The work of cult Italian film director Dario Argento has always occupied a shadowy, rather uncertain realm -- a hard to place region of the video store shelf, located somewhere between the rare art-house curio and the popular mainstream crowd-pleaser, with neither really proving an adequate, stable home despite the director’s consistent adherence to a very particular genre throughout his forty-year-long career. When David Lynch’s adventure in American network TV resulted in the unlikely crossover success of “Twin Peaks” during the early-nineties, it was a big deal precisely because Lynch had arrived at this position of public influence despite an unflinchingly unorthodox vision and the idiosyncrasies of style displayed in much of his critically lauded work. When it all went pear-shaped mid-way through the series’ second season - well, that was surely only to be expected. “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage”, Dario Argento’s debut film, written and directed by the ex- Paese Sera film critic, and released when he was still only twenty-nine years old, catapulted its creator to stardom from the get-go; building upon good initial word-of-mouth, it eventually become a huge home-grown hit (indeed, if it had not been, it’s possible Argento’s career would have quickly dwindled before it had even got going: initial previews of the film for Titanus Studios’ executives were less than ecstatic) and then also a big success right across Europe. Argento virtually single-handedly kick-started the popularity of a whole genre: the Giallo film (Giallo: Italian for ‘yellow’, the name referring to the yellow covers of cheap pulp fiction paperbacks in Italy) became ubiquitous across Italy during the ‘70s and early-80s, and his many imitators even went so far as to adopt Argento’s penchant for decking out his films with oddly verbose titles with animals in them (“A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin”, “The Iguana with a Tongue of Fire”, to name but two). The fact is, Argento very quickly became a household name in his native country and his early run of films consistently did good box office there. Yet, anyone who has ever fallen in love subsequently with the dark elegance and extravagant, violent excesses of such films as “Suspiria”, “Tenebrea” or “Opera” will have probably done so precisely because these are not your average, run-of-the-mill cinematic blockbusters. Argento’s cinema is distinctive and instantly recognisable, revelling in its own painterly photographic splendour with vivid displays of voyeuristic violence and obsessively recurring themes and images; wild ideas and strange plotting abound in this film-maker’s oh-so-stylish oeuvre, where beauty and horror combine in invariably startling permutations.
Many critics and a coterie of fans have long been entranced by the compelling mixture of the avant-garde and the popular that defines an Argento film, but critical writing on the director’s work has always been relatively thin on the ground. Maitland McDonagh's “Broken Mirrors, Broken Minds” -- first published in 1990 -- is probably still the primary source for subjective critical interpretation; while British journalist and Argento confidant Alan Jones has produced the go-to source book for such background information as exists on the director and the making of the films themselves, namely, the lavish “Profondo Rosso”. Most other writings tend to be rather academic in tone, such as the gorgeously produced Fab Press Volume “The Art of Darkness”. This is not a criticism: Argento’s work screams out for the application of, say, feminist theory or the latest literary analysis -- that’s all part of the joy and the fun of it. Yet there is a gap in the market for an entry-level volume aimed at the Argento neophyte, someone just beginning on that strange, dark but enticing journey this unique film-maker offers to all who are willing to take the trip into his exquisitely-lit, blood-soaked world of twisted pleasures. University of Wales graduate, blogger and writer for Film Ireland and Paracinema, James Gracey, has now stepped into the breach with this nifty pocket-sized (194 X 135mm) volume from Kamera Books.
Simply titled “Dario Argento”, the handsome 224-page volume is the latest entry in an ongoing line of critical studies made available from the publisher, that are aimed at the budding cineaste. If you've previously chanced upon “Suspiria” or “Deep Red” and become hooked on their baroque, suspense-filled terrors, but have wondered which avenue into Argento's world to pursue next, well then you now have the perfect road map and introductory text in this meticulously detailed but vividly written piece of work. Clearly the work of a committed fan of his subject, Gracey’s book has the virtue of offering a thorough overview of every film the director has thus far been involved with, both in a directorial capacity and in his role as a producer; there is even an appendix at the end detailing brief synopses and credits for the films Dario worked on as a writer in his early career in the Italian film industry before the release of “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage”. As a quick-and-easy reference guide to Argento and all his works, this will prove invaluable to even seasoned fans, but the primary aim of Gracey’s text is to offer a compellingly written analysis of the films, pitched at a level that will enthuse rather than confuse the interested newer fan. This he achieves with aplomb. Gracey’s prose does an excellent job of selling the artistry of the works themselves in vividly rendered, compelling word pictures, but he takes the job of analysis seriously also, examining the director’s recurring themes and motifs diligently without getting bogged down in the sort of recondite theory that might baffle newcomers.
