime, Inferno wound up caught in limbo and never received a proper theatrical release in the United States. The film opened to mixed reviews overseas, and although it was not a commercial disaster, Inferno failed to generate any of the buzz that its predecessor had, largely in part to Fox’s release debacle.
Inferno wasn’t distributed in the States; 20th Century-Fox has left it on the shelf. Do you feel bad about their handling of the film?
Dario Argento: Oh yes, very bad. It’s a very long story with Fox and what they did to Inferno. Halfway through shooting the picture the management at Fox changed and the new management boycotted all the films that were being produced by the previous board. Not only Inferno but several others, they didn’t want anything to do with them.
Could you, like with Deep Red, buy it back from Fox?
Dario Argento: No, we’ve tried, it’s theirs.
Daria Nicolodi: Other companies have made offers to buy it from them but they won’t sell. They just leave it on the shelf.
It was only shown in Britain for a couple of weeks.
Dario Argento: It’s sad, very sad.
Daria Nicolodi: Dario says that perhaps it will have a longer life because of this. Maybe in a couple of years they will change their minds and it will be shown.
There’s a line in Suspiria which says, “Magic is all around us;” that doesn’t seem to be the same theme in Inferno.
Dario Argento: No, Inferno is about a different form of magic, not about witches. It concerns the sorcerers who use alchemy for gain rather than evil. It’s a subtle difference.
There’s a scene in it where Kazanian is drowning cats in Central Park and another in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage in which an artist eats cat stew! I take it you don’t like cats?
Dario Argento: No, no, I like them! But in Crystal Plumage the artist likes them too. He likes to eat them! He likes them very much!
For Inferno you used Keith Emerson to write and play the score. Was Goblin busy?
Dario Argento: No, it was because I wanted a different sort of score, a more delicate one. I like Keith’s work very much and he is a friend of mine and he happened to be available.
Daria Nicolodi: A lot of musicians and bands are very busy in advance for a long time. It’s all a matter of timing.
Dario Argento: I write a picture and I want to get started quickly. It’s impossible to wait around until one musician has time to write a score. Sometimes you have to find someone else.
In Inferno you had Mario Bava controlling the special effects and his son, Lamberto, as assistant director. It was the last film Mario worked on before his death. Do you think he had a great influence on the type of horror cinema we have now?
Dario Argento: Yes, very much. I think he was ahead of his time. In the 50’s and 60’s he was making the sort of films we are seeing now. He was a very important figure in horror film history. Now Lamberto Bava has gone on to direct Macabre which is an excellent film; he’s carrying on the family tradition. Lamberto was also assistant director on Tenebrae.
After recouping from his ordeal making Inferno, Dario set his sights on completing The Three Mothers Trilogy. The director prepared a treatment for the film but soon shelved the idea, instead opting to move in a less supernatural direction for his next project. Inspired by a combination of senseless violence and threats made on his own life by an obsessed fan, Argento scripted Tenebrae (1982). Argento’s return to the giallo genre weaved the tale of an American novelist on a European promo tour whose books (the latest of which is titled Tenebrae) are supposedly inspiring a black-gloved serial killer. The film made solid use of a majority of Dario’s trademarks with the camera work being of particular note, punctuated by a two-and-a-half-minute tracking shot that utilizes a crane to peer in on a pair of lesbians from multiple floors on both sides of an apartment building just as the killer prepares to strike. Tenebrae exhibits one of the more comprehensible plots found in any of Argento’s work, yet for some reason remains one of his more underrated efforts. Since the film was released during the dying days of the giallo craze overseas, it achieved only moderate success; however, the sole fact that it was released wide in European territories was a huge bounce back from the release struggles Dario dealt with regarding Inferno. It wasn’t until 1984 that Tenebrae made its way to theaters in the US, albeit heavily edited and going by the alternate title Unsane.
