Dario Argento Is the Most Influential Horror Director Outside of Hitchcock
The legacy of the original “Suspiria” director touches everything from the sublime to the really, truly cheap.
Is Dario Argento's 1977 giallo masterpiece Suspiria actually a good film? Suspiria, like many Argento thrillers, is beautiful but clunky, both awash with technical and aesthetic innovation and almost amusingly clumsy in its plotting. So does Suspiria hold up or, like many an Argento affair, feel like a hysterical and nonsensical race from one bloody set-piece to the next? A better question, perhaps, than whether the original Suspiria is any good: does it matter?
Luca Guadagnino's new spin on the seminal Suspiria will be released this Friday. To the purest of Argento purists, the film may feel like a reckless treatment of its namesake because while the setting and several scenes will feel familiar, it is a ground-up reimagining in almost every way. The hyper-saturated sights of the Tanz Dance Academy have been replaced with 70s Berlin brutalism of the Markos Dance Academy. One of the original film's enduring themes—the willingness of men to either ignore or outright work against a woman's experience and pain—is gone, though only by virtue of the fact this is essentially an all-female cast, the one significant male character being played by a heavily made-up Tilda Swinton in one of three wild performances she turns out during the film's two-and-a-half-hour running time (a whole hour longer than Argento's version).
In a 2016 interview with Indiewire, Argento expressed frustration with the idea of a Suspiria remake however it may be told. “Either you do it exactly the same way—in which case, it’s not a remake, it’s a copy, which is pointless,” Argento said at the time. “Or, you change things and make another movie. In that case, why call it Suspiria?” But, for better or worse, the joy of any Argento film is in its preoccupation with how something looks and feels, rather than how it functions. In this way, Guadadgnino's Suspiria may be considered the ultimate loving remake, so obsessed is it with its own unique and terrible beauty.
Argento's Suspiria is most inextricably tied to its use of color. Nearly every scene is awash with overwhelming primary hues. Argento and director of photography Luciano Tovoli were hardly the first filmmakers to use oversaturated colors, but there are very few films in the wake of Suspiria that look as good and wouldn't be able to point to the film as a major aesthetic inspiration.
Modern filmmakers like Nicolas Winding Refn and, hell, Wes Anderson, owe Argento and Tovoli's first collaboration a major debt. But in watching more of Argento's films, his obvious influences become more diffuse. In Inferno, his 1980 follow-up to Suspiria and the second of the films that together are called the Three Mothers, many beautiful American teens are terrorized by the Maters Suspiriorum, Lachrymarum, and Tenebrarum. In the film's standout scene, Rose (Irene Miracle) finds herself stalked within her own apartment building. Eventually she scrambles into the attic and is quickly dispatched by a gloved entity and murdered with a makeshift guillotine fashioned from a broken window. Later, another tenant of the apartment building is forced further and further upwards in her bulding's stairwell. We see the internal locks of each door clicking shut as she tries to escape, the baroque excess of the building giving way momentarily to an admiration for the efficiently mechanical. While still bursting with neon élégance, Inferno is much more brutal in its kills, and serves to show how even filmmakers like Eli Roth, James Wan, and whichever cadre of dudes made all those other fucking Saw movies took cues from the Italian.
It's hard not to feel like the third film in the Three Mothers trilogy, Mother Of Tears, is a “fuck you” of sorts. Gone are the alternately candy-colored interiors with shadows black as a void, and instead a much more modern, crassly digital look is borne to complete the story of the witches that made Argento an enduring name in cinema. Maybe that's why it's the least revered of the three: Despite his best efforts, Argento will always be tied to aesthetics over all. Films made up of blood, girls, adjectives, and often little else. In that way, Dario Argento might be the most influential horror director outside of Hitchcock, his touch felt on everything from the sublime to the truly awful, cheap-ass shit.