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Dario Argento
Jennifer Connelly in Phenomena (1985)Courtesy of New Line Cinema

Dario Argento: hell is round the corner

The Italian horror director believes strongly in the power of art to disturb, and his films are grim experiments in his own philosophy

Taken from the May 2002 issue of Dazed:

With his long, drawn face, a greased-down mop of black hair creeping over an arched forehead and staring, sunken eyes, Dario Argento looks more like a murderous ghoul from a German Expressionist movie than a movie director. But devoted fans have cast the gawky auteur as “the Italian Hitchcock”, both for his commitment to put the frighteners on film audiences by any means necessary and for his similarly fastidious working methods. Critics claim he is little more than a flashy stylist whose gaudy and gory horror flicks are poorly-plotted and filled with shallow Freudian psycho-babble; but throughout a patchy 30-year career, Argento has undeniably put his stamp on European exploitation cinema – an area usually associated with copious amounts of female flesh and badly over-dubbed dialogue with an unabashed decadence and a committed pretension to high art. 

Best-known for his late 70s masterpiece Suspiria (1977), Argento is staging something of a comeback with a new film Sleepless (2001). He has also inspired Art of Darkness, a lavishly produced book collecting some weighty criticism and analysis of the 17 films he has made since 1970 alongside reproductions of rare production stills and film art. Following a lean period through the 90s (he completed just four films which, for his pains, were poorly-received by the faithful) the recently released Sleepless is a return to his slasher roots. It's also his first film since 1982's Tenebre to feature a score by his closest musical collaborators Goblin, the prog rock Italian fourpiece whose sinister synth-driven soundtracks use decibels to heighten nervous tension. Among Sleepless' more dubious delights are a grisly death by cor anglais, a killer dwarf and a frightful encounter on an empty train between a silicon – enhanced floozy and a butcher's knife that will do for rail travel what Jaws (1975) did for family outings at the beach. 

Anxiety is central to Dario Argento's world. Irrational fears seep into mundane reality. Empty buildings creak and moan with whispered mortal threats. Deserted city streets dance with the shadows of silent killers. Stalking dread lurks around every corner. “I am describing a corner of my hell,” Argento explains effusively in sonorous broken English. He is talking on the phone from Venice, where he is completing pre-production on his next shocker (filming begins later this year with his daughter Asia playing the lead). “This is my world,” he continues. “If people like it then that's okay. If people don't like it then that's okay too. Because it's my world.”

In Dario Argento's films, art invariably inflames murderous passions. Psychosis is driven by fetishistic desire. Childhood anxiety is preserved and perverted by adulthood. “Art is not a joke,” Argento says soberly. “[The same goes for] paintings and music too. Art can be deadly – too strong for your soul, your brain, your mind.” What he has in mind is the phenomenon that inspired his 1992 film The Stendhal Syndrome. While touring sites of Italian architecture, 19th century French author Marie-Henri Beyle (who used the pen-name Stendhal) was so overwhelmed by what he was seeing that he slipped into a fugue state. Suffering from a temporary amnesia, he wandered around troubled and confused for several hours afterwards. 

“I am describing a corner of my hell, if people like it then that's okay. If people don't like it then that's okay too. Because it's my world” – Dario Argento

Argento claims that as a teenager he too was afflicted by the same condition. “I remember one time when I was with my family in Greece. We went to the Parthenon and I became very sick. There were lots of symptoms but nobody could tell me why this happened. Why? I don't know, but for many years I remembered this [incident] without knowing the reason. After I read books by Sigmund Freud, I discovered that many other people have these reactions in front of large works of art or architecture.” 

The Stendhal Syndrome opens with Asia Argento (playing Anna Manni, a police detective on the trail of a sadistic rapist) wandering around Florence's Uffizi Gallery. The combination of the building's ornate 16th century interiors and richly-symbolic paintings work on her like a dose of Rohypnol. She becomes engulfed by the art works. Unknown to her, the young guard who comes to her assistance is the very man she has been seeking. In a sustained sequence fraught with fevered hallucinations, he kidnaps and brutally rapes her. The rest of the film excruciatingly traces the effect of this ordeal as both her identity and perception of reality undergo seismic shifts. 

