This piece was originally published as a 'Guide to Dario Argento' in Pure Magazine 1998, before the release of Argento's Phantom of the Opera...
Dario Argento is a man obsessed. His new film, an idiosyncratic version of the much-filmed Gaston Leroux classic Phantom of the Opera, is his thirteenth in a career devoted almost exclusively to the macabre. It stars Brit actor Julian Sands and the director's own daughter Asia, whose career is about to go stellar with roles for Abel Ferrara (New Rose Hotel) and Michael Radford (B Monkey).
In Italy, Argento is as famous as Alfred Hitchcock, a familiar face even to those who don't watch his films. His high profile can be traced back to 1972, when he supervised and presented a series of four short telefilms for Italian TV under the compendium title La porta sul buio (‘The Door to Darkness’); he directed two himself and appeared onscreen to introduce all four. It secured him a national reputation for stylish, off-centre thrillers, and cemented his association with the thriller genre much as the TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents had done for Hitch.
Here in the UK, Argento has been for many years the horror genre's best kept secret, thanks to interfering censors, short-sighted distributors and blinkered critics. The situation has improved recently, as Argento's passionately motivated fan-base has grown more vocal and sophisticated. I can recall a time when the mention of Dario Argento elicited either blank looks or puritanical disdain; now his work is the subject of both cult adoration and fierce intellectual debate. Film students address his work in their dissertations, as was the case with American writer Maitland McDonagh, whose excellent book on Argento, “Broken Mirrors, Broken Minds”, is expanded from her master's thesis. This is precisely as it should be: Argento's films demonstrate a formally inclined, highly sophisticated intelligence, that positively demands the most exacting scrutiny...
Begin with what we don't know:
featuring: The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970); Cat O-Nine Tails (1971); Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971)
The titles of Dario Argento's first three thrillers, made in the early seventies, immediately alert the enquiring mind to the promise of something different. The names are eccentric, baroque, bearing only the most tenuous of connections to their plots. They're intriguing, poetic, yet somehow ominous – perfectly in character with Argento's style. All three are murder mysteries, but they hinge on a heightened sense of seeking for the truth, searching beyond appearances, taking the viewer out of the usual mundane round of police investigations and into something more personal and frightening. Fragile normality is torn aside by seemingly random violence, exposing a harsher, more terrifying world of utter malice. The protagonists of these films are severely shaken by their experiences, and as the stories progress an air of lunacy seeps in. Argento's thrillers, though resolutely commercial, are riddled by numerous bizarre elements that lift his films above the crowd; abnormal psychology, weird pseudo-science, shocking brutality, plot twists that hinge upon insanely tenuous clues, and set-piece murder scenes that owe as much to the kinetic joy of cinema itself as they do to the rigours of the traditional detective story.
The Bird With The Crystal Plumage sets the scene for much of what's to follow; Sam Dalmas, an American writer living in Rome, glances through an art gallery window one night and sees an attempted murder taking place. Trying to intervene, he is trapped in the space between a double set of glass doors, watching helplessly as a gloved, black-coated figure escapes. Meanwhile, a woman crawls across the gallery floor, blood oozing from a stab wound, her hand reaching out to the trapped witness. When the police arrive, the incident is revealed to be the most recent in a spate of attacks, but Dalmas finds he's unable to shake the feeling he's missed something; some valuable grain of information that he's overlooked. Thus begins Argento's recurrent theme of obsessive searching, as Dalmas tries to figure out the truth for himself.
Bird With The Crystal Plumage was a huge hit in Italy and a reasonable success abroad: Argento's career was off to a strong start. By the mid-seventies, though, he was moving beyond the thriller mechanisms he'd mastered so well. Cat O-Nine Tails convoluted its narrative while flattening out some of the more eccentric stylings of its predecessor, and may well be Argento's weakest early film, despite several breathtaking individual scenes. Four Flies On Grey Velvet saw him digressing into eye-popping technical exaggeration (a car crash filmed at 40,000 frames a second which happens in mesmerizing ultra-slow motion) and black comedy (Italian comedy actor Bud Spencer as 'God', a cynical bear-like vagrant).
