Monday, July 03, 2006

Great Film Icons #1: Dario Argento

"Horror is the future. And you cannot be afraid. You must push everything to the absolute limit or else life will be boring. People will be boring. Horror is like a serpent; always shedding its skin, always changing. And it will always come back. It can't be hidden away like the guilty secrets we try to keep in our subconscious." ~Dario Argento


Dario Argento is the son of film producer Salvatore Argento and Brazilian fashion model Elda Luxardo. Argento recalls getting his ideas for film making from his close knit family from Italian folk tales told by his parents and other family members including an aunt who told him frighting bedtime stories. Argento based most of his thriller movies on childhood trauma, yet his own, acording to him, was a normal one. Along with tales spun by his aunt, Argento was impressed by stories from The Grimm Brothers, Hans Christian Andersen, and Edgar Allan Poe.

He started his career in film as a critic, writing for various magazines while still attending high school, and then skipped college, electing rather to take a job as a columnist at the newspaper Paese Sera. While working at the newspaper, Argento started screenwriting. His most notable work was for Sergio Leone, collaborating with Bernardo Bertolucci on the story for the spaghetti western classic Once Upon a Time in the West.

Argento directed his first film in 1969, released in 1970 The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was a major hit in Italy and signaled the success he was about to become. Bird's story centers on A writer who is stalked by a serial killer after witnessing a murder attempt on one woman's life.

Early in his directing career, he continued to concentrate largely on the giallo genre (more precisely known as "thrilling" in Italy, as the word "giallo" usually refers to generic mystery works). The films, like the lurid yellow-covered murder-mystery novels they were inspired by, followed the suspense tradition of hardboiled American detective fiction while incorporating baroque scenes of violence and excess. While Mario Bava is credited with inventing the giallo film, Argento's passion in developing the genre has earned him widespread recognition as the key influence in popularising giallo cinema outside of Italy, and his unique vision has earned him acclaim as an 'auteur' director.

Argento directed two further successful thrillers, The Cat o' Nine Tails (1971) and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1972). Alongside The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, these initial three films are frequently referred to as Argento's "animal trilogy". The director then turned his attention away from giallo movies, filming two Italian TV  dramas and a period comedy (Five Days in Milan) in 1973 before returning to thrillers with 1975's Deep Red, frequently cited by many critics as the best giallo ever made. The film made Argento famous internationally, and inspired a number of other directors to work in the genre (John Carpenter has frequently referred to the influence Argento's early work had on Halloween). It also marked the start of Argento's long creative relationship with composer Claudio Simonetti and his Italian progressive rock group Goblin who wrote and performed the unforgettable soundtrack to Suspira as well as other of Argento's films. "Deep Red is my favorite movie. The character `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." Argento on Deep Red.

Argento's next movie, Suspiria (1977), an extremely violent supernatural thriller, is considered by many fans to be his best work, alongside Deep Red. Freed from the constraints of the more conventional giallo format, Suspiria is a semi-surreal work of art, where plot and character become secondary to sound and vision. Argento planned for Suspiria to be the first of a trilogy about "The Three Mothers", three ancient witches residing in three different modern cities. The second movie of the trilogy was 1980's Inferno, which went even further towards pure art. However, so far he has not completed the trilogy.

In-between the two "mothers", in 1978 Argento collaborated with George Romero on Dawn of the Dead, earning a producer credit on the zombie classic. Argento oversaw a variant Italian edition of Dawn of the Dead, cut and structured somewhat differently with more Goblin music overlayed throughout.



After Inferno, Argento returned to more conventional giallo with Tenebrae (1982). Then attempted to combine giallo and supernatural fantasy together in Phenomena, also known as Creepers (1985), which was one of Jennifer Connelly's first movies. Phenomena also showed Argento's predilection for using new technology, with its many prowling Steadicam shots. Both of these movies received a lukewarm reception upon release (although each has been re-appraised retrospectively).

Click here to Watch the Phenomena Trailer:


Opera followed in 1987, and was, according to Argento, a "very unpleasant experience". Set in Parma's Regio Theatre during a production of Verdi's Macbeth, the movie was beset in real life by misfortunes that Argento suspected were caused by the traditional "curse" on Macbeth. Argento's father died during the production, Vanessa Redgrave dropped out of the project before filming began, he had problems working with his former long-time girlfriend and collaborator Daria Nicolodi on-set, and the cast and crew were plagued by minor accidents and mishaps. The movie was again not particularly well received by fans or critics (though I personaly think it's one of his best), despite showcasing Argento's skill with color and composition, and featuring some technically impressive camera movements (the ravens' descent in the Parma opera house is considered to be one of the director's most famous set pieces).

After the poor reception to Opera it seemed as though his career could not recover, despite a disappointing collaboration with George A. Romero on an Edgar Allan Poe anthology entitled Two Evil Eyes (1990), an unsuccessful stab at a mainstream Hollywood production (Trauma of 1993) and a disastrous TV version of Phantom of the Opera (1998), he continued to innovate. For example, his 1996 The Stendhal Syndrome, in which a policewoman (played by Argento's daughter, Asia) who suffers from a dramatized version of the illness is trapped by a serial killer in an abandoned warehouse, was the first Italian film to use computer-generated imagery (CGI). Furthermore, the opening of The Stendhal Syndrome was shot in Florence, at Italy's famed Uffizi Gallery, Argento being the only director ever granted permission to shoot there.


