Dario Argento. Once there was a time when you could utter these two words and people knew you meant business. In a career spanning decades (and still going), having directed 20 films, Argento became the bar that all foreign (and some domestic) horror films would have to strive for. He was a visionary, he pushed the boundaries of high art married with high horror, something Mario Bava or Lucio Fulci were capable of. Not to say that there isn’t a place for what Bava and Fulci gave to the world, it’s just…ya know…different. Invoking the name of Dario Argento (I originally dropped the first name but didn’t want anyone to confuse Dario for his daughter Asia, who is also very active in film), used to really mean something, it used to make the hairs stand on the back of your neck as you recalled the barb-wire pit in SUSPIRIA (which I still hold that the pit ‘o’ syringes in SAW II was inspired by that particular scene in SUSPIRIA), or give you goosebumps as you recall the decapitation from DEEP RED. However, nowadays you say his name and most under thirty wouldn’t know who you’re talking about, the rest—if any—have probably seen his current films and not the films he made when he was riding high in the 70s and 80s. This is unfortunate because his current films…how to say this nicely…suck, and I’m not just making a vampire pun because his latest film is DRACULA 3D (that’s right, even the guy in a class of his own has broken down and bowed before the 3D gods. Goddamnit), it’s because his recent films DO suck, and they just get worse with each new film (his next is called THE SANDMAN). What a difference 10 years make.
This makes me sad, my high school years were all about Argento, but that was the long, long, ago, in the before times. Before what? Before DVD, of course. So when you live where I live and rely on finding VHS copies of foreign horror films, you can imagine that it isn’t easy. That was also before the mass exodus to the internet, so I was pretty isolated with my love for Argento, but also having one hell of a time getting my hands on anything in his filmography. Without the internet to aid me, I had to rely on issues of Fangoria past and present, to find out what I needed to know, but it wasn’t until DVD got big that I was finally able to begin (and as of a year ago, completed) my Argento collection. But in high school I had to take it where I could find it, and they were few and far between on VHS, and even if you found one, it was usually the edited American version that cuts out not just the good stuff, but entire scenes of dialogue might go missing.
It was kind of like a treasure hunt back then. Since this was before the internet was really popular this meant no trailers to tell if I would like the movie, and no warning whether the movie was awful (INFERNO, for example), so when I’d go home with my new Argento and immediately pop it into the VCR, I had no guarantee that if it’d be the awesomeness of OPERA, or the stinky pile of crap that was THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (interesting note on this, Argento really wanted to make a film version of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, but they wouldn’t give him the rights to the book by Gaston Leroux, so instead he made his own film called OPERA with a similar storyline. Well OPERA was great, one of his best. Fast forward several years and suddenly he gets the rights and makes THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA starring the Warlock (Julian Sands) as the Phantom, and it is just plain awful).
Slightly off topic from Argento, but it relates to VHS tapes. Lucio Fulci made a movie back in the early 80s called THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY (which is a damn fine horror film), well back then movies came on separate reels, so when they were doing the VHS transfer, they accidentally got the reels out of order and didn’t notice. So a lot of people owned a copy of THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY that made little sense because a lot of the scenes were out of continuity.
In a way, I wish I was younger, so that when I was of obsessively-watching-horror-movies age I had a larger, more obscure selection to choose from. Everything is on DVD now, and so much easier to find than tracking down VHS copies of obscure films. However, in another way, I’m glad I was born when I was, because it meant my horror education began for many years in the mainstream (NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, HELLRAISER, HALLOWEEN, etc.), so I got the basics at an early age. Then, in (I think) 1999 DVD horror movies that weren’t as mainstream were being released, some for the first time. I’d go into a store and it was like a little piece of heaven. What I can’t find, I can order off of a specific web page catering to that film alone, or some big outfit like Amazon.
Back to Dario Argento, his movies nowadays may not be very good, but I still own them, I still love Dario Argento, and his filmography. The quality of SUSPIRIA, or TENEBRAE more than make up for TRAUMA or DO YOU LIKE HITCHCOCK?. But it’s impossible to not admit that he is slipping in his old age (74 years, and hopefully man more to come). In fact, when I saw DRACULA 3D (obviously NOT in 3D) I couldn’t believe my eyes “This is Dario Argento?” I kept asking myself. I felt like someone was playing a cruel trick on me and had switched DRACULA 3D for any of the 100s of Dracula movies out there. Come on, a garlic laced bullet does the trick? Goddamnit Dario Argento, were you drunk or asleep at the wheel when that part got filmed. I find it highly unlikely that at least one person on the production end voiced their concern. But alas, DRACULA 3D is what it is, boring and crappy.
However, I can’t end this there, have to end it on a high note, because it’s what Dario Argento deserves. I’m always finding myself inspired by his movies, new ways to shoot my own films, lights, colors, performances. Argento is a huge influence on me as a filmmaker. When compared to Mario Bava or Lucio Fulci (the other two of the Big Italian Three), his filmography is the high water mark. The artistry and vision of that man is just…wow.
I also wanted to just point out that this article was actually supposed to be a review of the film DEMONS, which Argento produced and Mario Bava’s son, Lamberto Bava, directed. I wanted to start by saying a few words about Dario Argento, but it turns out I had a lot more than a few words. So I’ll write about DEMONS (and its sequel DEMONS 2) in the next few days.