Topic: Style Over Substance: The Art of Dario Argento
It's been a while since I've submitted an article but, after some friendly encouragement from Mistress of Horror, I decided to give it another go. And so, without further ado...
Style Over Substance: The Art of Dario Argento
"I like films to have something inside. I don't mean a message, I mean something from the soul." - Dario Argento
Summer of 1986, I was invited by my best friend James Stover to spend the weekend at his place. Upon securing the prerequisite approval from both sets of parents, we ventured to the nearest truck stop and picked up a slew of horror movies. Being that at the time I lived in the small farming community of Arcanum, Ohio, both truck stops and truck stops which rented videos were aplenty.
I'd been watching horror films for years before that point. I grew up on the old Universal classics and had seen a few of the creepier 70s horror flicks in my youth. During my childhood the humorously awful creature features which aired on the local Saturday night horror show, hosted by the delightfully ghoulish Sammy Terry, were my bread and butter. But that weekend, I had no idea what was about to hit me.
The films we watched from Friday to Saturday were varied. Friday the 13th Part 2. Evil Dead 2. Blood Diner. The Toxic Avenger. Terror Train. Psycho 3. Come Sunday morning I was a nervous wreck; I'd never really been exposed to explicit splatter before that except for once, in passing (when I was 9 I had peeked around the corner when my cousin was watching Friday the 13th on Showtime, and the sight of an arrow penetrating Kevin Bacon's throat saw me quickly turn away). We took a brief Nintendo break -- me, to cool my nerves, James, because he was jonesing for some Mike Tyson's Punch-Out -- then watched our last two films.
The first remaining flick was a forgettable sci-fi/horror cheapie which left about as much an impression on me as a feather dropped on granite, thus my inability to remember its title right now. The second movie was some Italian flick called Suspiria. And it pounded me senseless.
I've always considered that weekend to be my first real introduction to the genre. From then on, I was hooked. It didn't matter what it was; the lowest grade-z slasher or the most polished mainstream genre effort. If it was available at one of the numerous mom-and-pop video stores in the area, I'd rent it.
But Argento flicks were few and far between in that little town. It would only be years later, after joining the Army and arriving at my duty station in Hawaii, that I'd find a video store with a broader international selection.
The horror section was teeming with Dario Argento, and the first day I went there I walked out with an arm full of rented videos, many of which were Argento films. I rushed back to my barracks and, under the threat of introducing his teeth to the back of his throat, defied my roommate to bother me while I sat and watched Creepers (aka Phenomena), Opera, Inferno and Tenebre back to back, with the bare minimum of pee breaks in between.
But something curious occurred while watching those films. I noticed that while they were visually brilliant, beautifully violent and used sound and music in such a way as to make them almost seem like characters of their own -- the stories didn't make a whole lot of sense. Lapses in logic, holes in the plot, no sense of cause and effect. Having grown up on mostly American Horror I was accustomed to coherent narratives, story and logical progression. And as I remembered back to watching Suspiria, I realized that one didn't make a whole lot of sense, either.
Thus is the work of Dario Argento. The only exception in my opinion is Tenebre which along with its fluid camera work, hyper-violence, stark red geysers of blood and kinetic synthesizer score, also includes a surprisingly tight story structure, genuine mystery, solid performances and a spectacular yet satisfyingly logical conclusion. To this day Tenebre is my absolute favorite Argento flick, for all these reasons.
But Tenebre is the rare exception in the ouvre of a director whose strengths lie not in his ability to weave a logical tale, but in his ability to boggle your mind with morbid, hallucinatory imagery and senses-shattering aural assaults. Argento films aren't about making sense; they're about beating you to a pulp and looking good in the process.
"Every writer, to some extent, writes about himself." - Dario Argento
The trait of a true artist is when his work is immediately distinguishable from the work of others. While an artist's individual projects may vary from one to another, all tend to incorporate similar themes, nuances, flourishes, ideals. It's why you know a Metallica song when you hear one. Why you know a Picasso when you see one. Why you know a Stephen King book when you read one. And why you know a Dario Argento film when you watch one.
Among Argento's recurring motifs are the illusions one's mind plays on itself; what you see versus what you don't see, interpretation versus fact, perspective versus actuality. Be it David Hemmings' faulty memory in Deep Red, Anthony Franciosa's struggles to solve a misleading murder mystery in Tenebre or the visual trickery experienced by Asia Argento in Trauma, things are rarely what they seem in an Argento flick.
As such, an Argento film is more about the image than the logic, more about the gift wrapping than the present inside. Argento is a painter of fractured nightmares; film is his canvas, the camera is his brush and his imagination is the pallet with all its myriad shades and colors. An Argento film truly is a case of style over substance, but his style is so powerful that in his best films, you find yourself not caring about the logic, instead allowing yourself to go with the visual flow.
In describing his famously kinetic action sequences, Jackie Chan explains it's not about depicting violence; it's about the skill involved, the intricacies of the moves and the emotional effect it has on the viewer. The setpieces are celebrations of themselves. The same can be said for Argento. His films are a showcase of skill, an artist marveling at and reveling in his own ability. The storylines are threadbare because they only exist to tie one setpiece to the next.
"I`ve been lucky enough to have had the luxury of being able to make the picture I`ve wanted to make each time on my own terms and without compromise." - Dario Argento
Say what you will about his films, but Argento's artistic integrity remains his most admirable trait. Most may not like the majority of his films since Opera, widely considered his last "great" film. Most will say he's lost his touch. I admit that despite being a fan, I'm one of them.
But for better or worse, his films are his own. From concept, to screenplay (while he may at times employ others to write the script, he himself supervises every draft and has final approval), to pre-production, to filming and to post-production, the final film is Argento's fractured, nightmare vision realized exactly as he ordains it.
And there aren't a lot of filmmakers out there you can say that about.
"Argento really refined and codified the high end of the body-count spectrum: Everything from 'Halloween' to 'Saw' – movies that launched two of the biggest horror franchises in history – owe Argento big time, from their use of music to the staging of their elaborately constructed murder sequences." - Maitland McDonagh
This quote, as spoken by the author of Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento -- the best book to date on the man and his work, in my opinion -- is testament to Argento's influence on the genre. To say his contributions have been immeasurable would be quite appropriate; he's more than earned his place in genre history.
Like any artist he's had his misfires, which sadly have been more often than not as of late. It's a sign an artist has run out of steam when he resorts to copying himself. But those of us who are fans and know what he's capable of continue to wait patiently, determinedly, in hopes of a return to form. Because while his films may be forgettable when he's off his game, when he's on his game they're uncommonly good -- and in some cases, great.
Even if they don't make much sense.
Last edited by LoudLon (2011-02-15 11:37:02)