featuring Deep Red (1975)
By now, Argento was ready to take a trip onto another plane, a process initiated by his first full-on masterpiece, Deep Red (1976). An exotic, deliberately jarring assault on the senses, Deep Red concerns the misfortunes of Marc Daley (David Hemmings, cast as one of a number of allusions to Antonioni's Blow-Up), a pianist whose neighbour, a noted psychic, is murdered in her apartment. When Marc rushes to investigate he finds the woman brutally hacked to death, with no sign of the killer. Leaving the apartment to summon the police, he's haunted on his return by a feeling that something he'd seen there a moment ago is now missing. The press publicize him as a witness, and soon the killer is stalking him too. A nagging sense of having perceived something vital draws Marc deeper into a mystery that leads back to a traumatized childhood and a strange house of secrets. With each new twist and leap of perception he leaves the familiar rational world further and further behind.
Where the previous films had remained thrillers, despite leaning strongly towards the horror genre, this time Argento pushed the levels up on all fronts. Violent sequences are extended dramatically into a bone-crushing theatre of cruelty, art design is lavish and all-enveloping, Ennio Morricone's scores are replaced by supercharged progressive rock from the Italian band Goblin, and the plot shows reason threatened on all sides by parapsychology, synchronicity, madness, cognitive delirium and the first whisperings of the supernatural.
A leap into the dark:
featuring Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980)
Whilst working on Deep Red, Argento fell in love with lead actress Daria Nicolodi, who was to become his muse, collaborator and lover for the next eight years. Their association blossomed in 1977, after Nicolodi's stories of her grandmother's experiences at a finishing school with occult connections inspired the couple to write a screenplay together. The result was Suspiria. It was a totally new experience, and even the mainstream critics had to admit it: “a deliberately overblown bit of Gothic ghoulishness that makes other tales of terror look anaemic” opined the Evening Standard's Alexander Walker. Thunderous in volume, grotesquely excessive in violence, and soaked in outrageous washes of pure primary colour, it's an unforgettable ninety minute cinematic high. Telling a story of the supernatural, of witches and malefic influence, it shows Argento shaking free from the threads of logic and reason altogether, and unconditionally embracing the mystical beliefs of Daria Nicolodi, herself a practitioner of witchcraft. Casting the young Jessica Harper, fresh from roles for Brian De Palma (Phantom of the Paradise) and Woody Allen (Love and Death), Argento fashioned a tale of deceptive, fairy-tale simplicity: Suzy Bannion, a pretty young dance student, enrols at a sinister Bavarian Dance Academy and discovers a coven of witches secretly running the school.
Suspiria became the first Argento film to make a commercial impression in Great Britain, and was a sizeable international hit. But if Suspiria had some critics backing off warily with their hands over their ears, its 1980 follow-up - a semi-sequel called Inferno - bamboozled them altogether. Taking the daring colour extravagance and shrieking rock music of Suspiria down just a few notches, and selecting a cast from areas as diverse as TV soap opera Dallas (Leigh McCloskey) and art-house classic Last Year in Marienbad (Sacha Pitoeff), Argento plunged deep into his most avant-garde cinematic labyrinth. The story, though watchable separately to Suspiria, is linked to its sister film by references to the opium-derived writings of 19th Century decadent Thomas De Quincey. One piece in particular, from the collection of essays “Suspiria de Profundis”, provided the Italian director with a few tantalizing fragments on which to base his occult mysteries. “Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow” told of the dominion of three female spirits, Mater Lachrymarum, Mater Suspiriorum and Mater Tenebrarum. Argento eagerly adopted these manifestations; Inferno begins with a voice-over that relishes their names like a litany of evil. The Three Mothers, of Tears, Sighs, and Darkness, were to have a film each devoted to their malign influence. (At least that was the intention: The Mother of Sighs was encountered in Suspiria, The Mother of Darkness takes centre stage in Inferno, but we're still waiting for the third part of the trilogy, 'The Mother of Tears').
Inferno is, on first viewing, complicated to the point of incomprehensibility, yet teasingly abstract and virtually gossamer-thin, dissolving as the mind tries to figure it out. The process of searching for clues is itself the theme of the film, so that the quests conducted by the protagonist and the viewer become enmeshed.