Argento under pressure and feeling “the need to once again defy expectations” returned to the giallo genre and began work on Tenebrae. Argento later stated that he wanted to “put on film a gory roller-coaster ride packed with fast and furious murders” and that he “shouldn’t resist what [his] hardcore audience wanted”. He added that he had also become irritated that in the years since his last giallo so many other directors had made films derivative of – and inferior to – his own genre-defining works. Argento said that Tenebrae was directly influenced by two distressing incidents that occurred in 1980. On a break from filmmaking after Suspiria’s surprise success, Argento was spending time in Los Angeles, where an obsessed fan telephoned him repeatedly, to talk about Suspiria’s influence on him. According to Argento, the calls began pleasantly enough but before long became more insistent, eventually menacing. The fan claimed that he wanted “to harm Argento in a way that reflected how much the director’s work had affected him”, and that because the director had “ruined his life”, he in turn wanted to ruin Argento’s. Although no violence came of the threat, Argento said he found the experience understandably terrifying and felt unable to write. At the advice of his producers, Argento fled to the coastal city of Santa Monica, where he felt safe enough to resume writing. However, after a few weeks, the fan found Argento and resumed his calls, issuing more threats. The director decided to return to Italy. Argento felt the escalating nature of the fan’s threats were “symptomatic of that city of broken dreams” with its “celebrity stalkers and senseless crime”. The second incident occurred during Argento’s stay at The Beverly Hilton, where a Japanese tourist was shot dead in the hotel lobby. Later hearing of a drive-by shooting outside a local cinema, Argento reflected on the senselessness of the killings: “To kill for nothing, that is the true horror of today … when that gesture has no meaning whatsoever it’s completely repugnant, and that’s the sort of atmosphere I wanted to put across in Tenebrae.” Shot on location in Rome and at Elios Studios, Tenebrae utilized mostly modern-looking locations and sets to help Argento realize his intent that the film reflects a near-future with a diminished population; the director filmed none of the historical landmarks that usually featured in films set in Rome. Employing director of photography Luciano Tovoli, Argento also intended that the film simulate the stark, realistic lighting featured in television police shows at the time; production designer Giuseppe Bassan created supporting environments that were cold and austere, with sharp angles and modernistic spaces. Several former members of Italian rock band Goblin provided Tenebrae’s music, a synth-heavy score inspired by rock and disco music.
It’s been three years between Inferno and Tenebrae.
Dario Argento: We were in Los Angeles, working on writing another film at the time and this crazy man started to persecute me.
Daria Nicolodi: He started giving Dario phone calls at all times of the day and night and one time we took a taxi and found a written message in it that he wanted to kill Dario. We never knew how it got there. And so the story of Tenebrae came about.
The theme of Tenebrae is ”to kill without reason is true horror” and it seemed this man had no reason to want to kill you.
Dario Argento: Absolutely, none.
Daria Nicolodi: Dario thought that perhaps this man loved him very much and perhaps that was the reason. He loved him but he wanted to kill him. Very strange. Perhaps he liked the films too much. At the beginning he was very nice on the phone, this man. And then he started to turn horrible.
The film contains an amazing scene where the camera travels all over the exterior of a house, over a roof and through the windows in one shot. How was this done?
Dario Argento: I used a Louma crane, a wonderful device; it makes the camera able to go anywhere. It was also used on Friday the 13th Part 3.
You’ve often used a lot of very technical equipment in your films, like the East German camera in Four Flies on Grey Velvet. In Crystal Plumage you have the camera going down a character’s throat at one point.
Dario Argento: Yes, that’s called a “snorkel” camera. Like a long tube, used in hospitals for stomach examinations. I like trying out new equipment. What’s the point of technology if you can’t use it and experiment with it.
In several of your films there’s a gay red herring. Are you trying to get gay characters accepted as the norm rather than stereotypes?
