Quiet word with Dario Argento, master of Italian horror

ROME – For a man who has spent nearly 50 years intimidating moviegoers, Italian director Dario Argento doesn’t seem intimidating at all.

Soft-spoken, even slightly reticent, Argento was anxious to finish a recent interview so he could see his grandchildren—the offspring of his daughter, actress Asia Argento—before traveling the next day to New York, where “Beware of Dario Argento: A 20-Film Retrospective.” On view at Lincoln Center through June 29.

“I won’t see them for a while,” he said of the children, before shoving the interviewer out the door. Hardly a “master of horror” style of work.

But that doesn’t mean Argento, 81, still has a bit of a mess or bloodshed.

His latest film, “Dark Glasses,” which premiered in February at the Berlin International Film Festival and debuted in North America at the Lincoln Center Retrospective, presents Argento’s classic moments: pulsating music that usually bodes ill; gruesome blood-soaking murders; nail-biting chases (this time involving the blind protagonist); Lots of twists and turns. However, the film is surprisingly tender: at its core a relationship between a woman and a boy whose lives are intertwined through tragedy.

“The movie is different from the others I’ve made,” Argento said in the living room stuffed with antiques at his home in an upscale neighborhood, and to the end has room for “little tears.” A bulging bookcase along one of the walls was filled with some of the many awards he had won during his long career.

Two of the recent additions are two awards he received in August at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland. One was a Lifetime Achievement Award given to him by director John Landis, who said at the ceremony that he had insisted that the award be given to Argento personally. The other was in recognition of his first acting role in “Vortex,” Gaspar Noé’s animated film about the deterioration of an elderly couple. (Argento had a small role as an altar boy in the 1966 film, but it wasn’t credited.)

It is a career story for a man who worked first as a journalist and then as a film critic for a left-wing newspaper in Rome; He co-wrote the storyline for Sergio Leone’s classic Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) with Leon and Bernardo Bertolucci; Collaboration with George A. Romero in the classic “Dawn of the Dead” (1978); Most recently, he has authored two books – an autobiographical “Fear” and an anthology of scary stories, “Horror” (2018).

Argento said he had his first fear as a young 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, young Argento went into “twitches,” he recalls, yet he was also intrigued. He said: “I planted a seed and it grew.”

And it continues to grow. The day after completing his work on “Vortex,” Argento was working on “Dark Glasses,” the filming of which had been delayed due to the pandemic. The film is an Italian ‘giallo’ genre film – a broad genre that can contain elements drawn from murder mysteries, police crime or horror, including the slasher subgenre. Argento is the living master of Giallo films.

True, the deaths in “Dark Glasses” seem violent in your face, starting with the polarization of a female prostitute early in the film. Brutally murdered women are a disturbing leitmotif in giallo films, despite Argento’s response that he “killed too many men” in equally horrific ways.

He added that he wrote spunky female roles as well, particularly those portrayed by his daughter Asia, who was his main lady for many years. “I’ve played many strong characters,” he said.

Argento broke into the Italian cinema scene in 1970 with “The Bird With the Crystal Plumage,” an elegant and visually brilliant giallo that made him a rising movie star and earned him the nickname “Italian Hitchcock.”

“Argento films are often full of these surprises, these twists,” said Ross Hunter, an Italian film expert who teaches at Northumbria University in northern England. Hunter added that Argento also brought to the screen “a kind of gritty visual style” that has gone on to influence other filmmakers and make him a beloved director with ardent fans.

With Deep Red (1975), one of his most famous films, Argento used kinetic photography and lush visuals to build the drama (not to mention Carlo Rambaldi’s special effects, which won three Oscars). In “Suspiria” (1977), light and color do the trick. “There is such a wonderful use of chromatic saturation, which creates an atmosphere out of another world,” Hunter said. He added that the contrasts in the colors create “worrying and strange” moods.

Argento said that even if the worlds he creates look glowing and stylized, that’s just for show. He explained, “Inside, at the core, there is reality, something real, something deep that comes from within me, from my dreams, from my nightmares” and these visions resonate with people.

Although he said he never underwent psychoanalysis, Argento notes that he holds Sigmund Freud in high esteem and visits his home in Vienna whenever he is in town, “looking at the sofa on which many are lying”.

Luigi Cozzi, a director who has worked with Argento on several films, noted that it took three months to find a camera that could create the effect he wanted Argento to crash into a slow-moving car at the end of “Four Flies on Gray Velvet.” In the end, Cozzi found a camera She picks up 3,000 frames per second – used to monitor tire wear and tear on trains – at the University of Naples and rents it. The scene took about a minute and a half.

“The other director would have done something else – not Dario,” Cosi said in an interview at a store in Rome called Profondo Rosso (Italian for Deep Red) he opened with Argento in 1989. The store is stocked with horror paraphernalia, books, and movies, as well as fake masks and limbs, and also houses a museum dedicated to Argento, displaying objects from the director’s films (downstairs, naturally). Cosey said Argento appears frequently and appears on a scheduled basis every Halloween.

“Dario created the language in which horror films were made,” added Cozy.

Jason Rockman, a Montreal radio station host who visited the store recently while on vacation, agreed.

“There is everything in his films, the mystery, but also this flowery vision, the feeling of going at a specific moment that you will never see again,” said Rockman. He added that he was disappointed that he would not be able to make it to Turin, where the National Film Museum is hosting an exhibition of Argento until January 16.

“We wanted to celebrate Dario Argento,” which is experiencing “a rediscovery with a new generation of critics,” said Chiara Spargia, Cinecittà President, who co-produced the New York retrospective. “We wanted him to receive official recognition, as well as recognition for our work and that of our restorer,” she added.

Argento said he probably won’t continue with the shows.

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

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