MYK RUDNICK, freelance writer; cult movie and Nightmare Before Christmas aficionado.
I have been watching horror films for most of my life. Many have stayed with me over the years, as classics do, but it wasn’t until my later teen years that an actual director stuck in my head. You had your Friday the 13th, Hellraiser, Nightmare On Elm Street and Evil Dead series, but it wasn’t until Dario Argento that I found a film creator who I actually followed. It started with his masterpiece Suspiria and then morphed into a freakish obsession that lead me to pay as much attention to the people that make the films as the characters on the screen.
In honor of our recent Halloween season and the release of Argento’s Giallo on DVD (starring Adrien Brody), it seems like a good time to recap some of the most gruesome, creative and flat out best kills ever laid out on the silver (or is it red?) screen by the Italian master of horror and suspense.
WARNING: Some of the following clips are not advised viewing for anyone under the age of 18, or for adults who find graphic violence to be unsettling or disturbing.
1. SUSPIRIA (1977) — While you can’t give a full film a Best Kill Award, this one really started it for me. It also has a smattering of first rate murder, the best of which is ballet student Sara falling into a room of barbed wire. What makes this scene so creepy is that you get the impression that she is actually going to escape — of finding a way to get to the window, opening it and diving through — only to meet one of the most mind numbing cinematic deaths of all time. After watching that, it is hard to compare it with anything else, but it is difficult to discount the double murder at the start of the film. A student gets slammed through a ceiling stained glass window and hung on a power cord, living just long enough to watch the shattered pieces of glass and metal framework rain death upon another student at ground level. Pure gory genius.
2. PELTS (2006) — This television episode surprised me as much as anyone. As much as I love Dario (even the films I don’t like have their redeeming qualities), to say that his second best set of deaths came from one of his two offerings for Showtime’s “Masters of Horror” series blew my mind. Once again, like Suspiria, there are multiple death scenes that are so out of this world, I have to include the full film. My favorite of the three stellar spectacles features Meat Loaf (yes, that Meat Loaf) cutting off his own chest in the manner a furrier would remove a pelt, then presenting it to his would-be girlfriend. The scene is creepy, bloody and well executed. It really makes your skin crawl and makes you rethink furs. After that gruesome moment comes one of the most ingenious scenes I have ever witnessed. Have you ever seen a bear trap set off? Me neither. I can only imagine what it does to a poor animal in real life. If it is anything like the facial suicide in the film, though, I am sure there will be a solid outcry to have these things banned. Killing yourself by slamming your face into the pressure plate at the expensive of having your face removed looks like something straight out of Hellraiser. The final piece of Pelts‘ terrifying triumvirate seems to pale in comparison, but watching a man disembowel himself with a set of sheers in the same film helps rank this work as one of Dario’s best.
3. OPERA (1987) — This twisted thriller is a little different than the others on this list. It has two of the most creative visual pieces Argento has ever created, but only one is an actual kill. The first sequence is a cinematic masterpiece, as Dario figured out a way to film the story’s gloved killer shooting a bullet through a door peephole and into his victim’s eye. The cinematographic technique used to capture this fatality on film involved bisecting a door for filming and utilizing slow motion cameras, and there is nothing else like it! The second scene is one of my all-time favorite demented moments. In an attempt to make the protagonist Betty watch the murder of her boyfriend, the killer gags her, tapes her mouth shut and then lines up several nails on a piece of tape and attaches them to her eyelids so she can’t close her eyes. Holy crap, does this guy need to see a shrink. I have issues for loving this scene, but Argento thought of it!
4. PHENOMENA (1985) — In the U.S. this was long known as Creepers in an edited version, although the original, uncut movie emerged on DVD ten years ago. It isn’t most fans’ favorite Dario film, but I love anything with Jennifer Connelly in it. More importantly, there is a deformed little dwarf boy that gets eaten by bugs, and then — SPOILER ALERT — the murderer in turn gets killed by a monkey with a straight razor. I can’t make this up! Jennifer Connelly, a midget and a monkey with a razor blade?? It’s a wonder this isn’t my favorite movie of all time.
5. THE CHURCH (1989) — This is one of Dario’s slightly slower and more mystical films — it’s also the only one on this list that he produced but not directed — but just because it doesn’t have the pacing of Opera or Suspiria doesn’t mean the deaths are any less spectacular. In one scene, a man named Herman commits suicide via a jackhammer. The physics of this are a little odd, and you don’t get to see him actually start the machine, but when you witness the actual act, it’s impressive to watch the pulsing chisel of the jackhammer blowing out blood and guts. In addition, you have another of those scenarios in which Dario likes to make you think that someone has escaped, only to meet their doom. In this instance, a couple is trying to escape from the locked and possessed church, and they dig a tunnel out through the floor. When the man sticks his head out to see where he is, it is conveniently removed…by a subway train.
6. THE CAT O’NINE TAILS (1971) — A slightly less graphic, but still impressive, Argento atrocity is a scene from this movie in which a passenger actually gets run over by a train. You see the head explode and the body roll down the platform as it skips from wheel to wheel. This scene is far from one of the most explicitly violent that Dario has shot, but it makes the list because of the overall layout and execution of the shot. That and the disdain that the reporters in the story have for the dead man when a celebrity walks by the blood-drenched scene for a photo op.
7. DEEP RED (1975) — The last on my list of best kills is from one of Dario’s earliest works. Deep Red (original Italian title, Profondo Rosso) features a multi-layer kill that set the tone for most of Argento’s career. Near the start of the film, a woman is attacked with an ax. That should be gruesome enough, right? It isn’t. The killer hits her so hard that she crashes through a window, and with the second hack of the ax, severs the now dead woman’s head from her neck with the broken glass. This was brutality unheard of in the 1970s, but it solidified Argento’s reputation for glorious gore almost from the very beginning.
Dario Argento has made more than 25 movies since his career began in the late Sixties. Most of them are in the horror genre, and all of them feature dazzling deaths. This is a list of my favorites, both for the blood and the originality. There are a lot of great moments that I didn’t get to include, so I recommend checking out movies like Trauma, Sleepless, Tenebrae and Demons. They are among the many reasons why Dario Argento made a true horror film lover out of me.