As part of a month long celebration of all things scary, SE&L will use its regular Monday/Thursday commentary pieces as a platform to discuss a few of horror’s most influential and important filmmakers. This time around, how Italian horror maestro Dario Argento made his name in two competing concepts of fear.
Dark and mysterious are the twin paths Italian director Dario Argento travels on. It’s a duality that has come to define, and in some cases, confine, one of macabre’s most meaningful artisans. Down one road lies the realm of the human soul, a place easily perverted by the notion of man as the most monstrous, destructive force in all the world. It is here where his giallo efforts exist, films based on the famous Italian pulp paperbacks known for their yellow – or ‘giallo’ – covers. From the animal trilogy The Bird with Crystal Plummage, Cat O’ Nine Tales and Four Flies on Flies on Grey Velvet to efforts like Tenebre, The Stendhal Syndrome and The Card Player, these reality-based thrillers have used the cat and mouse game of killer and cop to completely reinvent the notion of crime and punishment. His cinematic specifics have gone on to influence filmmakers the world over.
Down the other trail, however, is a place even more enigmatic and disturbing. It is here where you will find the surreal supernatural efforts that have come to form the foundation of Argento’s sizable legend. While there are those who swear by his crackerjack murder mysteries, citing their power as both inventive narratives and examples of nuanced craftsmanship, it is his jarring juxtaposition of light and dark, real and unreal, good and evil that has had the true lasting effect for the filmmaker. Using the central theme of Thomas DeQuincey’s Three Mothers (Tears, Sighs, and Darkness) and mixing elements both actual and avant-garde, Argento strove to give horror a vibrant, visual representation. He didn’t just want knives and blood to be the basis for all fear. No, along this motion picture pathway, the recognizable and the dreamlike exist in a near incestual bond, unholy and slathered in sin.
Discounting his efforts for Italian television, it is amazing to note that the ratio between Argento’s tripwire whodunits and his paranormal pictures is almost three to one. He has only made three wholly supernatural cinematic statements – Suspira, Inferno and Phenomena (released in the US as Creepers) while the rest of this oeuvre is overwhelmed with death, dismemberment and detectives. When fans and scholars discuss his films, they too diverge along predisposed conduits, some certain that its his giallos that will live on long after his spook shows have faded, while others champion the challenges raised by the auteur’s otherworldly epics. To the fans of films like Inferno or Phenomena, Argento represents a real leap in style incorporating substance. He manages to make the macabre both beautiful and baneful, luring in audiences with his gorgeous visuals while simultaneously scaring them to their very core. It also helps that, with only three real examples to go on, the horror hits far outweigh the murder mystery missteps.
Indeed, when viewed linearly, Argento has gone from exciting to erratic when it comes to his signature serial killer sagas. Recent efforts like The Card Player and Sleepless have been considered inconsistent among critics and fans alike, and many feel the need to go back as far as Tenebre to find a pure examples of his hyperstylized human horror show. This, unfortunately, leaves out one of the director’s best efforts – 1987’s Opera. Using the majesty of the classical music format as an amazing backdrop for his slasher like leanings, this story of a cursed production, and the murderer enforcing the fear, is seen by many as Argento’s last legitimate stab at giallo excellence. Everything that’s come since – his American thriller Trauma, his Black Cat part of the Poe piece Two Evil Eyes, even the sensationally sick and somewhat sloppy Stendhal Syndrome – is viewed as lesser examples of his one-time artistic acumen.
But perhaps the most telling argument against his later works is the abject brilliance of the movies he made in the past. It is usually difficult for a trendsetter to stay ahead of the fad or frenzy they have created. The most popular superstar or commercially viable format only need to overstay its cultural welcome a month or two too long and it’s a trip into oblivion or outright hatred. Many artists faced with this dilemma simply give up, or revisit the circuit of golden oldies, recycling their greatest successes until there is no longer a paying audience. Reinvention, sometimes viewed as the key to continued longevity, can help, unless your experimentation is so wild and uncharacteristic that you lose the core audience who followed you up until this point.
Such was the case with Argento in 1975. He had created one of the most successful strings of films in the history of Italian cinema: the unintentional Animal Trilogy. With achievement came the deluge of copycats and imitators, each taking Argento’s use of the camera and convention breaking to try to repeat his success. His career sat at a crossroads, in more ways than one. An attempt at a comic western (The Five Days of Milan) had failed, leaving the reigning king in a dangerous state of audience languor. He needed something both to challenge his skills and to regain his crown as the king of the thriller.
As usual, it was a dream—about a medium reading the mind of a psychopath—that brought about the idea for another terror tale. But this would be a crime story like none other before or after, a gruesome saga of a disturbed mind on a murderous spree to cover up the past. The screen would be filled with blood, deep red rivers of gore. Style would be heightened and the experimentation with angles, techniques, color, and sound would be as important as the emphasis on story and acting. This would be the birth of a new style of giallo, one filled with artistic as well as criminal elements. And it would mean the reawakening of Argento, not just as a commercial director, but as an important cinematic visionary. In reality, the film did indeed mark a turning point for the director. It bridged the gap between previous real world based movies and began the ascent into the realm of the fantastic and the frantic. Profondo Rosso, otherwise known as Deep Red, would mark the true origins of his style and the sense of horror that would herald and haunt Argento the rest of his career.
