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Monday, October 25, 2004

Spooky Stuff: Dario Argento 

I'm an unashamed fan of the giallo school of film-making. Something about their low-budget blend of dark comedy and serial killer mayhem appeals to me in a way that the American takes on the subject, which tend to be both expansively gory and self-important and serious, don't. Of course, the giallo films themselves can be plenty gory, but they're stylishly gory. My favorite director of the school is Dario Argento. He's managed to carve a niche for himself in the genre with his inventive camera-work and, to be honest, generally better written films.

It quickly becomes apparent when you watch several of Argento's films that he's found a pattern that works and he's sticking to it. The writing on the films is so clever and so adapt at keeping you guessing that he mostly successfully avoids being formulaic. He's also shown a willingness to change or drop those elements that people seem to expect from him. The basic "rules" of an Argento film are:
-The hero witnesses a crime, but misremembers an important detail
-The motivation of the crimes is an attempt to conceal something that happened in the past
-A work of art provides an important clue
-Someone figures out who the killer is, announces that they will tell the hero who the killer is "as soon as I see you in person," and is killed before they can tell anyone who the killer is
-The obvious suspect couldn't possibly be the killer

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a good example of many of these rules. In it Tony Musante (still in his heart-throb phase) is an American writer living in Italy who witnesses a brutal attack on a woman in an art gallery. During the course of the attack, Musante finds himself trapped in the security doors, unable to go out to the street to call for help or get into the gallery to aid the woman. The scene is extremely powerful, exploiting both the voyeuristic aspects of the horror genre (Musante's inability to do anything but watch the woman as she lies bleeding on the floor) and foreshadowing the claustrophobic stalking Musante is about to experience as the killer targets him.

Deep Red (inexplicably re-titled "The Hatchet Murders" during it's initial US release, despite a noted lack of any killings involving a hatchet) takes these tropes to the next level. A British musician living in Italy, played by David Hemmings, witnesses the murder of the psychic who lives above him shortly after the woman "tuned in" to the mind of a murderer at a demonstration of her abilities. Egged on to investigate the crime himself by Daria Nicolodi, as a wonderfully assertive journalist, Hemmings finds himself running out of clues as everyone who could help him uncover the missing clues he needs are killed just before they can tell him anything. The murders here are much more inventively gory than the ones in Bird, and the film score by Goblin adds tremendously to the increasingly bizarre nature of the film.

After making a couple of not terribly good but generally well-liked supernatural horror films, Argento returned to his black-gloved serial killer in Tenebre. Again, an American writer travels to Italy to promote his new book, only to discover that someone is killing "degenerates" in a fashion modeled after the deaths in his newest crime thriller. Soon, the killer moves from attacking those whose lack of morality infuriates him to those who are close to the writer himself. Argento notches up the mystery by introducing flash-backs of sexual torture and murder from the viewpoint of an unseen person, presumably the killer. The final set-piece of the film, where the killer is finally revealed, is chiefly notable for it's memorable death by modern art.

Opera is perhaps Argento's most well-liked film, and it's certainly his most ambitious in terms of staging and complexity of trick shots. A young opera singer is stalked by a madman, who forces her to watch as he kills her friends and lovers. Here, Argento takes the criticism of horror films as violent voyeur fantasies and runs with it, giving us a long opening POV shot from the perspective of a temperamental diva, to a killer that literally forces his victim's eye-lids open with needles in order to force her to watch him commit his crimes.

Sleepless, one of Argento's most recent films, is frustrating in that the only US edition available is in a full-screen and apparently edited format. Nevertheless, it represents a new level of craftsmanship. Claustrophobic stagings (a murder on an empty commuter train), POV shots (a long pan of a theater's carpeted floor with people's feet running back and forth leading up to the discovery of a body), his trademark black humor (undead midget puppets), and twisted killers and bizarre motives (a nursery rhyme as the blue-print for a killing spree) all add up to what should be one of Argento's best works...if only we Americans could get a look at the real version...

[Edited because I apparently forgot how to spell "Argento"]


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