WRITER/DIRECTOR DARIO ARGENTO!
Despite the effete late phase of his career, Dario Argento is deservedly one of the most heralded horror filmmakers of all time. There's no other way to parse it. The Italian maestro of splatter cinema burst onto the scene in 1970 with his debut feature THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, and has made 20 or so subsequent films - most of which worth seeing - in the 42 years since. As you may know, Argento recently put his own spin on Bram Stoker's vampire tale with DRACULA 3D, which finally opened here in the states this month. Word is the film is embarrassingly bad, which is a real shame considering how talented Argento is (or at least, once was). And now, at 73 years old, who knows just how many movies he has left in store...not to mention ones on par with such classics as FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET, CAT O' NINE TALES, DEEP RED, INFERNO, PHENOMENA, OPERA, etc. Well, with the wick burning low on the man's career, let's honor Mr. Argento in the most apt way possible. Let's dissect his old stankin' ass!
I think most would agree that SUSPIRIA, if not his finest film achievement, is certainly Argento's most influential. Hell, the shite's almost 40 years old and is still slated to be remade her in the states. It's had that kind of staying power. And rightly so. The film is nothing short of a visual whirlwind...a candy-colored, hallucinatory goth-rock horror assault that, by the time the credits roll, leaves your senses utterly marauded. And I mean that in the best way possible! The vibrant visual flare and use of accentuated primary colors offer an unparalleled surrealism that only fucks your head up that much more. It's such a beautiful film to look at, yet so ghastly in its action - the result being about as jarring as one could imagine. Seriously, there's a long stretch in the middle of SUSPIRIA where I have absolutely no clue what the hell is going on, but because the film is so visually and audibly arresting, a nightmarish dream quality takes hold and never lets up. It's hypnotic. Shite's madness!
If you've not seen it (shame on you), the plot of SUSPIRIA is simple. A young American ballerina shows up to an German dance academy, only to slowly learn the place is nothing more than a front for a coven of malevolent witches. Cue the murder and mayhem, Argento style! And really, it's the style that makes the film so damn memorable. First off, this is the first Italian film to ever use a Stedicam, a filming method made popular by Stanley Kubrick in THE SHINING three years later. Shot in Technicolor using anamorphic lenses, SUSPIRIA also used a technique called imbibation, which, much like THE WIZARD OF OZ and GONE WITH THE WIND, was a process used to vivify the color schemes and enhance their effect. No doubt about it, Argento was at the technical forefront with SUSPIRIA, and it's one of the reasons why the flick has held up so well over the last three and a half decades. Well, that and the rockin' Goblin soundtrack!
While the jury seems to be in regarding DRACULA 3D, I can't conscionably skewer the sucker without yet seeing it. So instead I think it's fair to credit MOTHER OF TEARS as Argento's worst work. First off, on its own accord, it's a pretty abysmal effort. It just is. But when you consider that it's the third leg of Argento's "Three Mothers" trilogy behind the aforementioned masterwork SUSPIRIA and the epically awesome INFERNO...well, it's that much more of a major let down. In fact, MOTHER OF TEARS shouldn't even be mentioned in the same paragraph as the other two. It's that inferior. Even worse is we had to wait 27 years for such a substandard series finale. It's really that reason why other lesser late Argento works like THE CARD PLAYER, GIALLO or PHANTOM OF THE OPERA aren't cited as his worst.
Starring his sexy ass daughter Asia Argento, MOTHER OF TEARS tries to recreate and reconcile the mythos of SUSPIRIA and INFERNO, but fails to do so. The story sees a hellish world converge when an ancient urn opens up and summons a legion of demons and witches. It's up to Asia the art student to use her own supernatural skills to thwart the evil overtaking. Problem is, the film is a chintzy product made for about the same amount INFERNO was in 1980. As a result, the look is cheap, the FX are laughable, the CG is unconvincing, and therefore the performances unbelievable. In short, MOTHER OF TEARS feels like a desperate attempt by a hallowed master to recreate his past glory.
Outside of the neon candy-color palate bathing most of his films, Argento's most well known trademark has to be his use of the extreme close-up. Dude loves to frame the most abject terror seen in the eyes of his victimized characters, often reveling in said terror for long held shots. But just as often, or perhaps even more, Argento also likes to get in the mind of his killers by framing their eyes in XCU. It's almost as if he wants us to identify with these characters as intimately as possible, and what better way to do so than by looking into and out of their eyes. It's his equivalent of making us walk in their shoes. To sympathize.
