The films of Dario Argento are something of a cult phenomenon within the horror film genre. As is revealed in this documentary, Argento is one of the most highly regarded Italian filmmakers of recent times, with both industry contemporaries and horror fans holding him in high esteem. He’s certainly prolific; a quick glance at his IMDB profile reveals no less than 23 directorial credits, 16 producer credits and 40 writing credits spanning his 40-year career. Couple this output with his highly unique style and endless imagination for horror and it’s not hard to see why he’s developed such an enthusiastic following.
Argento was steeped in the arts from a young age; his father was a successful film producer and his mother a photographer. A childhood fascination with Edgar Allen Poe and the Brothers Grimm sparked his lifelong fascination in the gothic and the macabre, though it wasn’t this area in which he was to initially get his foothold in the film industry. Rather, as a talented screenwriter, he first gained notoriety for co-writing the classic western Once Upon a Time in the West.
With the success of that film, Argento was able to focus on his directorial interests, in particular the thriller genre. He developed his own style and became one of the main proponents of “giallo”. The term giallo originally referred to a series of paperback mystery novels by authors that included Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler which had been translated into Italian. When applied to film, giallo maintained this thriller element but with an added dramatic and highly histrionic streak.
To say Argento took this idea and ran with it is an understatement. His films are renowned for their operatic nature and excessive audio-visual design with large amounts of bloodletting and overblown killings all being par for the course. Such is his ongoing fascination with giallo that Argento’s name and giallo are now nearly inextricable.
As many point out in the documentary, the inventive nature of the violence he portrays is all part of Argento’s storytelling charm. A blind man savaged by his own guide dog, a woman whose eyes are permanently pinned open by placing spikes under the lids, not to mention numerous beheadings, shootings and disembowelings notoriously turn up in Argento’s work.
Over the years, Argento has constantly sought new and original ways to push this onscreen violence to the limit and shock his audience. Despite this, his films are not all out one-dimensional gore fests like so many horror films these days, such as the likes of Saw and Hostel. Though he clearly intends to shock, there is also an artistry behind Argento’s work, with cinematography, colour, editing and sound all meticulously working together, resulting in a highly elaborate cinematic product.
This artistic sensibility, combined with his focus on murder, has resulted in Argento being labeled an Italian Hitchcock. Many of the interviewees in this documentary though, including Argento himself, are quick to dismiss this comparison. As he points out, the only thing he has in common with Hitchcock is his interest in portraying murder on the screen. Where Hitchcock’s style had a certain coldness to it, Argento’s filmmaking style is highly passionate, something he attributes his Latin origin.
It is that connection to his Italian heritage that actually renders Argento’s films so distinctive. Though he has occasionally dallied in Hollywood throughout his career, he has always ended up returning to his native Italy to make his most successful films. This may have something to do with the fact that Hollywood has less room for auteurs such as Argento. It’s hard to imagine that such an idiosyncratic filmmaker would be able to exist within the Hollywood machine. Italy, however, with its history of auteurs like Rossellini and Fellini, traditionally has more time for artists within the film industry, which may go some way to explain why Argento has remained so close to his artistic heritage.
As the documentary highlights, one of the main criticisms Argento has faced over the years concerns his supposed misogyny. It’s not hard to see why; violence, often of a sexual nature, is a common theme of many of his films. As muses go, his girlfriend and principle actress for many years, Daria Nicolodi, was certainly put through the ringer. In a string of films, she was by turns beaten to death with a chain, savaged by a chimpanzee and shot through the eye as she looked through a keyhole. Similarly, his daughter, the actress Azia Argento, has been raped and butchered several times over throughout his films. Several critics point out that he was playing out his tempestuous relationship with Nicolodi through his films and then repeating this trend with his daughter. It’s certainly an interesting theory and only adds to his image as a tortured artist.
He is, however, defended by several women in the documentary including his daughter and ex-partner, who claim that as horror and murder is his subject and women are usually his leading characters, the killing off of females is rather inevitable.
Watching this documentary, it’s clear that Argento is a true cinematic visionary who is highly regarded in both his native Italy and in Hollywood. Watching films like Suspiria and Opera, it’s hard not to be bowled over by his cinematic audaciousness. There are very few true artists with a singular stylistic vision successfully working in the film industry at the moment but Argento is seemingly one of them. Whatever your opinion of horror films, it’s surely good to know that there’s room for someone with an imagination like Dario Argento to operate.
Xavier Mendik, ‘Senses of Cinema: Dario Argento’, http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2003/great-directors/argento/