During the late 1970s and at the beginning of the 80s, Dario Argento took a step away from the traditional giallo film genre and explored more into the world of the supernatural horror scene, but whilst this was a change in tone from the norm for the director, he still brought a lot of his applied techniques and visual identities that he had become well known for within his previous giallo work.
In 1977 he directed Suspiria, a film that is largely seen as his stand out masterpiece of all his filmography; the opening murder of the film has many traits that can be linked back to the giallo, though Argento this time decides against the black leather gloves that he helped make famous within the giallo and technically he takes a sidestep from the POV killer shot, the killer and his hand/weapon still take a strong influence on screen, and whilst the camera work still implies a voyeuristic approach in the build-up to the first murder, the killers striking blows now come from the side of the camera not from directly behind.
Clip 3. Suspiria (dir Argento, 1977)
It is still clear in this opening murder scene that Argento is still obsessed with the colour red, but now that he's tackling a new genre he is now showing signs of experimentation with various different colours. In the scene above there are various different uses with the coolness of the colour blue; which is very contrasting next to the vibrant brightness of the reds; it is very clear from the beginning of Suspiria (1977) that it's going to be a visually visceral experience in colour.
The films use of vivid primary colours and outlandish set design is what makes Suspiria (1977) a standout piece of filmmaking.
Suspiria is a visceral onslaught of vision and colour. Argento bom-bards the viewer with lurid colours and renders them breathless with his opulent set design, sado-erotic imagery and extremely sinister and powerful soundtrack. This sensory excess defies the belief that horror emerges from nuance and shadowy suggestion. Nothing is left to the imagination in this film. (Gracey, 2010 p70)
What I think Gracey is trying to tell us here, is that with Argento’s use of colour and combined with the effective soundtrack, the audience is seemingly under constant attack, whether it be visually or audibly. He manages to successfully go against the rules of horror filmmaking by not leaving much to the audiences imagination, and instead of areas of dark shadows and mystery, Argento visually engages the audience with bright vivid primary colours that bleed across the screen from all angles.
Fig 1. Stills from Suspiria (dir Argento, 1977)
Luciano Tovoli shot Suspiria in garish widescreen Technovision. Blocks of colour - predominantly red, black and white, occasionally icy blue or green - dominate the screen, suggesting the malingering witchery lurking in the school. When the practice hall is hastily converted into a dormitory with suspended sheets (following an attic infestation of maggots) the room is bathed in throb-bing reds and dark shadows. (Hughes, 2011 p242)
These images from the scene that Hughes is discussing in the above quote are predominately discussing Argento’s fascination with the colour red, this ‘loud’ use of the colour red in the scene creates an unnerving atmosphere, the atmosphere in the scene gaining in it’s eerie-ness, this supernatural change in tone has allowed Argento to really exploit his passion for red, where he may have felt reserved in his use of the colour in his giallo work; here in Suspiria (1977) he is able to bombard the audience with the screen awash with red, free from the shackles of restraint it is here in Suspiria (1977) where Argento’s love of the colour red is obviously there to be seen.
Again 3 years later Argento returns with another more supernatural horror title with Inferno (1980), and again vivid primary colours play centre stage to the cinematography, with a heavy emphasis on blue contrasted against Argento’s favourite red and in the scene below (the underwater sequence) from Inferno (1980) the water itself viewed from above seems a tranquil green almost turquoise acting as a mid-range level between red and blue on screen; what Argento has managed to achieve is a rather more edgy and supernatural atmosphere to the scene and the film as a whole which draws in the audience attention to the visual style.
Clip 4. Inferno (dir Argento, 1980)
Vivid colours and beautiful lighting simply drip out of each frame and an ever-present sheen of livid red lighting dev-ilishly presides over proceedings. Extreme colours and overwrought images are all characteristic of 'vintage Argento'. (Gracey, 2010 p21)
Gracey here talking about Argento’s Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980), notices and picks up upon the visual style that Argento had become well known for in his previous works in the genre of giallo (calling it ‘vintage Argento’) is very apparently again applied to these two films, despite taking a step away from the genre that created himself to be recognized internationally, his visual traits still linger within his new direction.
When any two colors are placed together, the first emphasizes in the second the characteristics which are lacking in the first. (Dalle Vacche and Price, 2006 p29)
With both Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980), Argentos’ clever use of using bold colours like red and blue against each other he is able to extract greater meaning and visual representation from both than they would as colours alone; and especially in the scene from Inferno (1980) above in which the colour green is added to the scene; this allows Argento’s use of colour to greater present a supernatural element to the reds and blues, that maybe wouldn’t have come across as well if there wasn’t a colour next to it to pull out those characteristics which wouldn’t necessarily be communicated to the audience as effectively.
Hughes notes that “The photography by Romano Albini is Bavaesque in style, with glow-ing blues and reds.” (Hughes, 2011 p243)
Here Hughes is talking about Inferno (1980) and is pointing out that the photography of Argentos’ film has a very similar a style in lighting of those films of Bava (the ‘father’ of giallo) who has become very well known as being the master of lighting techniques; and this is high praise for Argento’s film; and looking at the use of colour it really stands out as being a high skilled and composed piece of cinema.
Should red form part of a system involving any other colours, the need to prevent it overwhelming them by assigning it a subsidiary position runs the risk of making it seem no more than an accent, a marker of a particularly dramatic moment, or causing it to be over-looked. (Coates, 2010 p84)
This is an interesting quote from Coates he is saying that the colour red can lose it’s effectiveness to have meaning if it becomes apparent that its place on screen doesn’t capture the audience attention and can lose all meaning if it’s forced out by another bold strong colour dominating the scene. This I find particularly interesting with regards to the two above films of Argento; his passion for the colour red means that he has it onscreen but recognizes that whilst he needs other colours to create a supernatural atmosphere for his film, he makes a point of making the red lighting play a very powerful presence on screen not only allowing the other colours to create the desired atmosphere but also keeping that obsessive use of red noticeable to the audience; going by Coates’ statement, this proves that Argento is fully aware that he cannot allow the colour red to play just a small role in his films lighting, which for me says that Argento has a great understanding of colour and lighting on the deepest of levels.