But if those are narrative trademarks, Argento has a handful of superstitious peccadilloes as well. For instance, any time a killer's hands are shown on screen - be they strangling someone, stabbing someone, shooting someone, etc. - Argento uses his own hands in the shot. Dude's a method director like that! He also narrates all of his own films, and frequently uses a Stedicam to achieve a fluid directorial style. All of these factors combine to lend a singular look and feel that make it easy to identify an Argento flick.
Argento's filmography is littered with hidden gems. It really is. Part of this has to do with when and where his films were made, and how difficult most of them were to successfully transfer here to North America upon the time of initial release. But with the advent of DVD, home-video, Netflix and the like - many of these forgotten classics are being rediscovered every damn day. Personal favorites among such flicks (which have made their way into my DVD collection) include DEEP RED, OPERA, INFERNO and PHENOMENA...what most consider upper echelon Argento. In these flicks the maestro taps into Giallo-slasher tropes, demonic possession, witchcraft, schizophrenic whodunits...and pretty much knocks each convention on its head in startling fashion. No doubt, this 6-film stretch produced between 1975 and 1987 is where Argento was at his most fecund. A 12 year sweet spot if you will, anchored by what I truly believe is his most unheralded gem...TENEBRE!
For real, on sheer availability, I've always had the hardest time tracking down Argento's 1982 slasher masterpiece TENEBRE. Thanks to Anchor Bay, the film is now readily available, but trust me, when I first sought out all of Argento's films a decade or so ago, TENEBRE was more elusive than a three-titted hooker. When I did finally get a hold of it, I was surprised how assured, how competent, how coherent, and just how fucking cool the film is. It's Argento at his most confident and workmanlike.
TENEBRE - which translates from Latin/Italian as shadows or darkness - follows an American writer living in Rome, who soon discovers his novels have become the inspiration for a rash of slashings in town. As the bodies mount, the writer becomes further embroiled in a duplicitous web of murder and mystery. Is he responsible for the killings himself? Is he being framed? If so, by whom? What the hell is going on?!?
TENEBRE was rated-X upon its release, rightly so for its intensely graphic butchery. It's also said to be inspired a real life incident where Argento was stalked by a fan. Even more trivially, Christopher Walken was considered for the lead...and if you listen closely, you can hear Goblin's DAWN OF THE DEAD score leaking from the department store in the beginning. But much more importantly, TENEBRE helped advance what would go on to be a definitive template for a well fone stalk-and-slash whodunit.
Sadly, DRACULA 3D may mark the end for Argento. The film has been universally lambasted by critics worldwide, garnering a 3.8 IMDB rating and 23/100 Metascore. The flick, which apparently couldn't even be saved by the presence of Asia Argento and Rutger Hauer, came out in limited release here in the states on October 4th. In case you're still curious, here's the setup:
The tale begins with Jonathan Harker, journeying by train and carriage from England to Count Dracula’s crumbling, remote castle situated in the Carpathian Mountains on the border of Transylvania. The purpose of his mission is to catalogue the big library of Dracula. At first enticed by Dracula’s gracious manner, Harker soon discovers that he has become a prisoner in the castle. He also begins to see disquieting facets of Dracula’s nocturnal life. One night while searching for a way out of the castle, and against Dracula’s strict admonition not to venture outside his room at night, Harker falls under the spell of three wanton female vampires, the Brides of Dracula.
I think we'd all hope Argento doesn't go out on such a lowlight, but given recent efforts like GIALLO and MOTHER OF TEARS, it may be unrealistic to expect golden-age Argento moving forward. That said, the man's stored enough credit over the years to give him the benefit of the doubt. Hell, if Eastwood and Haneke can make good films well into their 70s, who's to say Argento doesn't have one last classic left in him. After-all, his "Masters of Horror" episode "Jenifer" was one of the better entries of the series.
No news here...Dario Argento is firmly sculpted on the Mount Rushmore of Italian horror cinema. Along with Bava and Fulci, there are really none better. Over the course of his 40 year career, Dario was at the forefront of not only creating a new kind of film genre (Giallo), he also pushed the envelope in terms of form and technique. His films are beautiful, surreal, bloody and brutal...but most impressive, unique. His style has become so identifiable over the years, especially in such classic works as SUSPIRIA, DEEP RED, OPERA, INFERNO, PHENOMENA, TENEBRE - a style fostered way back in the early days of THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, THE CAT O' NINE TALES and FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET. No doubt about it, without Argento the horror realm would be far less colorful!