“What's that, a riddle? I'm not good at riddles,” snaps one of Inferno's gallery of grotesques. Argento, who suffered heavily with viral hepatitis during the shoot, took his fevered fascination with the occult to far greater lengths here than Suspiria. The dominant theme this time is alchemy, not witchcraft, but nevertheless, both films share the mystic's mistrust of language. (“Wherever we have spoken openly we have (actually) said nothing. But where we have written something in code and in pictures we have concealed the truth,” attests the alchemical grimoire “Rosarium philosophorum”, published in 1550.) Whenever the protagonists of Suspiria and Inferno try to solve the mysteries they've stumbled into, they find language inadequate and obstructive, whereas the genuine breakthroughs are invariably conducted in silence. In Suspiria, Suzy tries to elicit explanations from girls at the dance school but finds they prefer to indulge in bizarre word-play instead: “Suzy... Sarah... I once heard that names that begin with the letter 'S'... are the names of ssssnakes...ssssss!!!” Her one fragment of a clue revolves around a barely audible phrase, heard in a howling storm, shrieked by an hysterical girl soon to be murdered: the cryptic words relate to an image of a flower. The only girl to speak openly about her suspicions, Sarah, tries to explain her insights to Suzy, but the heroine has been drugged and can't take in the words. When Suzy finally remembers the night's whispered conversation her memory is jogged not by words but numbers, the act of counting footsteps heard echoing through the halls of the Academy at night.
Inferno’s Mark Elliot, who is trying to solve the mystery of his sister's disappearance in a rambling old New York apartment block, discovers little of value by quizzing the other occupants, and finds simple verbal exchanges fraught with frustratingly opaque significance. Language in Inferno is subject to a barrage of distortion. People mishear each other in bizarre ways (sharing a lift with a seemingly ordinary nurse, Mark tries to make small-talk about his study of musicology, only to have the chit-chat go askew when she persists in hearing the word as 'toxicology'). Another inhabitant communicates from room to room by means of a network of air vents permeating the building - her voice, which at first seems to come from nowhere, drifts in and out of audibility, wafted down the pipes by capricious air currents. Telephone calls are broken up by static, a mute character struggles to pass on a secret message by scratching with his fingernail, and an attempted seduction is pointillized by a loud classical record, switching on and off, fitfully in synch' with a flickering power failure. Even the clearly heard lines sound like aliens trying to fake the English language: “He says it's his heart. We must give him some heart medicine,” announces one gargoyle-faced old woman when Mark suffers a mysterious attack.
The mystic believes that truth can be heard “more freely, distinctly or clearly [...] with a silent speech or without speech in the illustrations of the mysteries, both in the riddles presented with figures and in words” (C. Horlacher, “Kern und Stern der vornehmsten Chymisch-Philosophischen Schrifften”, 1707). Suzy and Mark both advance along the route to knowledge in silence (although Suzy has her every move accompanied by a raging score from Goblin). Mark in particular, in a film filled with music, makes a breakthrough discovery by looking in silence at a drawing of the front of the building where his sister disappeared, and by quietly observing an ant disappearing into a tiny hole between the floorboards of her old room. Compelled by sudden insight to excavate the floor at this point, he discovers a secret complex of tunnels striated between the ceilings and floors, which lead to impossible spaces between rooms. These fantasias of colour and shadow lead to the building's dark heart, and the film's fiery conclusion.
The other side of darkness:
featuring Tenebrae (1982), Phenomena (1985) and Opera (1987)
The word ‘hermetic’ (as used in reference to the occult) comes from the same Latin source as the practice of hermeneutics, or textual interpretation. Hermes was identified by the Greeks as the messenger of the gods, and became linked, through Greek colonists studying in Egypt, with the Egyptian Thoth, god of writing and magic; both were worshipped as the 'psychopompos', the soul's guide through the Underworld. This symbolic aggregate of magic and writing provided the thread that led Argento out of the supernatural labyrinth (Hermes being one of the few Greek deities able to enter and leave the Underworld at will). With his next film Argento would take the subject of writing, and the interpretation of writing (hermeneutics) as the basis for a very different nightmare, his stunning 1982 thriller Tenebrae.
