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One of the most celebrated horror film directors of the late 20th century, Dario Argento came the closest to visualizing genuine nightmares on celluloid with such surreal, blood-soaked genre classics as "The Bird with the Crystal Plumage" (1969), "Deep Red" (1975), "Suspiria" (1977) and "Mother of Tears" (2007). A former journalist, he transformed his love for folk tales and 19th century supernatural literature into a vibrant cinematic language of fear, essaying deeply suspenseful and psychologically driven stories of monstrous figures - both human and otherwise - overpowering the minds and bodies of his protagonists, resulting in carnage set to the driving scores of Ennio Morricone and against a backdrop of hallucinogenic colors, light and sounds. "Suspiria," about witches in a dance school, was his masterpiece, eschewing sensory abandon over story, but also his downfall; he spent much of the subsequent three decades attempting to match its haunting allure. Despite the ups and downs of his career, the grand poetic terror of Argento's finest works granted him iconic status in the horror genre and international cinema as a whole.
He was born Sept. 7, 1940 in Rome, Italy, the eldest son of film producer Salvatore Argento and his wife, Brazilian fashion photographer Elda Luxardo; younger brother Claudio later followed his brother into the film business, first as a publicist and later as his producer. The roots of his fascination with the macabre and the fantastic lay in his childhood. Argento was drawn to the Italian folk tales of his grandmother, as well as the works of Edgar Allan Poe and the Brothers Grimm. Elements of these stories, filled with diabolical murderers, witches and bizarre twists of fate, would figure prominently in his later screenplays. The movies soon became his second love, with such eclectic filmmakers as Walt Disney, Fritz Lang, Dziga Vertov and especially Alfred Hitchcock becoming his greatest influences. Argento began penning reviews and articles for Italian film journals while still in high school, and after graduation, he passed up the chance to attend college to become a journalist with the evening newspaper Paese Sera. He soon entered the film business as a screenwriter, beginning with "Excuse Me, Are You For Or Against?" (1966) with comedy star Alberto Sordi and Giulietta Masina in a spoof of the furor raised by a law that allowed divorce in deeply Roman Catholic Italy. Argento worked in a variety of genres during the late 1960s, most notably Westerns, which culminated in the story for Sergio Leone's epic "Once Upon a Time in the West" (1969), which he co-wrote with Leone and Bernardo Bertolucci.
Argento's work as a screenwriter soon came to the attention of Goffredo Lombardo, head of Titanus Studios, who contracted him to pen a thriller based loosely on American writer Frederic Brown's The Screaming Mimi. Argento soon became fixated on directing his screenplay, and with the financial help of his father and German producer Artur Brauner, began shooting "The Bird with the Crystal Plumage" (1969). A visually lustrous murder mystery about a man (Tony Musante) who becomes the target of a killer after witnessing one of his crimes, it featured all of the hallmarks of Argento's best work - bravura camerawork, frequent shots from the antagonist's point of view, a menacing score by Ennio Morricone, harrowing violence with sexual overtones, and a story driven by elements of the detective novel and the psychodrama. Though Hitchcock was clearly the main influence, its fluid cinematography and audacious use of light and color paid homage to Italian fantasy filmmaker Mario Bava, whose film "Blood and Black Lace" (1964) had spawned a uniquely Roman style of thriller dubbed "giallo" - the Italian word for "yellow," which was also the name of a popular series of pulp novels - to which "Bird" was clearly a charter member. Critics and audiences alike heaped lavish praise upon Argento's debut film, though many leveled charges of misogyny at the director for his highly sexualized murders, as well as his preference for using his own hands to stand in for the killer's in graphic scenes. The influence of "Bird" was soon felt in a host of European imitations, many of which aped its POV (point of view) footage and savage violence, as well as the American slasher films of the 1970s and 1980s.
