Book Review: Murder By Design: The Unsane Cinema of Dario Argento by Troy Howarth

Ah, Dario Argento.

That Argento is responsible for some of the greatest horror and suspense films of all time, everyone agrees. At the same time, there’s a tendency amongst critics to be unfairly dismissive of his post-Opera films. The claims that Argento either lost his touch or that he ceased to care about his films or that Asia Argento is somehow to blame for the uneveness of his later films have themselves become clichés, repeated by people who really should know better. Obviously, any director is going to struggle to follow-up the string of masterpieces that Argento directed early on in his career. And yet, the claim that Argento’s later films aren’t worth watching simply does not hold up under scrutiny. Unfortunately, these claims became even more widespread with the release of the unnecessary remake of Suspiria. When it become obvious that Luca Guadagnino’s film was a pretentious disaster, his online supporters responded by trying to destory the legacy of Argento’s masterpiece.

That’s why I’m grateful for Troy Howarth’s Murder By Design. Published in 2020, Murder By Design examines the life and the work of Dario Argento. It’s a combination of a biography and a critical analysis and it’s probably about as fair of an examination of Argento’s controversial legacy as I’ve ever read. Howarth, of course, writes about the films that everyone agrees are brilliant but, even more importantly, Howarth also gives the same amount of consideration to the films that are usually dismissed, like Phantom of the Opera and The Stendhal Syndrome. Though Howarth is hardly a blind Argento cheerleader — he’s critical of many of Argento’s later films — he also doesn’t give in to the temptation to lazily dismiss everything that Argento directed after 1985. He approaches Argento as both a fan and a scholar, critical but open-minded. As a result, he not only provides an interesting look at Argento but also a look at the development of post-World War II film industry and at the growth of horror as a genre.

Even better, Howarth explores all of Argento’s work. That includes the screenplays that he wrote before directing his first film. That includes the films that he produced and the television shows that he hosted. He makes the case for Argenton as an artist whose influence and vision goes far beyond just the films that he’s directed. Troy Howarth is one of the best writers about Italian cinema out there and Murder By Design is a must-read for anyone serious about Argento.

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