Tenebrae is a tour-de-force, a ferociously gripping psycho-thriller which teasingly invites very close textual scrutiny. It concerns a writer of murder thrillers, Peter Neal, who arrives in Rome to promote his new novel - “Tenebrae” - only to be informed by police that a woman has been found slashed to death, her mouth stuffed with pages from his book. A goading letter sent to Neal reveals that the killing was a tribute to him. As more murders occur, Neal tries to solve the case himself, and discovers clues that point to an obsessively admiring critic – but a series of ever-more byzantine turns twist the initial certainties. Filmed in a hyper-real style, with bright sunlight, glaring interiors and clean, razor-sharp surfaces, the film demonstrates that horror needs no mystical shadow in which to flourish. The darkness (‘tenebre’) of the film is all the more disturbing for being enacted in locations that positively vibrate with clarity (even the night-time exteriors seem floodlit, with wide, depopulated Italian streets and the modernist gardens of the rich turned into virtual film sets). It's not that nothing is hidden; Tenebrae may be concerned with exposure, with the process of ratiocination, but like Antonioni's Blow Up (an old favourite of Argento's) it's also about something that rationality can never truly provide: a total picture of events. Flashbacks that may or may not be dreams or fantasies, rumours that may or may not be true, crimes that may or may not have been committed; Tenebrae confounds as it ‘explains’, leaving the audience delirious and the only surviving lead character hopelessly insane.
After such a hyperactive period of creativity, it seems that the Italian maestro was experiencing a few psychological difficulties of his own. Exhausted, and reputedly on the tail end of a heavy coke habit, he checked in for a restorative sojourn at a Swiss health resort. In the fresh, quiet air of the Alps, Argento found personal respite from his recent crash-and-burn exploits, returning apparently refreshed - and with a new source of visual inspiration demanding to be explored. The result was Phenomena (1985), set in the beautiful Swiss locales he'd observed during his rest-cure, and featuring some of his most extreme imagery - extremely nasty (a young woman is thrown into a filthy pit of liquified human remains teeming with thousands of maggots), extremely unlikely (the heroine enjoys psychic communication with insects) and a combination of both (a woman has her face slashed by a razor-wielding chimpanzee). Phenomena was not the best advert for healthy living, with Argento's cinematic instincts often tumbling into chaos or silliness, only fitfully rescued by brilliant camerawork and photographic beauty. The film marked the end of his personal relationship with long-time muse Daria Nicolodi, and her role is the focus of a starkly childish cruelty from the director. However, while it's certainly the daftest of Argento, it still contains enough that is marvellous to make the many failed ideas worth overlooking.
In Phenomena Argento's previously flawless musical judgement went AWOL, thanks to a soundtrack bedecked with clumsy, literal-minded heavy metal songs. Inferno had featured - along with an excellent Keith Emerson score - music from Verdi's “Nabucco”, and it was Argento's failed attempt to mount a production of Verdi's “Rigoletto” at the Sferisterio Theatre in Macerata that inspired his next film, Opera (1987). Devotees breathed a sigh of relief, because after the distinctly shaky Phenomena here was a stronger, more impressive work altogether. It's the story of Betty (Cristina Marsillach), an opera-singer's understudy who is unexpectedly hoisted into the lead role in an avant-garde production of Verdi's “Macbeth”, only to have her triumph turn to terror thanks to a deranged fan. The killer's obsessive need to ‘pay tribute’ to Betty provides the film with its brilliant central image; once seen never forgotten. He forces the unwilling young diva to watch as he kills her lover, her friend, anyone she cares about, tying her up and taping a row of needles to her eyelids - she can't even blink as she watches the sickening violence. Argento's inspiration for such a nasty idea is perfect - he was enraged by cinema audiences shielding their eyes to escape his lovingly crafted horrors...