Dario Argento: No, not really. I’m very interested in portraying homosexual men and women in my films because I’m interested in their lives and their problems. In Tenebrae l used a woman in the flashback sequences who was in fact a hermaphrodite, truly. We did it before Dustin Hoffman! She was a beautiful person and she fascinated me.
The cast-list names her as “Eva Robins.”
Daria Nicolodi: Her real name is Roberto. And that’s not a rumor, that’s true.
Dario Argento: I liked working with her very much, she was really fascinating.
The role of Peter Neal was originally written for Christopher Walken.
Dario Argento: Yes, but he was perhaps too young. I spoke to him about it but I wanted the character to be very believable. He was perhaps too young to be an internationally successful writer.
Argento’s next film Phenomena (1985) would prove to be an amalgam of everything the director had previously dabbled in, formulating one of the most bizarre and entertaining films on his entire resume. Featuring an adolescent Jennifer Connelly in the starring role, Phenomena chronicled the story of a young girl with a telepathic connection to insects, a gift which she harnesses in order to track down a serial killer alongside a wheelchair-bound entomologist played by Donald Pleasance. Toss in a monkey wielding a straight razor and a monstrously deformed young boy, and you end up with an outlandish fairy tale thriller that became a big hit for Argento when released in Italy in 1985. The film’s special effects were a new hurdle for Argento since rather than dealing solely in the red stuff, he now had to account for thousands of insects, too.
“I was inspired to make the film after read various news reports. First, in America some doctors discovered that certain schizophrenics have the capability to communicate with insects, which thought was an incredible thing to discover. Second, while I was in France I was listening to the radio one day and I heard an item concerning a murder case. The police had enlisted the aid of a scientist, and by using insects they unmasked the murderer. Fantastic! I found the ideas exciting and they seemed to come together quite logically. Then, when I was in Switzerland for a vegetarian convention-1 don’t eat meat-I found the perfect location around Zurich, and the other elements fell into place. I think it’s a very unusual story, and a very unusual film, being a thriller within a horror story, expansive, yet very claustrophobic.”
The screenplay was written in the fall of 1983 shortly after Argento had completed Tenebrae. He collaborated with Franco Ferrini, then supervised the story-boarding. “I find it a necessary process that helps to simplify the processes involved” he says. With specific locations in mind he then had to decide on the visual style. In his previous films Argento has mainly shot locations in and around Turin, in the north of Italy, or Rome. These locations have always contributed to the style of his stories. With Creepers, Argento has taken a new visual approach. “I wanted the film to have a cold feel to it, the colors muted, sparse. Not just because we were going to film in the Alpine region, but because the expressionism of Suspiria and Inferno, the deep colors, would have been wrong” he explains.
Argento comes from an artistic background, his mother and uncle being photographers of some note, which explains his attitude towards film, composition and color. “A lot of my inspiration comes from them,” he adds. “And on Creepers I was very influenced by the work of German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl who made films like Triumph Of the Will during the days of the Third Reich. Not politically influenced, of course, but visually.”
To achieve this look Argento had director of photography Romano Albani use a special film stock that works in conjunction with a processing technique called ENR developed by Technicolor. This processing involves a 50 percent subtraction of color from the original material, giving the final print a cold, washed-out appearance. “The process converts the most vivid colors. But you must also arrange this during the filming; in the production design, the costumes, the lighting. For example, I instructed Giorgio Armani, the famous fashion designer who has worked on some films, most recently Walter Hill’s Streets Of Fire, to make clothes in black, white and gray, while the production designers kept primary colors to a minimum. In this way we were able to freeze the colors, managing to obtain the cool greens of Switzerland, yet giving the rest of the film a black and white tonality.”
Shooting started in June 1984. Since the film required a lot of special insect photography, the second unit commenced work before the main unit. Luigi Cozzi was assigned to direct the second unit because of his effects background, handling the optical effects and the macrophotography used for closeups of the insects. Principal photography followed two months later, and the filming wrapped up in October.