Argento's next two films followed in the same vein as "Bird" - "The Cat O'Nine Tails" (1971) starred Karl Malden as a blind man who becomes involved in a complex plot involving blackmail and murder, while "Four Flies on Grey Velvet" (1971) hinged on the myth that the last image a person saw before their death will be burned onto their retina. Despite featuring the same formula as "Bird," neither film - which would eventually be lumped together in an informal group known as the "Animal Trilogy" - matched the global success of their predecessor. After hosting, penning and serving as uncredited director for an episode of a TV suspense anthology called "Door into Darkness" (RAI, 1973), Argento stepped away from the horror genre to try his hand at a period comedy about the 1848 Italian revolution called "Five Days in Milan" (1973). Neither proved very popular, so he soon returned to the horror genre. 1975's "Deep Red" was widely considered to be one of his best thrillers, and a high water mark for the giallo subgenre. Though the core plot resembled his "Animal Trilogy" - music teacher David Hemmings becomes obsessed with the murder of a psychic, which in turns puts his own life in danger - Argento's mastery of suspense was more assured, and the violence more gruesome. Adding to the mix was the unsettling electronic score by the Italian avant-garde group Goblin, and the presence of actress Daria Nicolodi, who would become Argento's muse, collaborator and off-screen partner.
"Deep Red" was a major international success, and allowed Argento to commence on his most ambitious project to date. Based on a story told to Nicolodi by her grandmother about encountering witches at a school, as well as the writings of English fantasist Thomas de Quincey, "Suspira" (1977) was an all-out assault on the audiences' senses; the plot, which concerned American ballet student Jessica Harper's discovery that the German school she attends harbors an ancient witch, was secondary to Argento's deeply saturated visuals, a hypnotic score by Goblin (which Argento played during shooting to disorient his actors) and some of the most vicious murder set pieces ever committed to film. Widely regarded as one of the best horror movies ever made, "Suspiria" elevated Argento from the grindhouse to the arthouse, with critics re-evaluating his early work and fans declaring their allegiance.
While "Suspira" was shocking moviegoers across the globe, Argento was teaming with an American contemporary to produce another horror classic. Director George Romero was struggling to raise financing for "Dawn of the Dead" (1978), his ambitious follow-up to the 1968 zombie classic "Night of the Living Dead," and Argento stepped in to not only provide the initial funding, but arranged for Goblin to provide the score. In exchange, he secured the international distribution rights, and released a shorter, faster-paced version to non-English speaking territories. A massive critical and box office hit, it only further bolstered his standing among the world cinema community. However, his work during the 1980s failed to strike the same chord as "Suspiria." 1980's "Inferno" - part of a proposed trilogy that began with "Suspiria" - featured jaw-dropping visuals and optical effects by Argento's mentor, Mario Bava, but 20th Century Fox failed to give it the proper exposure. "Tenebre" (1982) with Anthony Franciosa as a horror writer whose works inspired a serial killer, was dismissed by fans and critics alike, as was "Phenomena" (1985), which starred a young Jennifer Connelly as a student with an apparent telepathic link to insects. All three were significantly reappraised in later decades, but the string of lukewarm releases sent Argento into a brief hiatus from directing.
He focused instead on writing and producing for up-and-coming Italian horror directors; he co-wrote and produced the ultra-violent Demons" (1985) and "Demons 2" (1986), about a film which turns its viewers into monsters, for Mario Bava's son Lamberto, and provided the same for actor-turned-director Michele Soavi on "The Church" (1989). All three were popular hits with American and international audiences, prompting many fans to speculate that Argento was mounting a return to the director's chair. However, 1987's "Opera," about a killer stalking a production of Verdi's "Macbeth," felt like a warmed-over version of his earlier work. The film was also a personal struggle for the filmmaker, whose father died during shooting; his long-term relationship with Nicolodi, which had produced a daughter, future actress Asia Argento, also came to a close during this period.