In Opera, Argento plays reflexive games with his own reputation (the director of the souped-up “Macbeth” is a film-maker best known for horror movies, characterized as a sadist who ‘jerks off before shooting a scene’) and consistently devises ways of making the act of seeing part of what is actually shown (Betty uses eye-drops to soothe her scraped corneas after one of the killer's assaults, and we share her point of view as the camera ‘eye’ is swirled with fluid, obscuring the identity of a person ominously entering her field of vision). Most baroque of all, he offers a recurring shot of the killer's throbbing brain that could stand for all of his driven, troubled, obsessive villains. The film was a wonderful return to form.
Two Evil Eyes (1990)
The Stendhal Syndrome (1996)
At this point, Argento felt compelled to leave Italy and shoot for the first time in the United States. The occasion was a project called Two Evil Eyes (1990), based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. It was conceived initially as a four-hander (Four Evil Eyes?), with contributions from John Carpenter, Wes Craven, George Romero and Argento himself, but this proved unfeasible; the film ended up a diptych, with one section each by Argento and Romero. Romero's piece, based on “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”, is a forgettable piece of TV-movie fluff, but Argento's section is something more intriguing. Instead of adapting just one Poe tale, he chose to use “ The Black Cat” as a skeleton, which he then fleshed out with ideas from many other Poe tales. The result is unlike any previous Argento film in that his trademark visual and technical excess is almost entirely absent. The use of Poe's stories is clever and intricate at times, but there's something neurotically hurried and detached about the feel of the finished work (despite a good if slightly bewildered lead performance by Harvey Keitel). In interviews Argento stressed the affinity he felt with Poe as a man, claiming,“I understand his pain”.
The story of “The Black Cat” tells of a man possessed by the spirit of perversity, driven whilst under the malign influence of alcohol to vex his own soul by killing a much-loved pet. It seems likewise perverse for Argento to have taken Poe's work and then suppressed his own formidable artistic talents. There's enough in the film to suggest that the director's claim to empathy with Poe is not just promotional hooey, but it's the first film of his career to feel depleted, tired, as if the inspiration that lifted even the lesser films was now on a meter, and the levels were dropping alarmingly. His next film, Trauma (1993), stiltedly reprised motifs from Deep Red and stuck them in unattractive Minneapolis locations populated by a mostly bland American cast. It found even fewer admirers than Phenomena, being the first Dario Argento film to feel, disconcertingly, as if it could have been directed someone else.
Trauma did at least feature Argento's first collaboration with his beautiful and aggressively talented daughter Asia, who played the lead role. Now a successful actress in her own right, she continues to be involved with her father's work. After Trauma she starred in The Stendhal Syndrome (1996), a murder thriller that re-united Argento with composer Ennio Morricone. The plot, an uneasy, schizophrenic affair that seems to wed two distinct stories, gave those who view Argento with suspicion plenty to gawp at. Stendhal may be his most viscerally disturbing film, featuring scenes of rape and torture not usually associated with the director's icy aesthetic. Asia plays Anna Manni, a precocious police inspector forced into a confrontation with Argento's least sympathetic murderer yet, a woman-hating sadist who plays a vicious cat-and-mouse game. Asia's role is the central concern of the narrative, and she successfully creates a variety of shadings, shifting from amnesiac confusion through terror to aggressive post-traumatic defiance. The title refers to a condition whereby sufferers faint at the sight of great works of art (and no it's not another of Argento's loony inventions, this actually does occur - especially in Rome!). Anna is afflicted with Stendhal's Syndrome; her scenes in the first twenty minutes, including a delirious 'fall' into a giant Brueghel painting, achieve a level of visual audacity the film has trouble repeating later. Anna is forced by the killer to witness the rape-murder of another woman, a motif explored in the earlier Opera, and Argento's increasingly pronounced habit of weaving such connections from film to film continues with the forthcoming adaptation of Gaston Leroux's “Phantom of the Opera”. This time the inter-relations are doubly complicated because Opera already referenced Leroux's story. So why does he feel so drawn to this project? It's been said that the mark of a true auteur is that they return time and again to the same general themes, worked through a series of increasingly elaborate variations. Time will tell whether Dario Argento's adaptation of the classic Phantom is a concentration of his obsessive creativity, a totally new direction; or just a commercial stop-gap on the way to a more daring, original project.