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Broken Mirrors / Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento. Expanded Edition

Maitland McDonagh

(University of Minnesota Press; US: Mar 2010)

The Art of Blood, Sex and Death

Italian horror is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. Giallo, is a term for the genre that primarily means “crime fiction” but includes elements of horror and eroticism. It features shockingly extended murder sequences accompanied by soundscapes that rip and tear at the audience’s nerves. Suspenseful to the point of inducing real-world anxiety, Giallo makes many American “thrillers” seem watered-down by comparison.


Maitland McDonagh’s new and expanded edition of Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds explores the work of Dario Argento, the director many regard as the master of the Giallo form. Argento stands out among Giallo directors as one of the few to achieve limited success outside of Italy (Mario Bava would be another example). An auteur that specialized in blood and guts, Argento’s work fused the art film and exploitation cinema into a mix that McDonagh perfectly captures with the phrase “exuberant bad taste”.


Most American horror film fans will be familiar with the 1977 Suspiria, even if they know nothing else about Argento’s work. This garish, blood-drenched fever-dream features a weird aural atmosphere where pallid, fearful human voices compete with an operatic musical scoring that slashes and slithers like a prog rock band descended into madness. McDonagh gives a detailed synthesis of Suspiria and all of Argento’s feature films, providing a very close reading combined with some discussion of the history of criticism for each film.


Dream imagery, especially lurid dream imagery, appears in all Argento films and this becomes the basis for McDonaugh’s exposition of them. Argento has said that his movies are essentially twisted fairy tales from the subconscious that he has forced to the surface of his own mind and onto script and screen. McDonagh argues that Argento’s willingness to probe into his own nightmares (and ours) is responsible for the sheer excess of his films, the added value quotient of meaning. Some film scholars argue that the willingness to allow narrative to lapse in favor of a frenzied excess of blood, sex and death gives the horror film its power. If this is the case, Argento is indisputably one of the forms masters.


A wealth of new material appears in this expanded edition. Based originally on McDonagh’s’s MFA thesis, Broken Mirrors / Broken Minds first appeared in 1991. Since that time, Argento has made seven feature films and been involved in numerous smaller projects. While most of these have been of indifferent quality, his work has become much better known to American audiences during the last 18 years.


This is both because of his direction of two episodes of Showtime’s popular Masters of Horror series and the wide availability of his films on DVD. Outside of Suspiria, sidewalk bootleg copies of his films had been the only way for American audiences to see most of his work until the last decade. McDonagh’s book provides a full update at a time when any horror fan can easily check out Argento’s masterful triumphs and, sometimes cataclysmic failures.


One of the gems of this book is the author’s description of the beginning of her love affair with Argento’s work. She first saw Deep Red in what she describes as the “international smorgasbord of sleaze” that was Times Square in the mid-‘70s. She gives us an elegiatic evocation of the grind house shows and back alley theatres of the period, a landscape out of a Tom Wait’s tune where hookers slept on the back row and pushers “sold their wares from makeshift string and cardboard trays like cigarette girls in old movies.”


The lost world McDonagh evokes has a powerful authenticity that makes us want to follow her through almost 300 pages of film criticism. Her own experience tells us why we should care about these gore-drenched, and often purposefully exploitative films.


Broken Mirrors / Broken Minds acknowledges the importance of visuals in Argento’s work by including a wealth of photographs. Most of these are, of course, still shots from the films under discussion. However, McDonagh also pays tribute to the grind house by including some of the bizarre posters that appeared advertising Argento’s films in America, bizarro slicks that promised sex and gore and transformed bad taste into an art form.


Maitland, who maintains an excellent website of film criticism at MissFlickChick.com, has written a learned yet accessible entrepôt to Argento’s baroque world, a guide to the brilliant director’s mind and his savage bedtime stories. This book, combined with other recent studies of Argento and the increasing availability of these once hard to find films, suggests that we are possibly in the midst of a minor, blood-spattered renaissance of “the Italian Hitchcock’s” oeuvre.

Rating:

W. Scott Poole is a writer and an associate professor of history at the College of Charleston. He's the author of Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror, a book about the life and strange times of America's first horror host out in September 2014 from Counterpoint/Soft Skull. He is also the author of the award-winning Monsters in America (2011). Follow him on twitter @monstersamerica.


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23 Jan 2011
PopMatters' writers (a margin-friendly, iconoclastic bunch, for the most part) cast their nets far beyond the world of culture-production to capture some of the best non-fiction books published in 2010.
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