presents... Interesting Motherfucker: (noun)
An individual exhibiting such uniqueness or individuality that he or she will cause a roomful of bar cronies to exclaim, "That's one interesting motherfucker!" Actual sexual relations with one's mother are not required.

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Dario Argento

By Wil Forbis

SPOILER ALERT: You might want to skip the first paragraph if you're really picky about not knowing how movies you haven't seen end.

Let me propose the following movie scenario: a young girl who's just survived a terrible trauma looks up to see the familiar figure of a family friend in the distance. She cries out to him, and he runs towards her. But suddenly, a thin piece of metal sheeting flies onscreen and cleanly decapitates the man's head from his shoulders. The girl screams. A maniacal assailant attacks the young girl with the metal sheet. It appears she is doomed. But wait! Is that a monkey holding a shaving razor that leaps upon the assailant and begins to attack? Why yes, it IS a monkey holding a shaving razor that leaps upon the assailant and begins to attack. As is often the case, the monkey saves the day. The girl is safe. The end credits roll.

I know what you're saying. "Wil, the above mentioned movie scene sounds fantastic, and if it were real, would have to be considered the greatest segment of cinema ever filmed. But there's no way such a scene could actually exist, could it?" Have faith, my friend. The scene does exist, and can be found in the fantabulous "Phenomena" starring a young Jennifer Connelly and directed by Italian horror maestro Dario Argento. And not only did Argento create that segment, but many more like it in his long, illustrious career.

But who is Darío Argento? After 40+ years of directing violent, bloody horror films, Darío Argento is considered by many to be the premier director of Italian horror cinema. His films --- splatter drenched romps through a world populated with psychotic serial killers and strange demonic forces --- have been viewed by millions worldwide. But don't mistake Argento for a mere low-budget exploitation director --- he's an artist! As commented on as the unapologetic brutality of his films is their beauty: the lush settings, the classic architecture, and most importantly the vibrant colors and picturesque framing. When you see a nubile young woman with bright red lipstick get a razor blade across her jugular, part of you is thinking, "this is beautiful" because it's always nice to see the kind of chicks that ignored you high school get what's coming to them, but another part of you is thinking "this is beautiful" because it really is beautiful. Like one of his key influences, Hitchcock, Argento is known for doing whatever it takes to get the perfect shot.

I was first exposed to Argento's work about 10 years ago when a friend of mine introduced me to the world of Italian horror films in general. These were, he promised me, movies quite removed from American counterparts like "Friday the 13th" or "The Exorcist." These films took everything to the next level: the gore, the labyrinthine plots, the nudity. And there were three standout directors he made a point of mentioning: Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento. My curiosity whetted, I began exploring their work. I found Bava's movies quite solid, especially his noir-ish black-and-white "The Girl Who Knew Too Much," but low on shock value*. With Fulci I had almost the opposite reaction --- he could deliver stomach turning, maggot dripping gore with the best of them, but his plots seemed so absurd it was hard to take his films seriously. And then there was Argento...

* In fairness, my initial reaction to Bava's work was mistaken. He's famous for quite a number of films shocking in their brutality and viscera.

To my vague recollection (keep in mind this was 10 years ago, and most of my brain has been destroyed by drugs and alcohol) the first Argento film I saw was "Suspira." It's perhaps his most commented work, but I'm not sure it's an ideal introduction to his movies. "Suspira" is an homage to the surreal, offering a barely coherent narrative about a young dancer stalked spiritual forces. Some of the frames are stunning in their beauty, but the story itself is unsatisfying.

However, I didn't let "Suspira" stop me cold. I tracked down some of Argento's more cohesive works, Hitchcockian thrillers considered part of the Italian Giallo* genre. These movies focused on stories of a masked or hidden killer stalking victims (usually attractive young women) in a shadow ensconced city (usually Rome.) Heavily steeped in Freud's theories of repressed emotions, the killer usually has some dark event in his (or her) past. And, ultimately, the killer is usually revealed to be a character we have already been introduced to. Argento's first several movies were considered part of the Giallo class, and many believe his 1975 film, the terrific "Deep Red" is the greatest Giallo ever made.

* "Giallo," Italian for yellow, was first a genre of pulp fiction novels. The term refers to the fact that the pages of these throwaway books quickly yellowed.

Sticklers might argue that Giallo films aren't really horror; they might belong in the "thriller" category. For a film to truly be a horror film, it needs an element of the fantastic --- ghosts, zombies, vampires etc. Argento has made many films in this category. The aforementioned "Suspira" is one, as well as 1985's "Phenomena" about a teenage girl who can control insects. Argento also collaborated with director George Romero on the zombie classic "Dawn of the Dead" (released in Europe as "Zombi.")

Everyone's got their favorite Argento movies. The following are what I consider to be some of his standouts.

