Sunday, August 10, 2014


If you’re a Dario Argento fan, you undoubtedly remember the first time you saw one of his films.  For me it happened in 1996, when I was carrying around Dennis Fischer’s encyclopedic Horror Film Directors 1931 – 1990 like a personal bible.  Fischer’s book introduced me to scores of films I couldn’t find at my local video store (although the 1986 doc Stephen King’s World of Horror was technically my introduction to Argento), and every time I visited a new mom and pop rental shop I looked for films by Mario Bava, Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Amando de Ossorio, Ulli Lommel.  In those days it wasn’t easy to find foreign horror.

So I vividly remember the day I found Argento’s Suspiria and Fulci’s The Gates of Hell in the same store.  This was my real introduction to Italian horror movies.   I remember watching the opening sequence of The Gates of Hell, where a priest ceremoniously hangs himself in a foggy cemetery.  The strange alchemy of gothic visuals and pulse-pounding synth score cast a genuinely eerie spell.  The first 20 minutes of Suspiria made an even stronger impression.  Argento’s use of primary colors, Goblin’s aural assault, and the generally dreamlike quality of the narrative made it clear that I was experiencing something completely new.  (New to me, anyway.)

The same store offered access to a few related gems: Argento’s Trauma, Lamberto Bava’s Demons and Demons 2, and a robust selection of Michele Soavi films (The Sect, The Church, Stage Fright and Cemetery Man).  This was a mixed bag of films, but it heightened my brief obsession with Eurohorror.  Around the same time, the twisted saints at Anchor Bay Entertainment began releasing their own Eurohorror Collection, with a particular emphasis on Argento’s “classics.”  I snapped up the new titles as soon as they became available: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was released in 1998; Phenomena and Tenebrae in 1999, Deep Red and Inferno in 2000, and Opera in 2001.  By the time Opera came out, I had seen most of Argento’s later work as well.  I was impressed with The Stendhal Syndrome, in spite of its hamfisted DVD presentation by Troma, and enthralled by the first fifteen minutes of Sleepless, which I saw at a film festival in London in the summer of 2001.  For the most part, however, the thrill of discovery faded, and with it some of my enthusiasm for Argento.

So I approached Derek Botelho’s new book The Argento Syndrome mostly with a sense of nostalgia.  I hoped it might rekindle my excitement for the filmmaker's work and, to a certain extent, I was not disappointed.  Botelho’s fascination with Argento started much the way mine did, although he pursued his obsession with more fervor and longer-lasting dedication.  As a result, his book is the deeply personal and highly intelligent tribute of a true fan and a dedicated cinephile.   

Because the author originally planned the career overview as a documentary film, he has plenty of interviews to draw on.  The language barrier (and perhaps a bit too much fawning) precludes a truly illuminating interview with his main subject, but the book hosts plenty of fascinating insights from other actors, writers and filmmakers.  John Carpenter, Stuart Gordon and Mick Garris wax especially poetic about the nature of Argento’s “dream logic.”  Gordon insightfully alludes to Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment, and Carpenter offers a positively brilliant rumination on the philosophical differences between Argento and fellow filmmaker Luis Bunuel.  (I love Carpenter more than ever, knowing that he’s a huge fan of Bunuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire.  It’s also fascinating to hear him talk about the influence of Deep Red on Halloween 2.)

And there’s no question that Botelho knows his subject, offering a concise tutorial on the filmmaker’s gialli influences and an illuminating analysis of the development of his unique aesthetic (which, according to the author, began with Four Flies on Grey Velvet, and started becoming repetitive as early as Phenomena).  Unfortunately he doesn’t have much to say about the influence of Mario Bava, but perhaps that’s intentional.  It would be difficult to compete with Tim Lucas’s brilliant contextualization of Italian horror cinema in All the Colors of the Dark, although a few references to that groundbreaking work might have been appropriate. 