Kicking things off with an introductory overview, the author gives a nice, concise description of the technical features that make many of Argento’s works so distinctive, and of the reasons for the gradual build-up over the years of his reputation as a master auteur working in the Horror genre, which started building its momentum soon after he was dubbed ‘the Italian Hitchcock‘ in the early-seventies. He manages to tie this in with the history of Italian cinema itself and with the development of the giallo genre pretty convincingly (also describing the defining elements of many of these films in passing), while giving the reader all the relevant biographical background, particularly with regard to Argento’s literary and artistic influences.
From there on, the main body of the book is devoted to a detailed individual look at each film in the Argento filmography, every one of them dealt with in a structured, orderly way for easy reference. Thus, each chapter begins by supplying a list of basic information about the film in question -- producers, music credits, cast lists etc. -- then divides the subsequent discussion into distinct sections, beginning with a brief synopsis of the film. After that Gracey provides a concise summery with background information consisting of the basic relevant facts about the production, which includes notes on the original inspiration for the film. Under the heading ‘Comment’, he provides a general review of the film, discussing what makes it so distinctive and where it fits into the Argento cannon. The ‘Style/Technical’ section is where the meat of Gracey’s analysis usually begins as the author looks at the use Argento makes of his camera and the role of editing and lighting etc. in the style of the particular film under the spotlight; usually he will pick one or two stand-out scenes from the work in question and examine what makes them so special in a fairly decent amount of detail. Next up, ’Themes’ is the section that allows Gracey to really get to work as he delves in depth into the recurrent themes and ideas that bubble up time and time again. Gracey is particularly good on drawing parallels between films during the course of his examination of the ideas at play in each work, and it will soon become apparent to the reader that the same themes often reoccur from a slightly different perspective in apparently very different films. Gracey examines character types, the role of art, spectatorship and perception, as well as the role malevolent mothers and the concept of psychological transference often play in Argento’s stories. The section ’Music’ provides a brief review of the score of the film and how it augments (or detracts from) the atmosphere Argento seeks to create; then a short ‘Trivia’ section gives us a few minor titbits of unusual information on the production and, finally, Gracey delivers his ’Verdict’ on the film with a brief paragraph.
The author has a lot of time for just about all of Argento’s work with only “The Five Days of Milan” (‘haphazard malarkey’) and “Phantom of the Opera” (‘a mess of a film’) getting much in the way of outright criticism, and even then, the latter gets a fairly upbeat review that concentrates more on the positives than the negatives. He likes “Mother of Tears” and bears the distinction of being virtually the only person I’ve read so far who seems to like “Giallo”! This main section of the book also includes fairly detailed analysis of the 1973 television series “Doors into Darkness” for which Argento wrote and directed two episodes, as well as reviews for each of the director’s “Masters of Horror” episodes, “Jenifer” and “Pelts”. After considering all of the directorial works, the author gives exactly the same level of criticism and analysis to Argento’s output as producer: from “Dawn of the Dead”, on to the ultra trashy “Demons” and Michele Soavi’s classic “The Sect”, and right the way through to his daughter, Asia Argento’s experimental art-house project “Scarlet Diva”. There is also a tantalising description of the director’s little-seen 1987 game show-style TV series “Giallo”. I didn't spot too many obvious mistakes, although Gracey does repeat the claim that the woman in red in the opening airport scene of "Suspiria" is Dario Nicolodi making a cameo appearance, something Alan Jones has recently strenuously disavowed on the UK Blu-ray commentary track.
James Gracey has provided an enthusiastic and intelligently written appreciation of one of the most iconic names in modern horror that will serve newcomers to the director’s world very well while giving seasoned Argentophiles yet another reason (as if one were needed) for revisiting his beguiling and bloody body of work for probably the umpteenth time. It’s a great read.