There's a particular kind of creepiness to be found in the best Italian horror flicks, and this slasher tour de force has it in spades. Before several murders, a jarring children's song is heard. The faces staring out of artist portraits turn out to be more than one might expect. A completely unexpected robot doll attacks the protagonist. "Deep Red" stops just before it's about to descend into "Suspira's" surrealism and as a result delivers both mindbending eeriness and a clever whodunit.

Like "Deep Red" 1982's "Tenebrae" is definitive Giallo. It begins with American author of crime fiction, Peter Neal, traveling to Rome, arriving just in time for a series of murders possibly inspired by his books. To further complicate matters, he suspects that his crazy fiancé, supposedly still back in the United States, is stalking him. The twist ending, even if you see it coming, it still quite delicious. And, thanks to several axe and knife murders, the body count is quite high.

I actually first saw this film in the form of its American release entitled "Creepers" but the original Argento cut is far superior. Set around a Swiss girls boarding school, teenaged Jennifer Corvino, daughter of a famous American movie star, arrives six months after the onset of a series of brutal murders. When her roommate is killed, she teams up with the local paralyzed entomologist (played by Donald Pleasence) to track down the killer. It might seem like she's outgunned, but Jennifer has one trick up her sleeve --- she can control the actions of swarms of insects!

Dario's daughter, Asia, has become a famous actress in her own right. (Perhaps her greatest accomplishment: being highlighted as one of acid logic's unappreciated babes.) She started out in her father's films, and 1983's "Trauma" is one of their strongest pairings. Asia, at the time, 18, plays a waifish bulimic who attracts the affections of a handsome former drug addict. Unfortunately, early in the film, both her parents are murdered by a serial killer who uses a strange automated garrotte to literally saw victim's heads off. The body count continues to rise, and in classic Giallo form the story takes numerous (and what some might call absurd) twists and turns.

It's something of a cliché for fans of a creative talent to consider his or her early work superior to what comes in later years. The narrative is either that the artist "sells out" to the establishment or simply loses the dynamic creativity of youth. Argento is no different -- longtime fans have criticized much of his work post-2000 (or even earlier.) I think they're full of shit. 2004's "The Card Player" about a serial killer who kidnaps young women and offers their lives as bouties in a series of online poker games the killer plays with the police was a terrific Giallo. And in 2005, Argento embraced his love of Hitchcock with the made-for-Italian-television whodunit, "Do You like Hitchcock?" The movie, about a young man tracking down a neighbor's murderer, cleverly references numerous scenes and plots from classic Hitchcock films.

Argento is still active. He's filmed several segments for Showtime's "Masters of Horror" television show. He's directed two recent movies (which I haven't seen): "The Mother of Tears" (2007) "Giallo" (2009) and is currently involved in a Dracula" remake.

A number of themes recur in Argento's work. I've mentioned their unapologetic violence and brutality (something that can be found in Italian horror in general.) However, it's a brutality distinct from what might be found in American films such as "Hostel" or "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (original and remakes), all of which I loved. Those American films tend to put the audience member in the head of the victim being tormented by the villain. Argento's films take a much more disinterested view --- they aren't really in the mind of the killer or the victim, but rather some ethereal third party --- the eye of the universe, you could say. And the implicit argument seems to be that the "universe" is not particularly shocked at people being decapitated, gutted or disemboweled. Rather, that's simply the way things are.

American films also tend to clearly delineate between good and evil. Argento films (and, again, Italian cinema in general) see the world in vaguer terms. A particular Giallo film comes to mind in which the protagonist --- the very hero you've been rooting for to solve the murders -- turns out to be the killer. Good becomes evil. Furthermore, many of the villains are not powered by easy-to-despise evil intentions (as say, are a Michael Meyers or Freddy Krueger), but rather a tormented form of madness that makes them almost sympathetic. (Is this an attempt on Argento's part to understand, and perhaps even excuse, the behavior of his native Italy, a country that followed Adolf Hitler into war?) Also, in many cases, when the hero finally defeats the villain, there's no real catharsis; the protagonists' lives have been destroyed, their friends are all dead. You wouldn't really blame them if they picked up a shotgun and blew their head off right then and there. In Argento's films, good doesn't always defeat evil; sometimes it simply holds it at bay. (And sometimes, frankly, it just plain loses.)

It's this rather cynical view --- this withholding of moral judgment --- that ultimately makes Argento's films genuinely disturbing. Any director with a budget can realistically render scenes of knives piercing breasts or elevators decapitating heads. But if there is no meaningful narrative behind such scenes, no "philosophy" if you will, they are quickly forgotten. When you view Argento's montages of mayhem, you can't help but suspect that while filming them, a smile crossed his face. And that's really scary.

Wil Forbis writes many strange and amusing things for a variety of top secret organizations like Entertainment Weekly.

View Wil's Acid Logic web log!

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Deep Red by Darío Argento

Additional Argento stuff:
Argento at wikipedia:
Nice overview of his career

Masters of Horror feature at YouTube
Interviews with Argento and other film directors about his career.

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