Frankly, there is no better Italian thriller, giallo, detective, horror, or slasher style film than Deep Red. It resonates with all the visual excesses and subliminal undercurrents that Argento would later explore to their maximum capacity. It is a tour de force of camera, composition, and film craft skills. It is such a benchmark of smart, passionate film construction that it surpasses expectations and thwarts potential imitations. In his rethinking of the psycho killer genre, he focuses less on the slayer and more on the climate of fear. He wants the threat to come from the unknown, not some clear-cut origin. Because Argento is one of only a handful of horror directors who appreciates and uses the apprehension of the unfamiliar to provide mood for his movies and motivation for audience dread, his films are viewed as disturbing and uncomfortable. But this does not mean they are unsuccessful. Indeed, Deep Red is a terrific thriller, and finally confirmed Argento’s genius to those outside the foreign film market.
Success drove the director to push even further. He had even greater ambitions. Since he first read about them in a collection of essays entitled Suspiria De Profundis, Dario Argento had been fascinated with the Three Mothers, the imaginary rulers over the dominion of pain and suffering. Conceived as a complement to the entire Graces/Furies/Muses notion of mystical, powerful women, their origins do not derive from some ancient teachings or cultural folklore, but from the hallucinatory mind of an opium addict. Seeking inspiration and a chance to move away from the genre that made him a superstar, Argento took the tale of the Maters Suspiriorum, Tenebrarum, and Lachrymarum as the logical components to a trilogy. Each film would deal with a different Sorrow. Each would focus on a different location. Inferno, Argento’s equally artistic and brilliantly confusing 1980 follow-up to Suspiria, focused on Death herself, the Mother of Darkness. But with the success and acceptance of his experimentation within the conventional mystery drama of Deep Red, Argento wanted to branch out and tackle true supernatural horror. Suspiria is that startling starting point.
Understand this is Dario Argento’s version of the supernatural we are discussing, one rooted deep in European manners and superstition. In Argento’s world, ghosts do not kill people, knives do. As he views the paranormal, it manifests itself in everyday, mundane brutality. Possession may lead to illness, or even death, but more times than not a victim will be cut, or hung, as a means of quenching paranormal bloodlust. Suspiria is a horror film unlike any other in that it ventures far away from the standard “old dark house” or “living creature” notions of terror to invent a world where setting, style, and sound are more frightening than the bloody victim on the floor. In Dario’s realm, death is a release, an explosion of bound tension and a surrender of will. His work is the natural link between classical, gothic horror and the existential terror of post-modern cinema. Argento is truly one of Italy’s best, most misunderstood, and underappreciated directors. His influence on American horror is evident. Just look at any film by John Carpenter, for example, and you will see the trademark frequencies found in Argento’s cinematic stockpile.
It’s more than his avant-garde style that confuses and angers people. He is not willing to play fair and is more interested in how a film makes you feel than how it resolves its plotline. Something can be beautiful, and confusing as hell, but as long as you see the grace in its presentation, the meaning is unimportant. Argento confounds the fan looking for cold-blooded killing (though he does provide many sequences of graphic mutilation) or expecting the conventions of a standard horror ideal. Suspiria is the best example of this conundrum. While it is a film about witches, we hardly see any of their activities or rituals until the end. While it is a film about the power of black magic, the death is all common and realistic (except for a demonically inspired animal attack). Indeed, Suspiria is its own self-contained universe, a place where palatial settings mask hordes of meat-rotting maggots, or beautiful stained glass becomes a deadly pointed weapon of destruction. Viewed as a trip in to Argento’s private realm, it is easy to see why many call it a masterpiece. Suspiria takes convention and tosses it into a room filled with barbed wire fencing, letting it struggle to survive the oncoming visual and aural onslaught.
With this one two punch, Argento cemented his moviemaking mythos, and forged the dueling avenues that his erratic career has had to maneuver. Every proceeding film now had a major tour de force benchmark to be held up against. Whenever he tried another crime thriller, Deep Red became the critical focus of the comments. If he branched back out again into pure horror, the hallucinatory genius of Suspiria cast a shadow over the entire enterprise. Interesting enough, said film would also follow any giallo effort, arguing that Argento should stop wasting his time with such procedural parlor tricks and get back to finalizing the Mothers Trilogy (fans will be happy to know that he has plans to make the third and final film, hopefully for a 2007 release). Like the burden that any artist carries when they are compared with their past, Italy’s premiere fright master has been both lauded and lamented for his choices, unable to escape the opinions of fans, and fellow filmmakers, when it comes to his often confusing career moves
So now that our corridors have names, now that Via Suspiria and Via Profundo Rosso are labeled and legitimized by the numerous viewers who’ve traveled down their complicated and occasionally confusing logistics, it is safe to say that Dario Argento remains a true motion picture enigma. He is one of the few remaining filmmakers from decades gone by that can still rely on their reputation to sell a story. He is one of the few directors who still gets fans in a frenzy when a new project is announced, providing them with instant recall of journeys both grand and grating on the twin roads of his aesthetic’s twofold directions. Though his track record has been anything but flawless, he does have more classic cobblestones and masterpiece mortar than many creators can claim in several lifetimes.
Perhaps this is why we are willing to accept his bifurcated approach to the art of cinema and leave it at that. Though he hasn’t always definitively delivered, he’s proof that the voyage is sometimes as important, and more interesting, than the final destination. It’s what makes Argento stand out in an arena filled with pure motion picture pretenders. It’s what keeps him vital, and viable, in the ever changing world of fear. And with two distinct ways in which to achieve his ends, it’s clear why he remains so important. While said dualism may be disturbing to those looking to easily classify their creative icons, it sets Argento apart from his Italian brethren. It’s what makes him the true maestro he has managed to become today.