A Quiet Word with Dario Argento, the Italian Horror Master

ROME — For a man who has spent nearly 50 years scaring movie audiences, Italian director Dario Argento is nothing short of scary. In a ...


ROME — For a man who has spent nearly 50 years scaring movie audiences, Italian director Dario Argento is nothing short of scary.

In a soft, even slightly reserved voice, Argento wanted to wrap up a recent interview so he could see his grandchildren — the offspring of his daughter, actress Asia Argento — before heading to New York the next day, where “Beware of Dario Argento: A 20-Film Retrospectiveruns at Lincoln Center through June 29.

“I won’t see them for a while,” he said of the children, before chasing his interlocutor. Hardly the modus operandi of a “master of horror”.

But that’s not to say Argento, 81, isn’t up for a bit of mayhem or gore just yet.

His most recent film, “Dark Glasses,” which premiered in February at the Berlin International Film Festival and made its North American debut in the Lincoln Center retrospective, offers some classic Argento moments: haunting music that generally bodes ill; gruesome and bloody murders; hot pursuit (this time involving a blind protagonist); and full of twists. Yet the film is also surprisingly tender: at its heart is a relationship between a woman and a young boy whose lives are intertwined through tragedy.

“The film is different from others I’ve done,” and the finale even has room “for a little tear,” Argento said in the antique-filled living room of his home in an upscale neighborhood of Rome. A bulging bookcase along one wall was littered with some of the many awards he won during his long career.

Two recent additions are awards he won in August at the Locarno Film Festival in Swiss. One was a lifetime achievement award presented to him by director John Landiswho said at the ceremony that he had insisted on presenting the award to Argento in person. The other was in recognition of his first acting role in “Vortex”, the moving film by Gaspar Noé on the decline of an elderly couple. (Argento had a small role as an altar boy in a 1966 film, but it was uncredited.)

It’s quite a career for a man who worked first as a journalist and then as a film critic for a leftist Roman newspaper; co-wrote the story of Sergio Leone’s classic “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1968) with Leone and Bernardo Bertolucci; collaborated with George A. Romero on the zombie apocalypse classic “Dawn of the Dead” (1978); and recently wrote two books – an autobiography, titled “Fear”, and an anthology of scary stories, titled “Horror” (2018).

Argento said he had his first scare as a small child when his parents – his father was a film producer, his mother a famous photographer – took him to see a production of “Hamlet” in Rome. When the ghost of Hamlet’s father appeared, the young Argento went “into convulsions”, he recalls, and yet he was also intrigued. “A seed was planted and it grew,” he said.

And it continues to grow. The day after his work on “Vortex” ended, Argento was at work on “Dark Glasses,” whose filming had been delayed by the pandemic. The film is an Italian »giallo“movie – a broad genre that may contain elements drawn from murder mysteries, crime, or horror, including the slasher subgenre. Argento is the living master of giallo films.

True to form, the deaths in “Dark Glasses” are violent, starting with the tourniquet of a prostitute at the start of the film. Brutally murdered women are a disturbing leitmotif in giallo films, although Argento countered that he also “killed a lot of men” in equally gruesome ways.

And, he added, he had also written spunky female roles, especially those played by his daughter Asia, who served as his leading lady for many years. “She played a lot of strong characters,” he said.

Argento burst onto the Italian film scene in 1970 with “The Bird with Crystal Plumage”, an elegant and visually lush giallo film that established him as a rising film star and attracted him the nickname of “the Italian Hitchcock”.

“Argento’s films are often full of these surprises, these twists,” said Russ Hunter, an Italian film expert who teaches at Northumbria University in northern England. But Argento also brought to the screen a “kind of bravery visual style” that later influenced other filmmakers and established him as a cult director with die-hard fans, Hunter added.

With “Deep Red” (1975), one of his most famous films, Argento used kinetic camerawork and lush visuals to create drama (not to mention special effects by Carlo Rambaldi, which won three Oscars ). In “Suspiria” (1977), light and color do the trick. “There’s such a fantastic use of color saturation, which creates an otherworldly vibe,” Hunter said. Color contrasts create “disturbing and eerie” moods, he added.

Argento said that while the worlds he creates look flamboyant and stylized, it’s only for show. “Inside, in the heart, there is truth, something real, something deep that comes from inside me, from my dreams, from my nightmares”, and these visions resonate with people , he explained.

Although he said he had never undergone psychoanalysis, Argento noted that he held Sigmund Freud in high regard and visited his home in Vienna whenever he was in town, “watching the sofa on which so many people have lain”.

Luigi Cozzi, a director who worked with Argento on several films, recalled that it took him three months to find a camera that could create the effect Argento wanted for a slow-motion car crash during the film’s finale. “Four flies on gray velvet.” Eventually, Cozzi found a camera that shot 3,000 frames per second—used to monitor train wheel wear—at the University of Naples and rented it. The scene lasted about a minute and a half.

“Another director would have settled for something else – not Dario,” Cozzi said in an interview at a Roman store called Profondo Rosso (Italian for Deep Red) that he opened with Argento in 1989. The store is full of horror paraphernalia. , books and films, as well as masks and fake limbs, and it also houses a museum dedicated to Argento, displaying artifacts from the director’s films (in the basement, of course). Argento appears frequently and makes a scheduled appearance each Halloween, Cozzi said.

“Dario innovated the language with which horror films were made,” Cozzi added.

Jason Rockman, one of the hosts for a Montreal radio station who recently visited the store while on vacation, agrees.

“There’s everything about his films, the mystery, but also this stylized vision, the feeling of stumbling upon a specific moment that you’ll never see again,” Rockman said. He was disappointed, he added, at not being able to travel to Turin, where the National Cinema Museum organizes an Argento exhibition until January 16th.

“We wanted to celebrate Dario Argento,” who is experiencing “rediscovery with a new generation of critics,” said Chiara Sbarigia, president of Cinecittà, which co-produced the New York retrospective. “We wanted it to have official recognition, as well as recognition of our work and the work of our restorers,” she added.

Argento said he probably wouldn’t stay at the screenings.

“I don’t like seeing them again. The ones I made, they’re finished,” he said. “Now I’m thinking of new things.”

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