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Dario Argento, a Master of Horror

By Jarrod Sarafin     April 15, 2007


Dario Argento
© N/A

We’ve covered great minds in cinema up to this point of time, directors and actors which have played a major effect on the culture of movie conscious minds. Individuals whom have awed audiences everywhere. People whom utilized their imaginations to the point where they created something so new, shocking or invigorating that they turned heads inside Hollywood circles and changed the genre as a whole.  

We’ve covered George Lucas (a true godfather of modern cinema) and Kurt Russell (an actor whose 47 year career has captured the hearts of great quotetastic fanboy lines of all time). From Samuel L. Jackson (The King of Cool) to one of the best directors of my generation, John Carpenter to a true legend of Hollywood lore, Robert Wise.  

Men with Vision. 

People whom have shaped cinema with their imaginations to the same degree that a master sculptor shapes art with his hands.  

So the question remains, dear reader, who do we cover this week? 

Who deserves to be the focus of this week’s Star Spotlight? 

Well, it is Friday the 13th, Jarrod. 

So… 

Why not center on a man who turned the horror & slasher genre on its heels with concepts that some countries deemed too explicit? Why not tell the world about a director/writer/producer whose imaginative concepts shaped the future of horror to where it is today?  

That seems to be the correct way to go, right? 

This week, let’s talk about a True Master of Horror, Mr. Dario Argento. 

If you’re a horror fan, I’m betting you’ve seen his works at one time or another. This Italian director was involved with some horror fan favorite works decades earlier and has been as exposed to the public conscious as John Carpenter, George A. Romero and Wes Craven. He’s built his own horror niche inside the genre to a degree that films like the original Friday the 13th probably wouldn’t have been green lighted without his works of art beforehand.  

Dario “Gaillo” Argento roots begin back in Rome, Italy where he was born to famed Italian producer Salvatore Argento and mother Elda Luxardo in September of 1940. Dario’s film lore love comes from his family (whom was already involved in the business) and the stories told inside his house in his childhood years. He had an aunt that wasn’t afraid to tell him frightening bed time stories and Italian folk tales and it was this which contributed to making Argento the man he was later in life. From an early age, he fell in love with great tales such as The Grimm Brothers and the works of dark poetry minded minds like Edgar Allen Poe. Dario ate up any and all great fantastic works from Poe, Thomas De Quincy, Fritz Lang, another master of cinema Alfred Hitchcock. Even Disney inspired him in his childhood years. When he entered his teen years he started writing for journals while attending a Catholic academy. It was here which prepped him for a future in film making that would turn the horror genre upside down and then rightside up.  

Upon his graduation, he went on to write for the Roman newspaper, Paese Sera. Even now, he was increasing his writing experience and it wouldn’t be long before he dipped into screen writing for the cinema scene. By the age of 20, he was a professional screenwriter. That’s how quickly he came into the scene with such a force of will and why he became a legend in such quick fashion. At the age of 20 in 1968, he was selected to co-write a true cinematic epic, Sergio Leone’s epic Once Upon a Time in the West.  

It was this masterpiece which had him noticed by Goffredo Lombardo, head of the Italian film company Titanus. Lombardo saw and liked what he saw in young Argento and gave him his first directing gig The Bird With The Crystal Plummage. While this film is considered a horror film, it’s actually considered a detective genre fiction story which was traditionally represented in Italian cinema. This is where the “gaillo” nickname comes from. This term (which refers to the yellow dust jackets placed around detective novels) became synonymous with a series of films detailing the fate of amateur detectives who find themselves compromised by their involvement in crime and, as a result, are forced to go outside of the law to mount and unofficial investigation in order to prove their innocence. If you think about it, this term not only applies to some of Argento’s works but an uncomprehending amount of films in Hollywood today. It’s a common plot device often used in action, horror, & drama films.  

Argento was quick to gain mass attention and criticism for this first film. He was controversial right out of the gates in his career.  

Why, you ask? 

If you haven’t seen this film, its story revolves around a character which stalks and sexually mutilates women around the city of Rome. Its take has something of a very controversial twist in store for audiences. The killer who’s thought responsible for all these murders is unmasked and revealed to be a woman herself.  

People of younger generations will says “So What?!” to this kind of plot device but back then, it was something uncomprehending. Even today, directors wrestle with the ever secretive MPAA when having women being portrayed as murderers/ killers/ villains or anything sexual in nature to go a long with that.  

In point of fact, Kevin Smith has even commented on this kind of factor in horror on a documentary centering on how the sometimes shady MPAA does business. He considers the whole plot device of “damsel in distress” to be outdated and archaic as well as insulting but this is how cinema has been utilized for so long. 

