Dario Argento (2008)
This interview from Death Ray 13 is a fine example of theartisanry behind journalistism. Not because it’s a brilliant interview, but because of the hole-patching I did.
I interviewed Argento over a poor phone line, and knew little about his films despite having seen a few of them. My opinion of them is better than my opinion of Jess Franco’s output, with whom I cannot help but draw parallels. I still think Argento has problems (and the blood he uses is always too red). Argento was charming, but his English was choppy. We journos always polish up the spoken word (hopefully without removing the speaker’s original intent), correcting errors, eliminating pauses and digressions, and compressing time. Argento was an extreme case, but it turned out okay.
Master of Horror
It’s been 26 years coming, but Dario Argento has finally finished his series of films about powerful witches. Death Ray quizzed him about his strange world of blood and babes.
Dario Argento is a name oft bandied around by film geeks’ film geeks, people like Harry Knowles or Quentin Tarantino. His CV, a list of supernatural horror and garish, ultraviolent Italian ‘giallo’ crime flicks, has a big cult following in the English speaking world. His films have been denounced as misogynistic and sick, yet display a talent for exploiting technical innovation, a puckish disregard for narrative continuity and a flair for visual composition that elevates them, on occasion, to the status of art.
epending on where you sit on the scale between amoral cineaste and Daily Mail reader, you’ll already have your own opinions on Argento. He is totally unapologetic about his tastes, by the way. He often plays the gloved and stabbing hands ruining a young girl’s body. He once said that he prefers to see beautiful women being murdered, not ugly ones. He even, in one film, filmed a brutal rape scene involving his own daughter, Asia. He’s that kind of guy. Ask him why, and he laughs.
“You must go to my psychotherapist!” he says, his English is thick with his native Italian, and his voice gravelly with his 67 years. “I don’t know exactly why. When I was very young, around 10, 12, I started to read Edgar Allen Poe books. Something changed in my mind, in my soul. I also started to see black and white films in a cinema in Rome that specialized in old horror films. I started to love these extreme films. “
This early fascination with the macabre did not go down well, even within his filmmaking family.
“It was something that people in my school didn’t like, also my family. They watched films that were more important, more serious. Later my teacher said to me, ‘You write very well, but why you want to write these things? It’s nothing, it’s not important’, and I said, ‘No I don’t believe that’.”
Obviously not, as he’s still telling stories of dreamlike horror. And that’s the thing with Argento’s work, as risible as some of it is, there’s something unusually disturbing about them, that goes beyond the knives, the bright red blood. It could be the artistry of them. Argento is in thrall to the big names of high cinema, all of whose films he watched during his years as a newspaper film critic.
“Hitchcock, everybody is impressed by Hitchcock. The director who does comedy is impressed by Hitchcock. Hitchcock invented modern cinema, he’s a giant. Ingmar Bergman because of the atmosphere, so, cruel, so deep, so important. I also like expressionist movies. Something that impresses me very much is the Nouvelle Vague, some great films, they invented modern editing, the modern way of using the camera, especially the hand camera. Truffaut, Jean Luc Goddard, great, great movies.
“But also I am inspired by Hammer films. They were wonderful pictures, every year, two or three, these great films, ah, I was very young, but I say thank you to Hammer, thank you, thank you very much!”
Truffaut and Bergman and Hitchcock and the Nouvelle Vague – there’s a little of all of them in his movies, Hammer too. Like those of his heroes, Argento’s films are those of an auteur – individual, deeply concerned with a personal theme (in his case the problems of perception in a subjective world), but an auteur with the sensibilities of a killer. This fascination with blood is not an abnormal one, Argento maintains, his films are universal.
“Young people, especially, like my films, for the same reasons that I liked this kind of film when I was a young, a teenager. It is an adventure, something on the borderline of reality. It’s not reality – films about poetry and politics or a documentary on Bush or Queen Elizabeth, or Blair. They are something frightening, impossible, born in the night. My films are something many people can understand – it does not matter where you go, China, America, England – because my films are close to nightmares. And everybody has nightmares. I use many of my own nightmares, I try to put them into my films.”
Argento’s latest nightmare is Mother of Tears, which goes on release in the UK on 28th April, and concludes his Three Mothers series, about three powerful, ageless witches. The first, Suspiria (1977), had a young girl uncovering the terrible truth about her German ballet school. Inferno (1981) moved the action to New York, where another girl, then her brother, must do battle with a building and the witch that lives within. Mother of Tears takes us to Rome, 27 years after the last installment.
“I spent around four, five years doing the first two episodes, and it was boring!” says Argento, explaining the long gap. “I wasn’t forced to do the third episode right away, I wanted to explore, I wanted to travel. I started to do more giallo and other films, and then I was in the United States. I like lots of variation. And then after many films, I started to go again to a famous library here in Rome for the occult and the esoteric. They have books from five, six, seven centuries ago. It’s in Inferno, when she goes to find the book, this is the real library of the occult for the Vatican. It’s possible to go and look at these books, it is fabulous, and I started to get fascinated by these themes again, I like these strange things, the stories of the occult, stories of devils, of the evil in our lives.”
Mother of Tears has thus far had a mixed reception, some praising it as a glorious return to the director’s roots, others saying that it simply demonstrates how Argento’s brand of fearmongery was very much of its time, though either way it is different to its predecessors, less dreamlike, more gory.
“Times change,” he explains. “Because yes, I’m changed. Today, violence is something less mysterious. At the time of inferno, especially in the time of Suspiria, the world was very different. This time, too I worked with two extra screenwriters. Americans, Jace Anderson and Adam Gierasch. It was good to work with those guys.”
This is another hallmark of his work: Argento will not work with the same people for long.
“I like to change. Because new people come in with new fantasies, new ideas. If I’ve found a good director of photography, the maximum I work with him is two films, it’s too much, because I want to explore some other talent for each film.”
Though he usually writes and directs, Argento also takes on other roles, up to and including providing the music.
“Film is big, I like to do it all. I like producing, I like producing new talent, young talent, I like to direct, because you have a confrontation with the actors, maybe through this we find the best way to represent the thing. I like to do films, but,” he adds, “I am not so enthusiastic about my work sometimes. I can speak with some director friend of mine and he’ll say: ‘Oh, I was so happy, it was so magnificent, so happy to do a film! ‘” he says, putting on a mocking, gleeful voice. “And I’m never so happy, never, because film is difficult, and you always have problems. It’s your fantasy, and you try to do something good, very good, but I’m never happy. I’m a little bit sad also when I finish a film, I am destroyed! It’s a battle.”
Sounds like a bit of an addiction to us…
“Yes. If not,” he laughs, a trifle grimly, “I stop twenty years ago.”
Did you know?
Giallo is a difficult genre to describe. For a start, the Italian idea of genre is somewhat different to the Anglo-American one. Giallo means ‘yellow’, and comes from the lurid crime paperbacks, kind of Italian penny dreadfuls, that were popular in the mid-20th century. The covers were yellow, hence the name. In cinema terms, it refers to a kind of hybrid, hyper-real murder-mystery/ slasher flick, full of Mediterranean melodrama, violence and sex.