Dario Argento's Blood on the Walls
Issue #61, September 2002
The fifteen motion pictures produced by Italian film-maker Dario Argento over the last thirty-five years have given me a substantial and prolonged degree of "guilty pleasure." Yet they have simultaneously forced me to engage with feelings and address ideas that I would otherwise prefer to avoid or ignore.
To watch them is to encounter such graphic events as these: A man falls down an empty elevator shaft while his hands smoke as they drag along the hanging cable. A woman collapses into a room filled with barbed wire that tears her flesh apart as she struggles to extricate herself. A young man is held forcibly in place as an imperious woman jams a red high-heeled shoe into his mouth. A woman's car accidentally hits a truck while, in slow motion, a piece of metal crashes through the windshield and decapitates her. Attempting to drown a bag full of cats in Central Park, a crippled man slips and is subsequently gnawed by rats, only to have an anonymous man appear and hack him to death with a cleaver. A homicidal rapist assaults a prostrate woman and weaves a razor blade in and out of his mouth with his tongue, threatening to cut her flesh before he kills her.
As these striking scenes suggest, there is a disappearing line between realism and hallucination in Argento films. His friend, renowned horror director George Romero, said "I don't think he's the kind of guy that dots the I's or crossed the T's." Explicit motivation plays only an occasional role in his plots, and characters behave on the basis of dramatic convenience when their actions possess any deliberate cause at all. Argento has observed, "We don't solve mysteries in real life. Why should we do it in films?"
Abandonment of ascertainable causality in Argento plots extends to their physical settings. Mostly anonymous urban environments, they possess an unsettling atmosphere such that the most peculiar actions emerge as nothing extraordinary. Magic and the mundane coexist without collision. Even the visual design stretches the boundaries of the conventional. Argento commonly indulges in a palette of bold, primary colors and frequently lets brash red or blue gels transform his characters' features into comic strip-like visages. His camera's point of view has a virtual mind of its own. Images are rarely stable. The director's mobile perspective weaves its way through physical settings in a manner no human eye could emulate, roving over roofs, across ceilings, and even through a door's keyhole as it accompanies a bullet's path to penetrate a character's eye and pass out the back of his head.
For all their admirable qualities, Argento's films can be repulsive and flat-out mind-numbing. Argento possesses little interest in the petty details of our daily lives, but lavishes all the technical powers at his command to create cruel and audacious images of extinction. "I like when people are disgusted, because it means you've made an impression on them. A deep impressio" It is hard not to be disturbed by an image like in Tenebrae (1982) when a woman's hand is severed and the arterial spray from it splatters a blank white wall, a kind of sanguinary action painting. Or when, in Opera (1987), a flock of ravens swoop down upon a man and peck out his eye, after which one of the birds pokes at the ambulatory organ as it rolls about on the floor.
Argento has routinely been dismissed as a mindless misogynist, although he torments both genders in his films. He does little to allay criticism when he blithely asserts, "I like women, especially beautiful ones. If they have a good face and figure, I would much prefer to watch them being murdered than an ugly girl or man." The truth of the matter is that Argento is an equal opportunity abuser, both of his characters and his audience. No one enters the zone of his imagination without emerging unscathed.
Argento was born into the film industry. His father was a public relations executive at Unitalia, the government organization that promoted cinema export, and his mother was a popular photographer of film personalities. Uninterested in higher education, Argento sought employment as a film critic following high school graduation. He gained access to the industry when he co-wrote the screen story for Sergio Leone's masterpiece Once Upon A Time In The West (1968), along with the celebrated director Bernardo Bertolucci. This led Argento to write a number of screenplays in a variety of genres before his first film, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, was released in 1969.
A box office success, the film typifies the popular Italian genre known as the giallo film. Named for the yellow covers of popular paperback crime novels, the form combines the customary elements of a detective story with operatically excessive serial killings. It can be traced to the pioneering Italian genre director, Mario Bava (1914-80). His ground-breaking 1964 feature Blood and Black Lace pays a kind of flat-footed attention to its blackmail plot set in a fashion salon, but lavishes a painterly dedication to detail on the mechanics of carnage during a number of brutal murders. Police assigned to the case fail to solve the crimes, which only come to an end when the perpetrators kill one another in a fit of jealousy. For Bava, social routine is void of interest. Only the most lethal expressions of human nature merit his attention and artistic focus.