To have a damsel in distress plot device would be acceptable in a lot of people’s minds back then because that was “expected” but Dario Argento began his movie career by doing the exact opposite in story telling. With his shock ending to The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Argento clearly signalled himself as a director playing with audience and critical expectations about the role of gender in the horror film. By manipulating many of the features of psycho genre sexual thrillers (such as the “male” point of view used by the killer to stalk and survey future female victims), the unmasking of a female assassin proves to be a shocking revelation in the film's final moments. If this plot device indicated Argento’s views of the ineffectiveness of traditional methods of detection as applied to sexually transgressive crimes, then this seems confirmed by an interest in deconstructing the mechanics of logical detection that would dominate many of his future films.  He had the woman as the killer in this shocking ending. A lot of critics and some countries were quick to say this was unacceptable on Argento’s part. 

Needless to say, he was in the public spotlight after his very first film for helping some cinematic directors push the boundaries of what was considered taboo and what was considered acceptable. He had a vision at such an early point in his career. 

From there, he made two more films considered to be his “animal” trilogy all centering around the story devices of a killer, detective story telling  and utilizing strange but effective plot devices to advance and uncover the truth of the overall movie storyline. These two films were of course The Cat O’Nine Tails (1971) & Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1972).  

I think when talking about Argento, you have to look outside the box in terms of the method in which his movies blend genres together in such a strange and unique fashion. Argento has the artistic style of intermixing the story device of detective fiction with macabre traditions of supernatural horror.  

An example of this directorial vision is his Deep Red (1975) thriller which also incorporates the whole sleuth plot device looking to uncover the real truth of what’s going on between the antagonist vs protangonist. Deep Red was a film which represented Dario’s cinematic style encompassing his style behind the camera with its onscreen gore being framed by winding long takes, ambiguous point of view camerawork and radical splits between sound and image tracks all the way to his most common of devices within its script.  

The whole film is believed to be a send off to directing techniques envisioned by his love for Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966). Even the casting of actor David Hemmings is figured into this equation since he was also in Blow Up.  

Deep Red continues to be Dario Argento’s favorite film to date… 

David Hemmings' plays is very much based on my own personality. It was a very strong film, very brutal, and of course the censors were upset. It was cut by almost an hour in some countries”—Dario Argento 

By the way, Dario isn’t the only whom loved the film. A source of Dario’s inspiration by the name of legendary Alfred Hitchcock had this to say about the bloody and brutal Deep Red. 

This young Italian guy is starting to worry me!!”—Alfred Hitchcock about Deep Red.  

Hah! 

That can only be considered a compliment coming from someone as cinematically important as Hitchcock in Argento’s eyes.  

In Suspiria, a recent topic here between Mania’s fan boy factions,  the distinctive visual style was achieved through the use of outdated Technicolour film stock. On Suspiria, Argento is often quoted as saying that he wanted to extend fear from a 375 degree centigrade experience to 400 degrees. While the film perfectly captures the director's wish to take the genre to new heights of sensory experience, his subsequent work has been, at best, uneven.  In flooding the image track with an unnatural, unrealistic sheen, it confirmed Argento's wish to give the film a fairytale-like quality. This has been a trademark of Argento, using old photo stock to enhance his vision on the screen.  Earlier examples of his technical innovation included the use of medical cameras in Four Flies on Grey Velvet, which were employed to capture the decapitation of (another female) killer. In Opera (1987), Argento constructed disorientating, panoramic camera operations to emulate the attack of vengeful ravens against a theatre audience harboring a perverted killer.  

“The opera we used in the film Opera (1987) was 'Macbeth', which has a tradition - also in the theatre - of being bad luck. People all warned against using it, suggested using 'La Traviata' or 'La Bohème', and I said, 'This is just a story, don't be foolish,' but maybe they were right. With ["Opera"] I had a lot of English crew - that was something new for me - and I learned many things from them. Overall, though, it was a terrible experience. You know, many cuts were made after I was finished, even though I protested. Many things happened. Vanessa Redgrave was scheduled to be in the film, and she pulled out. One of the actors was crushed by a car. I was engaged to be married, but by the end of the picture that was finished. My father died during the shooting . . . all kinds of things. But I felt I had started with 'Macbeth', so I had to finish. And anyway, there could be no ravens in Cosi Fan Tutte."---Dario Argento 
 
While the film's sequel Inferno (1980) extended the theme of malevolent female forces at work in European locations, its style never equalled the dazzling heights of Suspiria. In the films of more recent years, one senses that the director has felt further embattled by the views of his critics (and the censors), who have repeatedly failed to see the merits of his technical and generic innovations. For instance, Tenebrae (1982) was banned on video in the UK during the 1980s because of British Board of Film Classification's fears about its theme of sexual violence. One scene that provoked particular offence depicted a young semi-naked “woman” being beaten by one of her lovers.
 