Many saw 2001's Sleepless, deliberately designed as a "comeback movie" with its strong giallo theme and numerous references to his earlier work, as a step back in the right direction. However, Argento's follow-up, 2004's The Card Player, a giallo about a killer whose murders are conducted during Internet poker matches with the Rome police, earned a mixed reception: fans appreciated the techno music score composed by ex-Goblin member Claudio Simonetti, but felt the film was too mainstream, with little of Argento's usual flourish.

2005 saw the TV broadcast of Argento's Do You Like Hitchcock?, in which he paid homage to Alfred Hitchcock after decades of being compared to him by critics. Later that year, he directed a segment of Masters of Horror, a Showtime television series. The story, "Jenifer", based on an old Eerie comics tale by Bruce Jones, was a departure for Argento, but provided him with some of his best critical notices in several years. Author F. Paul Wilson (The Keep, Repairman Jack) has stated recently that Argento will be directing an adaptation of his short story "Pelts" for season 2 of the series.

It has also been confirmed that Dario Argento has begun pre-production on his newest film, the conclusion of his Three Mothers Trilogy, under the working title Mother Of Tears. The film will be set in Rome and will center around Mater Lachrymarum. Dario himself and Jace Anderson share writing credits for this movie. A joint effort between the Itallian Studio, Medusa, and the American Studio, Myriad Pictures (which made Jeepers Creepers) will finance the production of the film giving it a large budget, at least compared to his earlier work, and Max Von Sydow has signed on to play an as yet unknown role.

Dario Argento Trivia:
He owns a horror memorabilia store located at Via dei Gracchi 260 in Rome named Profondo Rosso (Deep Red), after his classic giallo movie. In the cellar is a collection from his movies. The store is managed by his long time collaborator and friend Luigi Cozzi.

In November of 1997 Dario made a run for political office in Rome. (Though I cannot seem to find out is he won or not.)

His favorite director and a source of inspiration is Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman.

Has a twenty year old black cat named Liebe (German for love)

The Quotable Dario Argento:

"I like women, especially beautiful ones. If they have a good face and figure, I would much prefer to watch them being murdered than an ugly girl or man. I certainly don't have to justify myself to anyone about this. I don't care what anyone thinks or reads into it. I have often had journalists walk out of interviews when I say what I feel about this subject." ~Dario Argento on the women in his films

"We had many good directors - John Carpenter, DePalma - but things have become polluted by business, money and bad relationships. The success of the horror genre has lead to its downfall."

"The process of writing and directing drives you to such extremes that it's natural to feel an affinity with insanity. I approach that madness as something dangerous and I'm afraid, but also I want to go to it, to see what's there, to embrace it. I don't know why but I'm drawn."

Essential Viewing:
Once Upon a Time in the West(1968)(story by Argento)
A mysterious stranger with a harmonica joins forces with a notorious desperado to protect a beautiful widow from a ruthless assassin working for the railroad in this long frontier epic. Mysterious pasts and the strength of loyalties is explored amid lightning fast gun battles and stylish vistas.

Suspiria (1977)
A young American dancer travels to Europe to join a famous ballet school. As she arrives, the camera turns to another young woman, who appears to be fleeing from the school. She returns to her apartment where she is gruesomely murdered by a hideous creature. Meanwhile, the young American is trying to settle in at the ballet school, but hears strange noises and is troubled by bizarre occurrences. She eventually discovers that the school is merely a front for a much more sinister organization. Dark fairytale of the best kind.

Tenebre (1982)
With Argento's trademark visual style, linked with one of his more coherent plots, Tenebrae follows a writer who arrives to Rome only to find somebody is using his novels as the inspiration (and, occasionally, the means) of committing murder. As the death toll mounts the police are ever baffled, and the writer becomes more closely linked to the case than is comfortable.

Click here to watch the Tenebre Trailer:


Phenomena (1985)
Jennifer Connelly stars as a young girl who arrives at an eerie Swiss boarding school where the students are being butchered by a vicious serial killer. With the help of a wheelchair-bound scientist (played by Donald Pleasence) she discovers she has special powers (she can psychicly communicate to insects), and uses them to pursue the killer before she becomes the next victim.

Opera (1987)
A young opera singer (Betty) gets her big chance when the previous star of a production of Verdi's Macbeth is run over by a car. Convinced the opera is bad luck she accepts, and becomes the target (in Argento's unmistakable style) of a psychopath - a man she has been dreaming of since childhood. Don't believe the hype Opera is one of Argento's best, most scary films.

Click here to watch the Opera Trailer:


The Stendhal Syndrome (1996)
Dario Argento's thriller stars the director's daughter Asia as Anna Manni, a policewoman trying to capture a vicious serial rapist and killer. The problem is that she suffers from "Stendhal's syndrome", a psychosomatic disease that gives her dizziness and hallucinations when she is exposed to the sight of paintings and artistic masterpieces. When the maniac lures her into a trap inside Florences' famous Uffizi museum, her troubles are just beginning...

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

nice write up

Count Fosco said...

Hi There. Really enjoyed the article being a massive Argento fan myself. By the way the You Tube links no longer work - video no longer available.

Also wanted to say I love your banners. I am hopeless at all this graphic design stuff. I don't suppose you have any tips on how I can liven up my own Title/Banner and how I can get this up on my blog?

Thanks

Count Fosco

Becca said...

Count-
Glad you enjoyed the article! And yes unfortunately some of the YouTubes are dead...sigh...such is the nature of that fun yet crappy site. I try not to worry about that stuff too much otherwise I'd be constantly editing old posts.

And thanks for the compliments on the banners, I'm about to head over to your site so I'll see if I can email you with some banner info.

Thanks for reading!