Sunday, October 14, 2012

Argento-thon Begins!

Pull on those black gloves, and crank up the Goblin... It's time for Argento-thon!

Dario Argento is by far one of my favorite horror directors, but he certainly didn't start out that way. I remember being unimpressed by the director's cut of Deep Red and underwhelmed the first time I saw Suspiria. Part of the problem was me. At the time I first encountered Argento I wasn't prepared to absorb the mix of style and surrealism he brings to his films. Also, the conditions under which I saw both were atrocious - on my tiny CRT TV, lights on, sound down, wine mostly gone. You get the idea. But tastes change... After learning to appreciate some other older Italian horror (primarily Bava), then heading back to Inferno, I was sold. I was lucky enough to catch both Deep Red (in its original, cut incarnation) and Suspiria theatrically, which had an enormous impact on how I perceived these films. Both are now firmly cemented in my own personal canon of favorites.

Argento's films aren't easy to swallow. I'm convinced this is partly due to how the conventions of the giallo differ from those of mainstream modern horror, but also partly due to some of Argento's directorial idiosyncrasies. Regardless, Argento was one of the first directors to really challenge me, and that's one of the reasons I'm such a fan now.

Recently, I noticed that I've stayed away from everything Dario has done since the 90's. Whether this has been some sort of unconscious decision I'm not sure, but I can say that I've heard way more bad than good about late-stage Argento. Hints that I might be biased in the wrong direction came up when I was talking to a friend about how I had Trauma sitting around on VHS - he replied "You have it and you haven't watched it?" I wondered... what was I missing out on?

My mission in Argento-thon is to fix this by watching all of Argento's films that I haven't seen. To be honest, this is everything from 1990's Two Evil Eyes to 2009's Giallo (I have no idea if or when I'll be able to see Dracula 3D). Everything pre-Opera I've tackled (well, with one exception...), so I'll try to drop any preconceptions I have and approach things fresh. But I'm going to inevitably be looking for some of Dario's old style in everything new that I see.

So what are some of the things that characterize Argento's style in my mind? Many of them are carried over from the typical tropes found in the gialli that launched his career, but even in those old films he managed to put his own unique spin on things:

From The Bird with the Crystal Plumage
The giallo killer - The iconic faceless, black-gloved antagonist clad in a trenchcoat and fedora. This was a staple of the gialli that launched Dario's career, but even when he isn't strictly adhering to the giallo formula, the gloves pop up frequently in Dario's work.

1st-person POV - Speaking of that killer, allowing the camera to take on his/her perspective allows you to see all the slaughter without revealing his/her identity.

From Deep Red
Horrors from the Past - Why is this masked stranger killing? Usually it's not simply bloodlust, but due to some psychological trauma that's happened in the past. Murder gives the killer a chance for revenge, or a chance to recreate the circumstances of whatever past event they're fixated on. The sense that there are buried secrets also adds a bit of gothic atmosphere.

Outsider protagonists - Rather than following a detective, the film's hero is often an artist, musician, tourist, or average Joe who'd really rather be minding their own business than getting wrapped up in whatever grisly deaths are occuring in the area.

From Deep Red - You shouldn't have watched...
Seeing the Forbidden - The hero IS involved though, often against his will, much of the time because he's seen something he shouldn't. Seeking out hidden knowledge or secrets that are better left buried also usually end with Bad Things Happening.

Evil Mothers - And when we finally find out who's behind it all, it's often someone's mother... These women are powerful and occasionally supernatural, but always very, very angry.

From Suspiria
Lurid Lighting - It seems like Dario drew upon inspiration from his predecessor Mario Bava and often soaks his sets in a wash of garish colors.

Artsy Death - It's not just the lighting that's pretty. The death sequences are often meticulously-composed and choreographed affairs.

From Inferno
Dream logic - Things don't always make sense, either, and whether it's writing that lacks a little backbone or a deliberate turn toward the oneiric, Argento enjoys infusing a surreal nightmarish air to his films.

Killer music - Goblin's scores to Suspiria and Deep Red are incredible, and Ennio Morricone's work in Dario's early gialli was also great. Later on, he progressed to using more metal, to questionable effect. One thing's for sure though - music has always influenced Dario's work.

These are just the visual and thematic elements that stand out the most to me - there's lots to discuss about common threads running through Argento's body of work, and I'll undoubtedly hit upon some additional points in my reviews. I'd love to hear some of your opinions on what best characterizes Argento's style - don't be afraid to comment.

Also, if you've got articles (new or old) on any of Argento's work, feel free to send them to me at (or leave a comment), and I'll be happy to link to them in a later post.

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