Naturally, Suspiria gets plenty of attention.  The author wisely presentes it as a European fairy tale, providing more of a literary context than a cinematic one, although he curiously fails to mention Thomas De Quincey’s “Suspiria de Profundis.”  Even more interesting to me is the section on Inferno, a film that the author relates to the writings of Russian mystic George Gurdjieff.  I made a similar comparison between Gurdjieff and Wes Craven in my recent book Beyond Fear, and I am fascinated by the idea that there is an even larger mystical strain in modern horror cinema.  Another particularly worthwhile chapter is “La Dolce Giallo,” a personal travelogue in which the author sets out to explore Rome in the shadow of the film Tenebrae.

The second half of the book, like the latter part of Argento’s career, is less inspiring.  Botelho acknowledges that Opera (1988) is, at present, the filmmaker’s final masterpiece.  He also recognizes that his mentor Maitland McDonough, whose book Broken Mirrors / Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento (1994) was the first comprehensive overview of the filmmaker’s career, has perhaps wisely avoided writing about the later work.  He quotes McDonough as follows: “I don’t think it’s possible, without being intensely negative, to write at length about the newer work the way I did with his earlier work.”

Botelho isn’t intensely negative, although he’s honest.  He praises The Stendhal Syndrome as “a brave, strange, and challenging film,” but also justly admits that Phantom of the Opera is “hackneyed and nonsensical,” Sleepless is often silly, and The Card Player “flat.”  He offers modest praise for Do You Like Hitchcock? and Argento’s Masters of Horror episodes, and saves his most vitriolic rants for Mother of Tears – the long-awaited sequel to Suspiria and Inferno.  It is interesting to read screenwriters Jace Anderson and Adam Gierasch reflect on the making of that film.  Ditto Sean Keller’s reflections on the subsequent Giallo.  The writers suggest that Argento is no longer interested in the aesthetic schemes and philosophical underpinnings of his early work, noting that he now seems to prefer naturalistic storytelling and surprisingly drab color palettes.  I can’t help but wonder how these films might come across to viewers who have not arrived at them with prior expectations and preconceived notions about what an “Argento film” should be.  Would they stand up better on their own?

In 2012, I attended an Italian film festival in Los Angeles where Dario Argento was the guest of honor.  The main event was a screening of Suspiria at the Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, followed by a sneak preview of the director’s latest film Dracula 3-D.  I hadn’t seen Suspiria in years.  It was every bit as brilliant and compelling as I remembered it being.   The preview of Dracula 3-D, on the other hand, was one of the most embarrassing things I’ve ever witnessed.   I admit I saw only snippets of the finished film, but it seemed to me to be completely lacking in a genuine sense of awe and wonder.  A friend sitting next to me responded, “He should have his Master of Horror license revoked.”  Yes, it really was that bad.

Botelho quotes a revealing comment from Argento about Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 interpretation of Dracula.  Why, Argento wonders, would anyone be interested in “drug-addled fever dreams”?  It’s an unlikely question from a filmmaker whose best-known work was inspired by Thomas DeQuincey’s other confessions of an opium-eater, and whose best work (period) is an inimitable expression of delusion and madness.

So what happened?  Maitland McDonough opines, “In some cases, you’ve said what you have to say.” She wisely alludes to the 2009 film Amer as a true modern example of Argento’s brand of horror.  Botelho, the true fan, holds out hope.  Either way, it’s a somewhat depressing note to end on… one that makes me more inclined to mourn the bad films that Dario Argento has made, instead of celebrating the great ones.  At the end of the day, I have to agree with McDonough’s decision to quit while Argento was ahead.   The most interesting part of the second half of Botelho’s book is the chapter focused on Asia Argento’s directorial efforts. 

I wish that the author had dug deeper into the early work (there is nothing in the book about Argento’s work on spaghetti westerns Five Man Army, Today We Kill Tomorrow We Die, Cemetery Without Crosses, and Once Upon a Time in the West – and I would love to learn more about those) and also focused more on Argento’s influence on other filmmakers—especially Lamberto Bava and Michele Soavi—rather than devoting so much ink to Argento’s lesser films.  Fans of the filmmaker will, of course, need this book on their shelf along with McDonough’s, but there may yet be another volume  to be written on the subject.

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