Here are two things that seldom go together: horror and beauty. It seems like the very last consideration many of us have when turning on a scary movie is the potential for visual splendor or cinematic style. And most of the time, our expectations are right. Horror movies are largely defined by a crudeness, an uncomfortable manipulation of our sensibilities. They aren’t made to amaze us. They’re made to make us scream.
That’s not to say, however, that style and scares can’t coexist. In fact, they can come together with overwhelming synergy when placed in the right hands, and have done just that in some of the most memorable horror movie moments. Think about the terrifying simplicity of Kubrick’s tracking shots of the tricycle in “The Shining.” The razor-sharp editing and piercing strings of the now-legendary shower scene from “Psycho.” Heck, even the uncannily ominous atmosphere that Jordan Peele musters leading up to the final act of “Get Out” is a testament to the value of artful horror.
But if there’s any filmmaker who so consummately embodies stylish horror, it has to be Dario Argento. The Italian director made his best work in the ’70s and ’80s, and his sheer artistic control over these films renders them inimitable and profoundly subjective. His stories are often a blend of mystery, thriller and horror, striking a balance between the brutally tactile and the disconnectedly ethereal.
Argento’s specific brand of horror does not sacrifice scares for style, or vice versa. Not only are the two features equally baked into the DNA of his filmmaking, but they are inseparable from one another. His films are probably most recognizable by their affinity for gore and their unique depiction of the human body. His murder scenes are a prime example of this quality. While initially jarring, the sequences turn intentionally cartoonish the longer one watches, showcasing ridiculously bright blood and limbs that seem more like the appendages of a doll than those of a human.
He is perhaps best known for his cult classic “Suspiria,” which, in the context of his evolution as a director, is a brilliant experiment in toying with the line between reality and fantasy. There are moments during the experience that not only ask one to question Argento’s reality, but their own as well.
The lighting in “Suspiria” in particular is one of its most indelible aspects. Much of the film happens in the confines of a German dance academy, and every hallway is permeated with a ghostly red quality, whether by strange painted hues or some inexplicable source of crimson light. In one tension-filled scene, all the lights of the academy shut off, leaving us in temporary blackness only to give way to a new, pale night-vision-like perspective. The characters in the film can’t see this new light, lending the film the ability to bend and distort our perspective. By deftly intertwining the physical with the metaphysical, he allows viewers to interpret the film through a distinctly individual lens.
Director Luca Guadagnino (“Call Me By Your Name”) even recreated the movie with his own specific interpretation. His 2018 remake of “Suspiria” showcases the variety of messages the original can impress onto its audience. He reinterpreted an admittedly simple story into something far more nuanced and political. Whether this choice was the right one is questionable, but it doesn’t matter either. It was inarguably Guadagnino’s own choice, a confident decision inspired by the ingenuity of his predecessor. That transition — the creativity of one filmmaker igniting that of another — speaks to the importance of films like Argento’s “Suspiria.”
There’s also something to be said about Argento’s fixation on artistically talented protagonists. Whether through the mystic dancing of Susie from “Suspiria,” the author of a serial killer novel that inspires a real-life copycat in “Tenebre” or a jazzy piano-player-turned-murder-investigator in “Deep Red,” Argento relishes in the opportunity to connect the boldness of art with mortal danger. We’ve noticed a similar pattern even in Damien Chazelle, whose films “La La Land” and “Whiplash” depict the self-corroding nature of musicians entrenched in their craft. While the two filmmakers clearly diverge in their subject material beyond this comparison, it is worth noting the tendency for directors in pursuit of artistic excellence to leak that excellence into their own characters.
On the topic of music, it is impossible to even discuss Argento without any mention of his frequent collaborators, the Italian progressive rock band Goblin. The group’s auditory additions to his films are as disquieting and dreamy as the images they overlay. Goblin wrote twinkling, pulsating and at times operatic riffs that are somehow catchy and creepy at the same time. Their ability to seamlessly switch time signatures grants their scores an offsetting and incessant quality. Even a week after finishing “Deep Red,” I found it impossible to get the groovy soundtrack — or the film — out of my head.
An undermentioned and truly special effect of Argento’s signature subjectivity is this: His films can be as artsy or as uncomplicated as you want them to be. If you have the capacity to explore the various enigmas he posits, his heady symbolism and the significance behind his deceitful camerawork, those options are readily available. If all you want is to enjoy his movies for the twist-riddled, adventurous mysteries they are at face value, no one’s stopping you either. It’s easy to write off Argento as an artsy filmmaker purely for the horror-obsessed, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. His films are for anyone and everyone to see. At worst, they are exactly what you want out of them, and at best, they are deeply revelatory masterpieces that have elevated my understanding of cinema itself.