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A Brief History of Dario Argento

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Michael is the latest member to join the Popcorn Horror team. As well as looking after our review database, he will be writing for Popcorn Horror. Below is his first article for us, looking at legendary director Dario Argento.

The first time I had heard of Dario Argento was back in 1994 when I rented Peter Jackson’s Braindead on VHS. On that tape there was a trailer for Michele Soavi’s The Church (1989) which was produced by Argento. If it wasn’t for that trailer, with it’s scenes of knights rampaging through a small village, killing, maiming and creating a mass grave of the villagers in the name of god then I probably wouldn’t have heard of Argento, at least for a few years.

Shortly after, I then saw the VHS copy of Argento’s Trauma in my local video store which was the first of his movies I got the chance to see. Looking back now, I know this not to be one of his best movies but at that time I had nothing to compare it with, other than typical slasher fare. I was struck by how the movie looked and it boasted a great twist that I never saw coming. Impressed by this first look at the maestro’s work, I was immediately open to anything with his name attached.

About the same time as this, I became deeply interested in tracking down all of the films that were on the UK video nasties list and became aware that two movies on that list were directed by Argento. Those films were Inferno and Tenebrae. These films have consistently been my favourites of his, with Tenebrae just taking the lead in terms of style, soundtrack, gory kills and another great twist ending. Over the years I tracked down all of his films, which meant having to deal with umpteenth generation bootlegs in order to get the most uncut versions available. In this day and age of movies on demand via multiple streaming sources, available whenever we feel like viewing them, the idea of having a greek vhs tape of Bird with the crystal plumage with large hard coded Greek subtitles seems rather stone age, however this was some of the many things collectors had to endure to get to see their favourite movies.

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Argento was always a trend setter, from creating a wave of imitators during the giallo heyday, revolutionising the use of the POV shot which would become the essential element that no slasher movie from the 80s could resist to rip off. Even his use of heavy metal music in Phenomena (1985) that was unheard of at that point in Italian cinema. So why is it now that his movies have been resulting in less than satisfying results? Many people just simply put it down to his age and are quick to use the term “lost it”. Personally I think that there is more to it than this simple, if rather insulting explanation of someone who had been held in such high regard for almost fifty years.

Much has been written about Argento, from his original background as a film critic, his involvement in co writing one of the greatest spaghetti westerns of all time in Once upon a time in the west, the fact that his father, Salvatore Argento, produced his films up until his death in 1987 and even his relationship with Daria Nicolodi, which resulted in one of his most critically acclaimed films, Suspiria, which was an idea given to him by Daria. This lead to animosity between the two which has resulted in Dario finding increasingly awful ways to kill his ex lover on screen.

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I wouldn’t claim to be able to write anything which hasn’t already been said about his life or the making of his films (instead I would urge people interested in this to seek out Alan Jones’s books as he has a great friendship with Argento which has given him an insight that many people could only dream of) so I have decided to look at Argento’s controversial decisions as a film maker over the past 10 to 15 years.

In order to understand the quality of his films, its best to look at Italian horror, and even horror cinema in general. In the 90s, the horror industry in both Italy and America had all but disintegrated, with the majors increasingly castrating their own product by thinking too much about censorship from the MPAA and various parents groups that were targeting horror films as the thing that was corrupting their children. This led to many films being second guessed by their own producers which in turn meant the directors were being shackled from making effective horror. Some of the travesties that did make it to the cinema had very little impact on the box office. This generated the opinion in the major studios that horror films were not worth the effort. The independent product was usually released straight to video and while they generated enough money to keep the independent companies in business, straight to video became a euphemism for crap.

Transfer to Italy and it had become a case of only the well known directors were still working in the field. Fulci, Soavi and Deodato were releasing films in dribs and drabs and while most of the films were good (Cemetery man being a great example), the budgets were less and less for each film and the returns were dwindling.

Since Argento’s Opera (1987) his films have met with increasingly negative reviews. Is it any coincidence that with the death if his biggest advocate, his father and producer, that this was the point that people are in agreement that Italian horror was on the decline?

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Most of Argento’s earlier films had been distributed by the major companies in America (Fox with Inferno, Paramount with Four flies and Warner had Cat O’ nine tails) however as they found that the kind of niche horror that Argento produced was generating less money at the box office, it fell on smaller companies to release his films which came out straight to video in most cases.

