Dario Argento’s World of Terror


The Australian film Amy (1998) presents a curious mixture of elements. Part realistic depiction of suburbia, part fairy tale, part melodrama, part musical, part tribute to García Lorca – with even a little horror in the recurring scene of a little girl seeing her rock star father electrocuted on stage. This movie, however, lacked one vital, magic ingredient.


It was not directed by Dario Argento.


No one makes stranger, more lurid or stylish films than this Italian maestro of the lower depths. If there is one motif above all others that defines his work, it is a character’s obsessive remembrance of a gruesome, traumatic event – usually a murder.


From The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1969) to Sleepless (2001) via Trauma (1983), Argento’s films relentlessly explore the nature of these primal scenes. Yet there is always a twist, a game that is played on the senses. His characters see and yet do not see, they hear and yet do not hear. And the same goes for us in the cinema audience.


Before Brian De Palma played his baroque games with split identities and masquerade, before even Francis Ford Coppola hinged the entire plot of The Conversation (1973) on a single, recorded phrase of dialogue which has been slightly but fatally misheard, Argento was merrily subverting every certainty built into conventional film narrative.


Argento, although a cult figure to many fans of contemporary horror and thriller cinema, is neglected and even despised in many cultural quarters. A sensitive soul, he takes this treatment rather badly. In 1999 he whined to Cahiers du cinéma magazine: “Critics say terrible things about me. I am the most censored filmmaker in the world. Nobody takes me seriously.”


This sorry state of affairs is not entirely surprising. Few careers have presented such a sustained assault on reigning, middlebrow standards of taste, plausibility and decorum. Argento’s films are full of outrageous coincidences, two-dimensional characters and protracted sequences devoted entirely (in the words of scholar Reynold Humphries) to the question of “who’s going to get the chop next”.


There’s plenty of chopping in Argento’s cinema. One of the images that identifies his style presents the features of a frightened face partially revealed through the vertical slits in a fabric or decor. These slits usually allow for only one event – the sudden plunging of a hideous knife into the victim. Argento is a poet of screen gore. He must work his special-effects department hard to produce all those rubbery, twitching versions of severed body parts.


Yet Argento came from the highest pedigree of Italian art cinema. Beginning as a critic in the ‘60s, he soon found himself working alongside Bernardo Bertolucci, Sergio Leone and Federico Fellini. His earliest collaborators included virtuoso cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (who gave the colour scheme of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage a ravishing and disquieting vibration) and composer Ennio Morricone.


In the ‘70s, Argento came to be indelibly associated with the genre known as the giallo. This refers to elaborately plotted mystery stories, often with fantastic or supernatural elements, exhibiting a morbid obsession with serial murder. In streamlining and intensifying this form, Argento was following in the bloody footsteps of his ‘60s predecessor, Mario Bava (Blood and Black Lace, 1964).


Giallos are still capable of unsettling gentle citizens who may never have stumbled upon such an extreme form of popular culture. Argento’s films, like Bava’s, strip away all comforting, literary pretensions and confront us with the voyeurism and sadism inherent in cinematic spectacle. They gleefully offer, to use the phrase with which Phillip Adams reviled the first Mad Max  movie in 1979, a “pornography of death”.


Argento’s career has shifted course several times. Deep Red (1975), Inferno (1980) and Tenebrae (1982) consolidated his unique mastery of high-Baroque style and convoluted whodunit plots (an aesthetic so brilliantly explicated by his best commentator, Jean-Baptiste Thoret, in a recent book). “It’s like Playstation”, he once explained. “Solve one puzzle and another presents itself.”


His masterpiece of this period is Suspiria (1977), one of the purest and most sustained of all horror movies, playing on atmosphere rather than literal shock.


With the splendidly surreal Creepers (aka Phenomena, 1984), Argento began his exploration of “other domains: fairy tales, the worlds of animals and children”. He paid homage to Edgar Allan Poe in Two Evil Eyes (1990), as well as revealing a dark passion for classical music in Opera (1987) and his lush version of Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera (1999).


The last decade has generally been seen as a period of decline for Argento. More than ever, his productions became Euro-puddings with multi-lingual casts, extensive dubbing, and wildly uneven levels of acting.


But in 1996 he made another of his greatest films, The Stendhal Syndrome, the hallucinatory aspects of which prefigure several more celebrated movies by David Lynch (Lost Highway, 1997 and Mulholland Drive, 2001). This film also brought to a new height the perverse impulse in his art, via the casting of his now famous daughter, Asia Argento.


According to the director, each film he makes with Asia “goes to a more troubling level. Shooting sex scenes is very embarrassing for me and for her. But it’s interesting. I’m writing a sort of personal diary about her …”


Daddy Argento complains that “everyone tells me to remake the same film. The distributors only want clones.” But it is surely more than commercial imperative or cult reputation that compels him to return to the giallo form in Sleepless (2001).


Its mystery plot is so complex, so full of secrets and clues, that it defies even the slenderest synopsis. Suffice to say, it is another film about serial murder and the ambiguous, shifting identity of its perpetrator. Argento takes the standard clichés of trashy mystery stories – that every character is potentially a psychopath, and every lead a likely red herring – to the point of paroxysm.


Argento has honed his art so finely by now that every scene, every object, every shot is an excuse to create a deliciously oppressive sense of dread. Every second-too-long that a character spends alone in any kind of place or space, be it the pouring rain or a train carriage, is a cue for us to expect the worst.


In the film’s finest moment, Argento’s camera slowly tracks along an ornate, red carpet backstage in a theatre. Every pair of feet that traverses this carpet invites our feverish speculation as to what is about to happen and who the culprit might be. The protracted timing of the shot teases us; although it eventually delivers the gory goods, Argento also wants to let us know that, if it pleased him, he would stretch out that blank, abstract, avant-garde moment of suspense for an unbearable eternity.


And perhaps one day, in a future movie, he will.


© Adrian Martin August 2002

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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