He’s an iconoclast, he’s a provocateur, he directed Dracula 3D—the maestro of Italian horror, Dario Argento, now has both a Shudder documentary and a Paste ranking of his best movies. In the trailer for Dario Argento Panico, genre authorities explain Argento’s titanic gifts with effusive praise, while actresses counter with his unorthodox, aggressive directorial tactics. With extensive archive footage and testimony, Panico looks like the perfect medicine for anyone who watched one of Argento’s films and thought, “What kind of insane asshole makes a movie like this?”
The padre de giallo (the uniquely Italian horror/thriller genre named after the “yellow” spines of pulp novels), Argento’s films are filled with literally anything he wanted to put in them: Pathologically repressed serial killers, ghastly murder weapons, prog rock music, out-of-place comedy, psychics and psychosis in equal measure. But from his powerhouse debut The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Argento has demonstrated what an exceptional craftsman he is: A master of off-kilter mood, deliciously mounted suspense sequences, and a pervading sense of alienation. With an appreciative mood towards Argento in the air, we collected his most effective and memorable movies.
Here are the 10 best Dario Argento movies:
Beating a whole swathe of middling Dario Argento films to the tenth spot (sorry The Stendhal Syndrome, Sleepless and Dark Glasses) this 1993 giallo has the honor of being his only feature-length film directed in the United States. Argento diverted from giallo’s trademark “clearly dubbed in a native language” style, but even though all the English-speaking actors—Christopher Rydell, Piper Laurie and Dario’s daughter, Asia Argento—deliver live dialogue, it still has the detached, unrefined and heightened quality that all classic Argento movies have. A traumatized young psychiatric patient (Asia Argento) is rescued from committing suicide by a news writer (Rydell) but both are soon targeted by a killer with a brutal but mechanically ingenuous wire garrote that has a knack for decapitations. It’s excessive, cluttered and lacks the severe impact of Argento’s best, but it still feels like he’s comfortable in the driver’s seat.
9. The Cat o’ Nine Tails
Dario Argento’s “Animal trilogy” all feature a wobbly command of tone but inventive (read: implausible) mystery plotting and kill sequences. The stylized, constructed mood and sharp editing build suspense with a palatable eeriness, hooking you on through all those lengthy dialogue scenes (which, contrary to popular belief, still entertain). Argento’s sophomore feature is one of his more choppy works: As a reporter and a blind man team up to stop a killer terrorizing a lab diagnosing a criminal gene, The Cat o’ Nine Tails lacks the exactness of his debut and the sheer power of his greatest hits. Still, though, not to be all “a dummy gets torn apart by an oncoming train” but… it’s hard to talk down a film that’s got that.
8. Four Flies on Grey Velvet
The better of the two follow-ups to The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, this outrageously titled mystery has a sick, indulgent sense of tension that often tilts into inescapable nightmare territory. We kick off with a band drummer committing manslaughter in a disused theater—before clocking that he’s been photographed by a figure wearing a babyish, dough-faced smiling mask. Throughout, the sudden bursts of violent noise and style make all the kill sequences feel like an actual nightmare, which makes up for some misjudged and lightly homophobic comedy and lulls in tension. Thankfully Dario Argento pulls out one of his most galaxy-brained plot contrivances to reveal the killer’s identity—apparently, Italy has just been sitting on technology that scans a corpse’s eyeball to reveal the final image they saw for over 50 years.
Dario Argento apparently considers this his favorite of all his films, which is sweet! But unfortunately incorrect. If you thought Argento’s movies were great but lacking a certain Swiss quality, Phenomena is the one for you. A teenage student with psychic abilities (pre-Labyrinth Jennifer Connelly) becomes entangled in serial murders at her Alpine girls school, and she has to use every inch of her insect-commanding powers to thwart the killer. Phenomena is fantastical in ways that other Argento movies can’t imagine, and delights in becoming blisteringly deranged in the second half, but somehow gets lost amid the accented Donald Pleasance and extended chimpanzee acting. But a primate does refuse to become a giallo killer in the final moments, which does set Phenomena apart from nearly every other movie.