Argento’s next film after his father’s death was a collaboration with George Romero called Two evil eyes (1990). This would be the last collaboration by the two however this very well made and quite enjoyable homage to Edgar Allan Poe, which would probably have been very successful with the names of the directors attached if it had been done 10 or even 5 years before, now skulked out straight to video.

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By the time The Stendhal Syndrome (1994) came, the general horror audience had moved on. Stendhal (which has now become known as one of Argento’s most underrated by his fans) was not served well on video. The early CGI was very ropey and most of the best death scenes were cut and unsurprisingly, the film was met with extremely negative reviews. Some of the reviews would dwell on the fact that there was no whodunit aspect as was the convention with Gialli but this wasn’t supposed to be just treading the same ground as before. It became obvious that Argento was trying something different. The central premise of an obscure syndrome that makes people hallucinate and have mild bouts of amnesia after looking at works of art sounds goofy but if this hadn’t been a proven medical condition then the film could be dismissed as just awful. This is probably how the general video renting public viewed it at the time.

Welcome to the time of Scream

1996 and the arrival of a little know film called Scream changed what the studios thought horror fans wanted for good. Gone were the days of well crafted, designed to make you feel uneasy, psychological horror that would stay with you long after the film had finished and say hello to young, hip casts (usually from teen tv series), newest music used on the soundtrack, hip hop stars now deciding to get into acting and throwaway films directed for the MTV generation. You might as well have taken the shell of what was left of Italian horror out to the barn and shot it. I’m not saying all films of this era were terrible as they were still enjoyable in their own way but the legacy this has left behind has ultimately harmed the type of horror movies that are being made today.

Apart from the independent scene, Films from the majors now seem to be agreed by a committee of people who have studied the trendiest things where they just shape a film around what products they can advertise rather than concentrate on what makes pure horror scary.

With this dawning of the new era, Argento’s films have ranged from great (Sleepless) strange choices (Phantom of the opera, considering as opera was done a few years before and was essentially trying to be a giallo retelling of phantom) and just poor (Giallo). In the case of Giallo, this film wasn’t written for him but rather he was a director for hire on this project and you can tell that his heart wasn’t completely in it. Technically the film isn’t without merit as it’s the first time he has had a decent budget since his heyday but the issues lie in the casting and acting. Adrien Brody seems to be the one calling the shots in that movie and as he was the Oscar winner, I can guess that the producers would have done anything to appease him.

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Mother of Tears was his most anticipated movie as this would tie up his trilogy of the three mothers. His fans had wanted this movie since Inferno (1980) but he has always preferred to concentrate on other projects. The style is just different to the previous two. This is where the main criticisms lie and people think it looks too modern. To be perfectly honest, I like Mother of tears but only up until a certain point. From there it becomes a badly acted mess. It seems that people expected another movie with the same style as the other two in the series. Not only is that an unrealistic expectation, given the fact that his budget was much less than those previous films but the technical expertise of the crew he works with now are from a completely different school of film making. Lighting film is completely different to lighting for digital cameras and movies just naturally look different now. I always maintain that if Mother of tears had been directed in the old style, the film would have bombed just as badly as the general horror audience, raised on the kind of horror films the majors have been producing for the past fifteen years would never have accepted Argento’s style.

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Personally, I feel that most of Argento’s modern criticism has come from a core audience that hasn’t been able to appreciate that he has had to move with the times. Many top directors have had to evolve their style over the years (Scorsese, Spielberg and Ridley Scott to name but a few) as the general film audience has changed. We should accept that Argento will never direct anything as beautiful as his previous masterpieces but that shouldn’t mean that his newest films are automatically worthless. Perhaps also another aspect that people focus on is the awful acting in his movies. The fact that his films are still filmed in English shows that he has his eye on the international market however in this day and age of foreign language films like Martyrs, Inside, Hero, Pan’s labyrinth to name only a few foreign films that have lit up the box office, this opens up the possibility that perhaps Argento should now focus on making films in his native language.

There are many ways that we as fans can suggest he can make better films but the only person who can decide this is Argento himself. Just as long as he stays away from anymore 3D versions of Dracula then his career can only get better.

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