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Monday, October 27, 2008

Argento Week: Why I Love Dario Argento Films 

I've been watching horror films as long as I can remember. The first film I can recall seeing in a theater was Jaws. Even if I have to say it myself, I consider myself a very finicky connoisseur of the genre. I won't go near zombie or vampire films, and I've been known to rage at the screen when a film blithely ignores it's own internal logic, on the grounds that "it's horror" is no excuse for sloppy storytelling and continuity errors. And, given all that, Dario Argento is the only horror film maker whose films I make a point of seeing. In my personal film collection, Argento is represented more than any other director by a factor of at least times three.

When you break down his films into their component parts, his appeal to me feels obvious. Argento likes to experiment with interesting perspective shots and camera tricks. His use of color to build mood and emotion is practically unique within the horror genre. The play he engages in with the visual nature of horror is so strong it becomes a recurring theme throughout the films. Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Opera both exploit the voyeuristic aspects of horror and horror as an audience spectacle. The long tracking shot within the ballet theater in Sleepless is probably one of the most inventive examples of building an inevitable sense of dread I've seen in film. Oh, just look (but not at work):

The visual inventiveness you see in Argento's films is something you just don't see in other films. The only films that are even remotely comparable are those that fall into the "torture porn" genre, and the intent in those films is more similar to the old Herschell Gordon Lewis school of film-making, where the intent is merely to find new and elaborate ways to gross out the audience. Argento's films are more complicated; there is as much an implication of the audience's culpability into the brutality, an accusation that the audience is as much participant as viewer that challenges the passive nature of film-going. Again, the emphasis on the voyeuristic nature of horror films is a strong component of this. It's at the strongest in a film like Opera, but more recent efforts, such as Do You Like Hitchcock? return to the theme and make them central to the story

If there's a slight weakness in Argento's formula it's in the fact that there is, in fact, a formula. Whether a straight-thriller or a more supernaturally-orientated outing, there are a few key factors that repeat themselves over and over again in Argento's work:
  • A black-gloved killer.
  • A motivation rooted in a real or imagined wrong-doing in the past.
  • A clue contained in a work of art.
  • The hero misinterprets an important clue.
  • An obviously innocent red herring character.
  • A character figures out the killer's identity but dies before the hero can be told.

(This last list item reaches it's zenith in Inferno, in which every character dies shortly after meeting the hero, who finally confronts the Ultimate Evil of the film without knowing who she is, why she's important, or knowing what the hell is going on at all.)

And while Argento does love his formula, it works surprisingly well. It gives a tested and effective spine on which to hang his set-pieces and characters and shots, which is why you watch his film. You know you're only ever going to see the killer's hands until the last fifteen minutes of the film, and you know that the killer is insane because of something that happened years before the film starts, and you know you're going to be tricked into misunderstanding something important along with the hero, but it doesn't matter, because you're going to be seeing some inventive and original camera work and scene stagings with distinctive characters.

(Another complaint it might be fair to make, and this extends to big swathes of the horror genre as a whole, is that there is frequently a chauvinistic, if not outright misogynist, subtext to many of Argento's films. There's no point in denying that it's there, in some films, such as Stendhal Syndrome there's almost no film without that subtext. The only mitigating factor that can be offered is that, compared to most of his contemporaries in the Euro-horror scene, Argento is an enlightened feminist. Don't watch any Lucio Fulci or Lamberto Bava films if you're uncomfortable with cinematic depictions of violence against women because they're women.)

So, with all that in mind, which Argento films should you be watching if you're curious about his works? Well:

To Watch
Bird with the Crystal Plumage: His earliest thriller work, and very conventional by the standards of the genre, but it sets the tone and formula for so much of his later work and it really is a clever and devious little mystery.
Cat O' Nine Tails: The killer's motivation is perhaps amongst the silliest you will find in cinema, but it continues the tone set by the previous film.
Deep Red: One of the significant films in the giallo genre and Euro-horror in general, with some very inventive set-pieces and characterizations, with another clever and devious mystery at it's heart.
Suspiria: The master-work. The film that defines and justifies Argento's place in film history. A phantasmagorical supernatural thriller filled with twisted dream logic. Yes, we will be revisiting this.
Tenebre: A return to the pure thriller roots, with one of the best and most unexpected twists in horror history.
Phenomena: A bit too caught up in the midst of 80s horror trends, and the thriller and supernatural elements never quite mesh, but still worth watching.
Opera: Probably does more to critique the horror genre while playing by the rules of genre of any film, save possibly the original Scream.
Trauma: Argento's "American" film, and it shows. Lacks the punch of his earlier works and feels like an after-school special at times. Scott Pilgrim fans will like it, though, for the creepy pederastic aspects of the story.
Sleepless: After a decade of sub-par work, Argento's return to pure giallo territory and tropes. It's a kitchen-sink approach to the thriller, but it uses Argento's formula to great effect.
Do You Like Hitchcock?: Remarkably low-key compared to most of his other film's, but a nice tribute to Argento's primary influence.

To Avoid
(Yeah, Argento does misfire, and spectacularly, from time to time.)
Inferno: The first sequel to Suspiria, and the first clue that maybe Suspiria should have been left to stand alone.
Stendahl's Syndrome: A bloated, confused, border-line misogynist exercise in making the audience feel as dirty and sick as possible.
Phantom of the Opera: There really is no excuse for this film.
The Card Player: It's got a very clever trick in the central mystery, but the characters never gell, none of it ever quite makes sense and it just sort of chugs along to an inevitable conclusion.
Masters of Horror: Pelts and Jennifer: Final proof that Argento just should not try to work with American production companies. Both are utterly unwatchable dreck.
Mother of Tears: Oh dear. We'll be revisiting this as well.

Next Time: We watch Mother of Tears, the finale to the Three Mothers trilogy, and test our dedication to this whole "Argento Week" in the process.

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