One of Dario Argento’s most peculiar works, Inferno is the second part in Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy, which along with Suspiria explores witchcraft and sorcery in a technicolored, prog rock-scored world (the less said about Mother of Tears, the better). A musicology student flies to New York from Rome when he suspects his sister is in grave danger, and soon learns her apartment building is one of the most haunted houses in the states—we’re talking Hill House-tier of spooky architecture. Inferno is at once as technically competent as Suspiria and far inferior to it—the sets are baroque and dazzlingly lit, there’s a foreboding danger to the supernatural goings-on, and doom is seemingly laden into every scene, even though it’s lacking in the tightness of its precursor. It’s risky in its lack of clean plotting: Pretty much everyone introduced faces a vile fate, and no substantial victory is won at the close. It’s as minimalist as an Argento horror can get, with patient pacing and abstract images—not a surefire banger, but a truly compelling oddity.
Dario Argento came out swinging with this giallo debut, grabbing you by the throat with its opening kill that traps our writer protagonist in huge glass sliding doors, helplessly watching a killer murder a woman in an art gallery. It didn’t just announce Argento’s talent for balancing panicked chaos with urgent, efficient suspense craft, it set up a recurring motif in his filmography: Being the unwilling eyes of some violent, invasive voyeurism. What follows is a robust, dexterous mystery that keeps finding new ways to hook the audience, setting the standard for giallo iconography—a black gloved killer, haunting, anonymous phone calls—in the process.
Potentially the last truly great Dario Argento film, this is giallo on a maximalist scale, but without sacrificing the intimacy of the genre’s horror. An operetta understudy is thrust into the spotlight of an allegedly cursed production of Macbeth (directed, in a subtle piece of autofiction, by a daring but crass horror film director), and is soon repeatedly held hostage by a masked killer. She is bound, gagged and, through the application of needles just below her eyelid, forced to watch colleagues and friends be sadistically dispatched. Like Phenomena and Suspiria, Opera benefits from exploring the frayed and tested psychology of its female protagonist, pushing the punishing treatment of our protagonist to a ludicrous final showdown that, thanks to some hopeful sincerity, hits the necessary high note.
For Tenebre, a film about a killer inspired by the gruesome violence of a horror author’s body of work, Dario Argento turned the gun (or, the gleaming blade in a gloved hand) on himself. Using dramatic mirrors and misdirects, Tenebre tells an unhinged and volatile story about violence being let loose on the world, about how human beings are channels for murder. Here, Argento levels up the impact and tenacity of his craft, matching the screaming pitch of his themes with panic-inducing stalker sequences and some pretty gnarly violence. In copping to the criticisms of his work, Argento points the finger at all those indulging in what he has to offer, and despite some messiness getting there, Tenebre delivers one of the most breathtaking climaxes in his career.
2. Deep Red
The archetypal giallo: Abstract, intimate, disarming. Profondo rosso (see, it sounds even better in Italian!) was a huge hit upon release and across its nearly 50-year lifetime, a sonorous climax of the ’70s giallo craze that is textbook and exquisite Argento stuff. Tracing a serial killer’s campaign from the nightlife Turin to an abandoned manor, Deep Red is filled with snatches of memories, disorientating perspectives, and, yes, a surprise appearance from this guy. Argento commands his camera with a surefooted but syncopated rhythm, conjuring the unnerving, lightly surreal mood of giallo cinema like he was the author of its every detail. Terrifying to think that Italy was really like this back then.
To some, it’s odd that Argento’s most iconic film is so unlike the mysteries that fill out his portfolio: No writer/reporter character trailing a black-gloved killer; no psychologically-tinged but mundane culprit; an insistence on supernatural plotting. But in a realer sense, Suspiria is similar to every film Argento ever made, just in different shades. Its story of a coven inside a vibrantly designed German dance academy feels like an explosively painted nightmare, dipping you in and out of unsettling emotions like you were just about to fall asleep. Its dazzling nature, including its beguiling female friendship, is designed with such pointed focus, soaking us in the chimes and whispers of its Goblin score and challenging us to imagine a way to escape its witchy prison. For all the astute discussion of the effectiveness of Luca Guadagnino’s remake, one thing is clear: Every film on this list deserves a grounded, sickening reimagining that is obsessed with historical context and adds an hour to the runtime.
Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.