Theme Tuesday - Dario Argento - The Animal Trilogy
For the month of October, the master of Giallo, Dario Argento, will be my focus, a director whose filmography I have only grazed the surface of.
Perhaps the biggest misconception I brought with me into exploring Argento’s works is that he is mainly a horror director. It is true that his most famous films - Suspiria and Deep Red - could qualify as such, but these three movies that constitute the so-called “Animal Trilogy” are more thrillers with hints of the slasher genre that would begin in earnest with John Carpenter (a big fan of Argento) and Halloween. In these early works, Argento shows great promise, mainly in his use of visual style. He favors real, urban locations with unusual features and dramatic lighting that pays great homage to noir. These movies also rely quite heavily on the score to invoke mood. The real MVP for these early efforts is Ennio Morricone who is doing very strange and evocative work that still elevates what is pretty basic material. Giallo does, after all, refer to the paperback novels with yellow (giallo in Italian) pages that were the modern equivalents of dime store Westerns. These films are far from undisputed masterpieces, as the narrative can be shaky even at its most effective. Characters are more types than actual fleshed-out human beings and I struggle to think of any truly memorable performances from any of these movies. Still there are plenty of stunning images and great suspense and tension that never gets old as Argento is good at mixing up his techniques and finding creative ways to stage his scenes.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)
Definitely the best of the trilogy, mainly because of its more coherent and interesting narrative. All the plots of these movies concern a character challenging his or her perception of a usually traumatic event that starts the plot. In Crystal Plumage, it is the apparent stabbing of a woman by a mysterious man in a museum. Argento does a good job of making this question of perception the crux of the mystery, more so than who the killer is. There is a lot of interesting, sensible detective work that grounds the movie as well, even when it gets slightly on the absurd side. Here, one also gets the sense that Argento wanted to use these various interesting locations such as the museum and the zoo and make them integral parts of the plot and he does so brilliantly, especially with the museum.
Cat O’ Nine Tails (1971)
Definitely has the most ridiculous plot out of the three with its plot about a genetic experiment testing the implications of the XYY mutation. Karl Malden is the prominent figure here but mostly because when you see him, you ask “what is Karl Malden is doing in an Italian movie?” Of course, it wasn’t unusual for American actors to appear in Italian movies since their voices were often dubbed over anyways, but usually this was if their careers hadn’t had heat for a while in the States. The rooftop chase scene is another classic example of Argento picking interesting locations and letting them dictate how an action scene plays out.
Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971)
Probably the most potentially problematic film, with its obsession with dangerous women, a twist on the noir trope of the femme fatale. I am no authority on gender studies, but I know enough that identifying gender queerness as the realm of villains or the mentally disturbed is problematic. I am cheating a little bit, but I know to give Argento some benefit of the doubt because I know how important the female characters in his next two films, especially Suspiria, which is hugely popular among female horror fans. It’s definitely a step up from Cat O’ Nine Tails narratively, though it still similarly shaky in its resolution.