The 1990s proved to be even more disappointing for Argento fans than the previous decade. "Two Evil Eyes" (1990), which saw him reunite with George Romero to direct adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories, felt unfocused, while "Trauma" (1993) was an anemic attempt to reclaim his giallo past. The latter was more notable as the first collaboration between Argento and daughter Asia (she had appeared in a small role in "Demons 2"), the pair would reunite several more times over the next decade, including the vicious "Stendahl Syndrome" (1996), about a woman whose susceptibility to the title condition - a trance-like state brought on by works of art - makes her the target of a cruel rapist-killer. Though notable as the first Italian film to use computer-generated imagery, and for a reunion with Ennio Morricone, "Stendahl" was remembered more for bewildered critical response to scenes of graphic sexual violence visited upon Asia Argento by her own father. The content apparently had little impact upon their own relationship. In addition to appearing in his films, Argento produced Asia's directorial debut, "Scarlet Diva" (2000).
The string of misfires Argento released during the 1990s caused many fans and writers to ponder if he had lost his unique cinematic touch; unfortunately, his subsequent releases only served to further that notion. 1998's "Phantom of the Opera," with Julian Sands as the tragic subterranean dweller and Asia Argento as the singer he loves, was a gore-soaked mess, flush with illogical plotting and absurdly poor effects. "Sleepless" (2000) was marked as a return to his giallo heyday, with Max Von Sydow as a detective investigating the apparent return of a decades-old murderer, but the comparison inevitably helped to sink its chances with audiences. Follow-ups like "The Card Player" (2004) and "Do You Like Hitchcock" (2005) had their moments, but Argento seemed to be floundering in his attempt to recapture his past. A slight return to form came with "Jenifer," an episode of the Showtime horror anthology "Masters of Horror" (2005-07). Though light years away from his traditional subject matter - the episode starred Steven Weber as a police detective who discovers and falls for an abandoned woman whose disfigured face and voluptuous body hide a taste for human flesh - the gleefully gruesome results offered a glimmer of hope for his fading fanbase. A second episode of the series, entitled "Pelts" (2007) and starring Meat Loaf as a cruel fur trader driven to commit horrible acts by the spirits of the slaughtered animals, was one of his most over-the-top projects in regard to wall-to-wall gore.
In 2007, Argento completed the long-gestating "Three Mothers" trilogy by releasing "Mother of Tears," with Asia Argento as an art restoration expert who discovered a relic announcing the arrival of the titular witch, who would unleash an apocalypse on the world. As outrageous as any of his previous supernatural films, "Tears" featured reunions with many of his longtime collaborators, including Nicolodi as Argento's mother and Udo Kier, who had appeared in "Suspiria" three decades before. The subject of intense debate among fans and critics, who declared it a failure and one of his best works with equal fervor, "Tears" was Argento's first international box office success in years. Two years later, Argento again returned to his past with "Giallo" (2009), with Adrian Brody as a police inspector on the trail of a killer who abducts women in an unlicensed taxicab. The project turned out to be the latest disappointment for the director, who claimed that the producers' edit did not match his own vision. In 2010, Argento was back in the news thanks to the wave of modern horror films remaking classics from the past; "Pineapple Express" (2008) director David Gordon Green convinced Argento to grant permission to remake "Suspiria," while George Romero was slated to take a pass at "Deep Red" in 3-D.
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First produced screenplay, "Today It's Me--Tomorrow You/Oggi a Me...Domani a Te!"
First film as co-director, "Probabilita zero"
Co-wrote story (with Bernardo Bertolucci) for Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in the West"
Directorial debut (and screenplay), "The Bird With the Crystal Plumage/L'Uccello dalle Piume di Cristallo"
First collaboration (in various production capacities) with American director George Romero, "Dawn of the Dead"
First English language film (producer and director), "Creepers/Phenomena"
American feature acting debut as paramedic in John Landis's "Innocent Blood"
American directorial debut, "Trauma"
Directed remake of "The Phantom of the Opera", starring daughter Asia and Julian Sands
Announced plans to open the theme Horror Restaurant in Rome
Directed remake of "The Phantom of the Opera" with daughter Asia and Julian Sands