Trauma (usually inflicted in childhood) plays a pivotal role in providing the motivation for murder sprees in Argento's films, but there is little to suggest that the immediate source of his fascination can be traced to Argento's own upbringing. Linked by blood to the film industry from the moment he was born (on September 7, 1940), Argento's father Salvatore was a bigwig in the post-war Italian film community who would later produce his son's films. His mother, Elda Luxardo, was a Brazilian fashion model turned celebrity portrait photographer. 

Dario's first foray into the film world was as a critic for the Rome daily Paese Sera, but he quickly realised that writing about film was not his thing. A meeting with Sergio Leone led to a commission to write the story for Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), the first in a series of celebrated spaghetti westerns. Argento also worked on the screenplay in partnership with up-and-coming auteur, Bernardo Bertolucci. He decided to direct his next script himself in order to maintain total control over the final product. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), about an American writer who inadvertently witnesses an attempted murder that takes place in an art gallery, is set in the “giallo” (yellow) genre with which Argento is forever associated. 

Named after the yellow covers of post-war pulp novels, giallo movies started appearing in the early 60s and were often straight adaptations of popular murder mystery stories. Italian Director Mario Bava, whose Gogol inspired Gothic horror movie Black Sunday (1960) and the surreal Operazione Paura (1966) are an acknowledged influence on American directors like Scorcese and Lynch, made the first true giallo films, The Girl who Knew too Much (aka Evil Eye) in 1962 and Blood and Black Lace (1964) in 1964. The conventions of the genre, a mash of murder-mystery and slasher flick, were also heavily influenced by Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960). A pretty girls tumbles into the realm of a (usually male) psycho killer, who butchers beautiful women like animals, and attempts to extricate herself alive. A staple element of the giallo movie is that the identity of the killer, who appears only as a black-gloved hand, is never revealed until the final reel.

Argento's innovation was to inject a grand operatic feel to these usually low-budget productions, using the city as a disorientating backdrop to stage his homicidal librettos. His movies stay true to his obsessions: a reverence for the psychogeographical power of architecture, the connections between the high and black arts (especially the cultural impact of 15th century alchemists) and an adherence to the tenets of Freudian theory. (He also famously dons black leather gloves and plays the hands of the murderer himself.) 

Suspiria, the pinnacle of Argento's devotion to stylistic excess (co-written by his former girlfriend and muse, actress Daria Nicolodi), was largely inspired by Disney's version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Largely set in a labyrinthine dance school in Freiburg, Germany, where new student Suzy Banyon (played by Jessica Harper), a talented young American ballet dancer, arrives to find her fellow students have a habit of disappearing only to turn up mutilated beyond recognition. 

It plays out like an Edgar Allen Poe story as imagined by Caravaggio; gothic horror in an overwrought Baroque style. In Suspiria everything - the sets, the music, the colouration and the blood-letting-screams at fever pitch and, combined with Argento's trademark creeping camera, works in concert to invoke total delirium in the viewer. “Yes, of course, this is the idea,” Argento confirms, laughing a little too heartily. “I want everybody to participate in my party.” 

During filming, the director even terrorised his actors by playing Goblin's abrasive score at maximum volume on set. Work on the soundtrack began before the film was shot, a technique Argento may have picked up from his mentor Sergio Leone, who had Ennio Morricone score The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) so that key sequences could be shot and cut to the meter of the music. The sing-song themes of Goblin's visceral, raucous soundtrack are vital to the heart-thumping effect Suspiria has on audiences. 

The film was part of an intended trilogy of supernatural thrillers tracing the history of the Three Mothers, a gaggle of ancient witches ensconced in educational establishments across the world. The second in the series, Inferno (1980), was largely set in New York and featured a thunderous soundtrack by Keith Emerson. But Argento fans have been waiting over 20 years for him to complete what is considered his great work. The director claims that the whims of the film world will not provide him with the financing he requires to finish the cycle. To the faithful, his work remains frustratingly incomplete. 

Yet the internal logic, repeated themes and codas of his work give Argento's body of work a coherence. It's almost as if deep within his corner of hell lies the map that guides him – a blueprint bearing the foundations of his architecture of terror, an edifice that will continue to strike fear into the hearts of men for many years to come.