Director’s Lounge #3
Sure, there is the occasional tendency to jump out the window, but once you get past that, you enter his world. He takes you places you’ve never been, never knew existed, and you know youll never be quite the same after.
William Goldman, Which Lie Did I Tell?, p192
His work is openly virtuosic. Its not the art of the je ne sais quoi. It doesn’t operate beyond the viewers grasp. Its tricks are there to be noticed. It revels in its own invention.
Tom Lubbock, The Independent (London), May 2001
Neither of these comment was actually written about Dario Argento himself Goldman is praising Ingmar Bergman, and Lubbock the 19th century Japanese painter Hokusai but both, roughly speaking, apply. Perhaps this is one of the defining marks of artistic genius: what you say about one can, in general terms, be said of them all.
Many film fans, familiar with some of Argentos works, may be baffled by mentioning him even in the same paragraph as Bergman and Hokusai. And, of course, the vast majority of even the most hardcore moviegoers will be asking Dario who? When I reviewed Ridley Scotts Hannibal, I speculated about how the film might have turned out in more suitable hands, and mentioned Argento as an ideal, though, in the current commercial climate, wildly unlikely choice. When the review was posted, I was contacted by a regular reader, criticising me for showing off by dropping such an obscure name. I promptly amended the review, describing Argento as cult Italian horror maestro or suchlike, but this comment from a friend sufficiently cine-literate to count Ron Perlman and Tracey Walter among his favourite actors, brought home just how low Argentos profile has fallen. Perhaps this isn’t too surprising, given that he hasnt had a film released in British cinemas since Phenomena back in 1985. David Thomson couldnt find room for him in his Biographical Dictionary of Cinema, selecting instead Madeleine Stowe, Alfre Woodard and Harry Baur (I pluck these names at random, implying no disrespect.)
But, just in the last year or so, there have been flickerings of a long overdue revival and re-appraisal. Art of Darkness, a lavishly illustrated collection of essays edited by Chris Gallant, appeared to strong reviews and healthy sales. Argento has been a notable beneficiary of the DVD revolution, with slick re-issues of his best known works of the seventies and eighties, including Profondo Rosso (Deep Red), Suspiria, Tenebrae and Phenomena. In spring 2001 his new film Non Ho Sonno (variously Sleepless, I Cant Sleep, Insomnia) exceeded expectations at the Italian box office, and was hailed by influential Variety magazine as a partial but promising return to form.
For all this, Argento is never likely to become anything like a household name (except in Italy, where he’s been a prominent cultural figure for decades) or regain the prominence he held during his late-70s/early-80s golden era. During this period he turned out a remarkable run of horror films, expressly designed with the box-office in mind, but at the same time standing as fascinating examples of a visionary director exercising total control and dazzling technical skill within his chosen medium a rare instance when that much-abused term auteur is fully justified. Argento often collaborates on the scores of his films, including several featuring the avant-garde rock outfit Goblin, while he himself invariably appears onscreen as the hands or shadow of his pictures unseen killers.
Initially a screenwriter on obscure 1960s Italian b-movies, Argento collaborated with Bernardo Bertolucci on the storyboards for Sergio Leones Once Upon A Time In The West (1969), before making his directorial debut at the age of 27 with The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970), a stylised mystery thriller set in Turin. A massive domestic hit and a strong performer overseas, Bird was quickly followed by two similar giallo (lurid thrillers), Cat ONine Tails (1971) and Four Flies On Grey Velvet (1971).
After an unlikely, abortive left turn into bawdy comedy with 1973s Le Cinque Giornate, Argento returned to the giallo, adding a couple of supernatural twists with Profondo Rossso (Deep Red) in 1975, starring David Hemmings, before plunging deeper into the supernatural with the film many regard as his masterpiece, 1977s Suspiria. A semi-sequel, Inferno (1980) followed while Argento juggled producing duties on George Romeros Day of the Dead. 1982s Tenebrae sounded as if it should have completed a trilogy, but Argento typically confounded expectations, instead returning to the slasher territory of his previous movies.
The general consensus is that his career went into a dramatic decline at this point, with the less well-received Phenomena (1985) Opera (1987), and the Black Cat episode from two-hander Two Evil Eyes (1990), followed by three widely slated releases starring his daughter Asia, the US-filmed Trauma (1994), then The Stendhal Syndrome (1996) and The Phantom of the Opera (1998), though all these titles have maintained steady popularity in video rental stores. Its possible that, after Tenebrae, hed taken his brand of horror thriller as far as it could go. Or perhaps a new risorgimento is just around the corner Argento is still, at the time of writing, only 58, and early reviews of Non Ho Sonno suggest he’s lost none of his old ability its just a matter of channelling the talent into the right projects. But even if we have seen the best of Argento (and its hard to imagine him surpassing Suspiria) he was, if only for a few years, just about the most original, exciting film director in the world. And the best films remain as fresh and dazzling as ever. David Thomson, please take note.
LUCCELLO DALLE PIUME DI CRISTALLO
THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (aka THE GALLERY MURDERS, PHANTOM OF TERROR)
IL GATTO A NOVE CODE- THE CAT ONINE TAILS
4 MOSCHE DI VELLUTO GRIGIO- FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET
LE CINQUE GIORNATE – THE FIVE DAYS OF MILAN
PROFONDO ROSSO – DEEP RED (aka THE HATCHET MURDERS)
TENEBRE(aka TENEBRAE, UNSANE)
PHENOMENA (aka CREEPERS)
OPERA (aka TERROR AT THE OPERA)
DUE OCCHI DIABOLICI (IL GATTO NERO) – TWO EVIL EYES (THE BLACK CAT) co-director – George Romero
LA SINDROME DI STENDHAL
IL FANTASMA DELLOPERA – THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA
NO HO SONNO- SLEEPLESS (aka I CANT SLEEP)
the main sites are:
A Fistful of Dario
Dark Dreams of Dario Argento
Director’s Lounge #1
Director’s Lounge #2
Director’s Lounge #4
by Neil Young
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