Not long ago Dario Argento had a cultish fan base and was the equivalent of fugu for foodies. Now he’s a touchstone for hipster youth (remember the Herschell Gordon Lewis vs. Dario Argento debate in Juno?) who appreciate his giallo subgenre for the lurid, violent, and stylishly baroque thrillers the form embodies. If you’re looking for plots that make sense, look elsewhere. But if you like your chills all’Italia — graphic, bizarre and served con molto brio — you’re on track.
10. The Cat O’ Nine Tails (1971)
A reporter, a blind man and the blind man’s young niece inadvertently trigger a murder spree that has something to do with a top-secret genetic research project. And how about that hollow-eyed, screwed up rich girl (’60s Euro-babe Catherine Spaak) with her mysterious motives, shagadelic wardrobe and serious daddy issues? She’s scary even if she isn’t a killer. Be warned: Argento isn’t afraid to terrorize cute kids.
9. The Stendahl Syndrome (1996)
A serial sex killer plays wicked head games with a police detective (Argento’s daughter Asia) who suffers from Stendhal Syndrome: Too much great art gives her hallucinations. Not a big problem in, say, Kansas, but this is Italy — there’s a masterwork lurking around every corner. One minute the detective is looking at a seascape in the Uffizi, the next minute she’s underwater, smooching a giant grouper fish with a vaguely human face.
8. Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1972)
Roberto, an American drummer living in Rome with his rich, high-strung wife confronts a stranger who’s been following him. They scuffle, the man falls to his death. And that’s not the bad part: Someone in a creepy puppet mask is photographing the whole thing. Is there a plot to blackmail Roberto? Drive him insane? Frame him for murder? It doesn’t matter: The stalker in the puppet mask is seriously spooky and the ending is killer.
7. Inferno (1980)
In the follow up to Suspiria, a music student comes to New York looking for his missing sister Rose. He moves into her apartment, in a building so baroquely fabulous you can see why the tenants stay put, no matter how many neighbors get guillotined by panes of glass, enoculated or savaged by psychotic cats. It all traces back to an ancient book Rose discovered. The basement puddle that opens into a vast, flooded ballroom lousy with hostile, waterlogged corpses is a must-see.
6. Carrie features a very young Jennifer Connelly as a troubled new student at a posh boarding school in the “Swiss Transylvania.” The mean girls move in, and she introduces them to her little friends, the swarms of insects with whom she shares a telepathic bond. That’s just the beginning. We haven’t even gotten to the serial killer or the pissed-off, razor-wielding chimp or the headmistress’ dark secret or the pool of maggots…
5. The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1969)
American writer Tony Musante just wants to go home to New York, but after he happens across an attempted murder the Rome police confiscate his passport. Is he the psycho who’s been carving up pretty girls or an important witness? He’s not going anywhere, so he does some amateur sleuthing. Bad idea. It’s pretty conventional for an Argento thriller, but it has plenty of flair. Set-ups like the attack in the art gallery — Musante gets trapped, unable to go for help or aid the woman inside — got the first-time director dubbed the “Italian Hitchcock.”
4. Opera (1987)
After the star has an “accident,” a young singer inherits the lead in an avant garde production of Macbeth staged by a horror-movie director. It turns out the fledgling songbird has a twisted secret admirer who kidnaps her and tapes straight pins under her eyes so she’s forced to watch him commit brutal murders. Forget Argento’s misbegotten Phantom of the Opera remake — this is his real tribute to Leroux’s “opera ghost.” Wait till you see the flock of vengeful ravens in action: You’ll never shoo away another pigeon… just in case.
3. Tenebrae (1982)
Novelist Anthony Franciosa, who pens ultra-violent thrillers, is on a promotional tour in Rome when someone starts committing murders inspired by his newest book, “Tenebrae.” Inspired by an unsettling encounter with a deranged fan, Argento kicked the giallo up a notch: More blood, more virtuoso camera moves, more bravura murder set-pieces. And it’s got a bang up ending — insane, but audacious beyond belief. Tenebrae was retitled Unsane for its U.S. release, lest gorehounds mistake it for some kind of foreign art movie.
2. Deep Red (1975)
English pianist David Hemmings looks up from a dark street to see a murder in progress. He’s too late to help, but can’t shake the feeling he glimpsed something significant at the scene. After an ambitious reporter labels him an eyewitness, he’s forced to investigate before the killer comes for him. A child’s macabre drawing on the wall of a crumbling, “haunted” villa explains everything, but the trick is that you have see all of it. Watch for the chattering wind-up toy that scares the bejabbers out of a victim-to-be — it inspired Saw‘s “Billy” puppet.
1. Suspiria (1977)
Pirouettes and plies take a backseat to supernatural mayhem when an American ballet student starts poking around the dark corners of a prestigious German dance academy. Cue the rain of maggots, and get ready for the hidden room full of barbed wire. Watch what happens when malevolent forces possess the blind rehearsal pianist’s seeing-eye dog. Argento’s breakout hit is 100 candy-colored minutes of sheer insanity, a warped fairy tale driven by a pulsating, “Tubular Bells”-on-acid score. Sorry, Juno: No way is Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Wizard of Gore better than this!
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