When it comes to giallo – literally named from yellow-jacketed psychological thriller fiction - Italy’s most well-known horror film director, producer and screenwriter, Dario Argento, remains king of the cult sub-genre. At this atmospheric time of year, we remember his 1975 thriller, ‘Profondo Rosso’ or ‘Deep Red’. It made Argento globally famous, and inspired other directors such as John Carpenter of ‘Halloween’ fame. Now aged 72, Argento’s love of horror shows no sign of stopping, but has taken a gothic, romantic turn in his most recent outing, ‘Dracula 3D’.
As the son of a film producer, Argento bypassed college to write instead for the newspaper ‘Paese Sera’. At the same time he began work as a screenwriter, notably for Sergio Leone’s 1969 spaghetti western classic, ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’. Soon followed a growing body of giallo work, beginning with the animal trilogy, ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’, ‘The Cat o’ Nine Tails’ and ‘Four Flies on Grey Velvet’. Later supernatural thriller ‘Suspiria’ was planned as first in ‘The Three Mothers’ trilogy about ancient witches in modern cities; in 2011 its American remake was mooted. ‘Opera’ in 1987 - set during a production of Verdi’s ‘Macbeth’ - was considered ‘cursed’ with mishaps while ‘The Stendhal Syndrome’, 1996, was the first Italian film to use computer generated technology (CGI).
His films are regularly set across Italian cities such as Turin, Florence and his native Rome, casting family members such as ex girlfriend Daria Nicolodi and their daughter Asia – whose character he recently ‘killed off’ on-screen (‘It was her destiny!’ he says of it). Despite close locations and collaborations, he has an international outlook and is a frequent guest of film festivals worldwide. It’s been said his best films have a nightmare quality and Argento has claimed they are in part, inspired by dreams. ‘It’s marvellous to have a dream with strange symbolic animals, then wake up and write the films,’ he commented in London recently. ‘I like a lot of signals from dreams. Dreams are the basis of my life.’ Evident throughout films such as ‘The Stendhal Syndrome’ he pursues a surreal, kaleidoscopic style inspired by a passion for classical art encompassing painting, sculpture and architecture.
Argento’s love of music is equally diverse – from classical Puccini to the Italian rock group Goblin - whose sound gave artistic direction to 1977’s ‘Suspiria.’ In fact such is this film’s cultural impact, that the Russian synchronised swimmers won gold to the Goblin soundtrack at this year’s Olympics. There are also strong connections between the surreal vision of ‘Suspiria’ – and director Darren Aronofsky’s recent dark box-office hit, ‘Black Swan’. Both involve ballet and themes of psychological descent. Though Argento considers the American award-winner worthwhile, he has questioned the value of some of his imitators. ‘Sometimes films inspired by mine are not so good…’ he has said. There is even talk of a ‘Suspiria’ remake – though apparently Argento was not contacted about it. ‘Suspiria’ was a good film. It’s not easy to do something better,’ he told fans. ‘I don’t like the idea of remakes. It’s all to make money. Fantasy is less for these directors. It’s all for the blockbusters and special effects. It’s all so similar. This is the age of the remake. It’s easier to remake. It’s like
people have no memory. Yet films are (there to see) on DVD and on TV!’.
Argento does concede that if he had to remake, he wouldn’t mind choosing one by Lucio Fulci. In the early ‘90s, Argento was in collaboration with Fulci on a horror film, continually postponed due to finance issues. By the time funding resumed in 1996, Fulci had died. Directed by special effects expert Sergio Stivaletti, the completed film became ‘The Wax Mask’; Argento and Fulci sharing its screenwriting credits.
Another liaison to exert impact - way back in his career before his gory giallo glory days in a parallel film universe of the spaghetti western – was with Sergio Leone. ‘He suggested a lot to me,’ Argento recalled. ‘Such as that the camera was another person in the film.’ Although disturbing artistry is his movie motif, Argento has been quick to embrace new technology such as Steadicam in ‘80s production ‘Phenomena’. Equally ‘The Stendhal Syndrome’ was the first film in Italy to use CGI. He considers 21st century film to rely too much on special effects. ‘Some things are impossible to do today without CGI, but we can see immediately in films when it is CGI. This is not good for films.’
In contrast, Argento professes a preference for films from ‘the Orient, the Far East; from Japan and South Korea. I like the style of the directors a lot: much more deep, profound and psychological than films just with special effects.’ Though many consider his main influence to be Mario Bava, Argento says he’s not so sure. ‘Bava was much more ironic in his films. I liked Alfred Hitchcock and American films.’ He also rates French and Spanish films, though in general he equates Italian horror with too often imitating his own. ‘I did the animal trilogy – then there were 100 films with animals in the titles. I did a zombie film with George Romero (Dawn of the Dead)– then there were zombie films!’. Of his own extensive portfolio he regards six films as his best: ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’; ‘Suspiria’; ‘Deep Red’; ‘Phenomena’; ‘Tenebrae’ and ‘Opera’. In his opinion they made the grade to be included in a ‘100 best horror film’ compilation he was recently asked to create for Italian TV. Fond of silent films, he says he relished selecting ‘Vampyre.’
Seeking ‘fresh blood’ for his latest filmmaking foray, he has set his shivery touch on ‘Dracula 3D’ starring he says, a ‘spirited’ Rutger Hauer as Van Helsing. Set to release in the UK in February 2013, he explains he felt drawn to the gothic classic having had a profound experience watching for the first time Hitchcock’s unreleased 3D version of ‘Dial M for Murder.’ ‘I wanted to do something in 3D, too. Someone suggested Dracula to me. I said yes. We have new technology: two cameras… In part it is faithful and in part, not. I changed the story and introduced some transformations of the character: a bat, a rat, a spider. Also I wanted to see the romantic side of Dracula in the film – life and sexuality - and violence, of course.’ Asked does he find beauty in violent images, the temperature seems to suddenly drop. ‘Yes, of course. Something like the imagery from South America – the Incas, the Aztecs, blood! But for me, the feast is not real. It’s fantasy.’ Spoken like a true chill master.
Dark Dreams: The Films of Dario Argento fansite. Dario Argento by James Gracey – analysis on the subject’s impact on modern horror cinema and popular culture. Rome’s Profondo Rosso, Via dei Gracchi 260 is a horror memorabilia store managed by Argento collaborator and friend, Luigi Cozzi.