From Deep Red’s twisted style, Argento was propelled into the minds of horror fans everywhere and to this day, his vision lives onward. 

He would also go on to create: 

  • Suspiria (1977) 
     
    Inferno (Infierno)(1980)  
     
    Tenebrae (Tenebre) (1982)  
     
    Phenomena (1985) also known as Creepers 
     
    Opera (1987) also known as Terror at the Opera 
     
    Two Evil Eyes (Due occhi diabolici) (1990) co-directed by George A. Romero 
     
    Trauma (1993)  
     
    The Stendhal Syndrome (La Sindrome di Stendhal) (1996)  
     
    The Phantom of the Opera (Il fantasma dell 'opera)(1998) 
     
    Sleepless (Nonhosonno) (2000) 
     
    Card Dealer (Il Cartaio) (2003) 
     
    Do You Like Hitchcock? (Ti piace Hitchcock?) (2005)
 

Lets not also forget, fellow horror fans, that he was also involved by way of producer, composer and misc crew credits in some other films which have garnered the love of us all. 
 

  • Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1978) also script consultant 
     
    Demons (Demoni) (Lamberto Bava, 1985)  
     
    Demons 2 (Demoni 2) (Lamberto Bava, 1986) 
     
    The Church (La Chiesa) (Michele Soavi, 1988)  
     
    The Sect (La Setta) (Michele Soavi, 1991)
 

Honestly, Maniacs, this man’s usage of shocking horrific revelations, inventive camera techniques and the love of the genre is why he deserves to be spotlighted. He’s a true Master of Horror if ever there was one right there alongside Hitchcock’s thrillers, Carpenter’s classics and Romero’s Zombies. He helped shape the genre horror to what it is today and he pushed the boundaries of taboo at that very same time. 

The man may be considered twisted in some people’s minds but he’s also a “vision” in others.  

What’s your favorite Dario Argento films? List them for everyone to see and tell us whether Argento played an effect on your love of the horror genre and the film industry as a whole. 

That’s going to do it for this edition of Star Spotlight! Talk to you later, Maniacs.

COMMENTS AND RESPONSES

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bjjdenver 4/15/2007 1:49:36 PM
I saw Phenomena at the Drive-in when it came out, realeased as Creepers, and it is my favorite Argento flick. Not only that, but it introduced me to the lovely Jennifer Connelly, who's career I have watched evolve from that point. Having Donald Pleasance on board solidifies any movie. I have liked most of his work, and he defiinitely has sexual and sexually deviant tones to alot of his movies, got to love a guy that has his own daughter do a nude scene in one of his films, lol. Surprised you left out the musical element of his career. His soundtracks have been as important to his films as Carpenter's are to his. Including alot of his own work with Goblin.
ashscousin 4/15/2007 5:03:55 PM
I've been a big fan of Argento for a long time now and I'm not sure I can single out one film as my my favorite, but if I had to I'd probably go with "Tenebre" 'cause it was the first film of his I saw and it left the biggest impression. When I was a kid I was a huge horror fan and pretty much stuck to renting just slasher flicks which was the norm back in the 80's. Then one day I rented "Tenebre" and it blew me away, it was so different from the Freddy and Jason film's that had been occupying so much of my time. There was so much more to it then your average run of the mill American 80's slasher film, and the style of the film was something that made an impression on me for life. "Tenebre" was the first time I watched a film and noticed the artist craft that goes into putting a film together and how a talented director can have their own personal signature and style they put into their work. Argent's films are brutal and violent but they're absolutely beautiful to look at and masterfully crafted, for instance the famous uncut tracking crane shot of the doomed lesbian couple shot from outside the apartment building in "Teanebre" is just plain brilliant. I have to echo bjjdenvers comment about not mentioning Argento's films soundtracks, particularly the incredible work of "Goblin". Their music takes Argento's films to a whole other level, The films would remain great without their music but it would be like watching "Halloween" without Carpenters memorable music score. I love Argento's work but some of him more resent efforts have been sub par - though his contributions to the "Masters of horror" series were quite good I found - but I'm hoping to see him return to old form now that he's finally shot the last part of his "Three Mothers" trilogy.
ponyboy76 4/16/2007 7:06:13 AM
I`ve only seen like one Argento flick, but the man is awesome in my book, for if nothing else creating that hot daughter of his Asia Argento.
wessmith1966 4/16/2007 10:35:03 AM
Thanks for this story. I'm not up on a lot of foreign cinema, and while I've heard his name many times, I'm not all that familiar with Argento's work. I'm going to start picking up copies of his movies based on your article.
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