Argento decided to experiment with the music soundtrack, using a variety of heavy metal and punk groups in addition to original compositions by his usual group, Goblin, and Claudio Simonetti. “I originally wanted Tangerine Dream to do the score,” the Italian explains, “but they had just arranged to do a tour, so were unavailable. I had used Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake and Palmer for the soundtrack of Inferno, but I wanted to do something different, although Keith did some excellent music for that film. All my films have strong soundtracks, yet this one had to be the strongest! That’s why I chose groups like Motorhead and Iron Maiden. Goblin has contributed, too, and so has Bill Wyman, who is a very old friend. I wanted a mixture of gentle, atmospheric music and driving rock for the murders to give the film momentum.”
Also on the Dolby soundtrack are compositions by Anti Sex Gang, and, on the soundtrack album released by Cinevox Records of Italy, “Two Tribes” by Frankie Goes To Hollywood, which Argento finally decided not to use in the film. When Creepers opened in Italy in February of this year it was a box-office success, reportedly grossing more than Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The same situation happened recently in France where Argento is regarded as one of the top directors in the world. The soundtrack album also went to number one on the Italian charts.
Argento made his return to the director’s chair in triumphant fashion with Opera aka Terror at the Opera (1987). Another giallo, Opera concerns a production of MacBeth that is besieged by a schizophrenic serial killer obsessed with the new leading lady. The plot is littered with red herrings, but the true sensation of Opera again lies in the visuals. Aggravated over the years that viewers would turn away from the violence he beautifully plastered across the screen, Argento tried to develop an idea that would force the audience to stay focused on what he wanted to visually subject them to. The thought that came to him wound up being inserted as a plot device in Opera and is without a doubt one of the most sadistic concepts to ever grace the screen. The film’s main character, Betty (Christina Marsillach), is tied up, bound, and gagged by the killer and forced to watch those around her murdered first hand; the sick twist being that she cannot blink or close her eyes since pins have been taped just beneath her eyelids so if she tries to avoid the carnage in front of her she will have to do so at her own excruciatingly painful expense. This torturous display has often been cited as prime evidence of Argento being a misogynist, yet any true connoisseur of his work can advise otherwise that his maniacal imagination knows not how to discriminate.
Opera is also noteworthy for yet again displaying Argento’s trademark camera trickery. One shot in particular still awes to this day. During a scene where a murder of crows are released into the opera house during a performance in order to seek out the identity of the killer, the camera assumes a first person point-of-view from the crows’ perspective. Utilizing a custom-built crane device, to obtain the shot, the audience is taken for a swirling frenzy of a ride, bobbing, and weaving while circling above the audience, culminating in the eye of the black-gloved maniac being pecked out of its socket.
Dario Argento based the movie on his experiences directing a failed production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth, with Ian Charleson’s character of Marco being based on Argento himself. The plot device of needles taped under the eye (an image featured prominently in the film’s promotional campaign), came from a joke of Argento’s. The director said it would annoy him when people would look away during the scary scenes in his films, and jokingly suggested taping pins under people’s eyes so they couldn’t look away from the film. The role of Signora Mara Cecova was written with Vanessa Redgrave in mind. When she proved to be unavailable, the character’s scenes were greatly reduced.
A very high profile gig ripe with media and public attention, Argento’s Opera proved to be a box office hit and found the director at the peak of his success after a particularly rough period in his life that included his split with Daria Nicolodi and the loss of his father.
Actress Daria Nicolodi originally did not want to play the role of Mira, having recently ended her long-time relationship with Argento. What finally convinced her to take the role was the character’s elaborate and shocking death scene. She would later say that filming her death scene was tremendously frightening as it required her to have a small amount of explosive placed on the back of her head. The role of Inspector Daniele Soavi was played by the character’s namesake, Argento’s long-time collaborator Michele Soavi, in an uncredited role. This was the final film of actor Ian Charleson, who tested positive for HIV after a minor car accident, something which he had suspected for several months. He died two years after the film’s release.