Argento similarly feigns interest in the daily lives of average individuals. There are very few families in his films. Most characters exist in atomistic isolation from one another, connected by acts of violence or memories of past injuries. In the feature films that followed — Bird With The Crystal Plumage, Cat O'Nine Tails (1970) and Four Flies On Grey Velvet (1971) — Argento did not elaborate the giallo formula so much as up the ante in criminal excess, making his killings more elaborate and visually sumptuous.
This direction culminated in his first major work, Deep Red (1975). Starring David Hemmings of Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966), it shares with earlier films a fascination with the vicissitudes of visual perception. Hemmings's character observes a vicious axe slaying, but afterwards cannot recall a crucial detail about the crime scene. This focus on cognition and the unreliability of memory can be traced back to Sergio Leone, whose spaghetti westerns frequently incorporated some past event whose impact upon the characters was not clarified until the final scene; for example, the meaning of Charles Bronson's harmonica in Once Upon A Time In The West. Leone uses the device to tie up the messy pieces of his convoluted plots, whereas in Argento's hands the practice amounts to yet one more demonstration of life's unavoidable instability and chaos. Even if we can understand the events in our lives, the realization we arrive at is at best shocking. and at worst lethal.
The fundamental inexplicability of existence led Argento temporarily to abandon the giallo form for his next two features, Suspiria (1976) and Inferno (1980). Here, supernatural forces behind the mayhem, malign female deities that manipulate laws of physical nature in order to dominate and destroy the lives of protagonists. Stepping outside the framework of causal logic allowed Argento to unleash the depths of his imagination. Sequences in these films drift from one to another like some kind of fevered hallucination. Death can come literally out of nowhere, without warning or discernable motive. Even the very elements appear to possess sinister properties. In Inferno water demonstrates no cleansing properties, but often conceals evidence of the activities of diabolic agents. At one point, a female character has to lower herself into an underground pool in order to locate a lost key, only to uncover rotting corpses and the drifting evidence of some former inhabitants. The plot lines of both Suspiria and Inferno resemble macabre variants of fairy tales without a happy ending. Protagonists seem child-like innocents who survive less by skill or superior knowledge, rather more by the whims of fate. Evil may be temporarily quelled in these films, but little sense of closure comforts the audience.
Deep Red and the two films that followed also initiated a striking musical dimension into Argento's work. The prolific composer Ennio Morricone had scored his first three pictures, but Argento turned to the Italian rock ensemble Goblin. Their insinuating themes incorporate elements outside the realm of the traditional soundtrack. Simple yet sophisticated melodies employ a variety of distinctive sounds: bells, drums, screams, disturbing whispers, and electronically modified material. The ominous presence of Goblin's work barrages an audience acoustically as well as visually; the music plays virtually non-stop and at deafening volumes. Argento drew on heavy metal to accentuate what he felt to be some of the more brutal elements in his narratives, as well as music from Brian Eno and Phillip Glass.
The bulk of Argento's films over the last two decades have been in the giallo mold, although he returned to the combination of supernatural and human horror in Phenomena (1984). This nearly unwatchable stew of disparate elements tossed together paranormal communication with insects, a predatory mass murderer, a razor-wielding ape, and a deformed maniacal child. Opera and Tenebrae, as well as Trauma (1993), The Stendahl Syndrome (1996) and his most recent release Sleepless (2000), are traditional gialli. From the first, Argento has written his own scripts, yet succumbed with dire results to the temptation of literary adaptation. He drafted various themes from Edgar Allan Poe in his section of Two Evil Eyes, a feature he co-directed with George Romero in 1989, and released a disastrous version of Gaston Leroux's famous Phantom of the Opera (1998).
Considering the number of times he has used a generic model, one can argue that Argento is either notably consistent in his repetition of themes or notably uninventive. Whatever the case, he has unquestionably embellished a particular corner of the horror genre. Argento's films are popular across the globe, yet seldom receive critical or commercial plaudits in the United States. Nothing since Suspiria has been released widely. Until recently, even when Argento's movies were available on videotape or other formats, the contents were routinely altered. Americans had to turn to the black market to obtain bootlegs of the European prints if they wanted to view Argento's original work.
Tenebrae and Autobiography
Tenebrae, recently released in a DVD version, embodies the best of the director and evidences that he is not simply a feckless purveyor of cheap thrills and gory effects. The protagonist is a crime novelist, Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa), who might be regarded as a stand-in for Argento as a purveyor of similar scenarios. Neal's work instigates a spree of vicious killings in Rome, where the writer is on a book tour. The culprit leaves torn-out pages of his inspiration as evidence. Argento begins the film with a voice-over reading from Neal's book: "The impulses had become irresistible. There was only one answer to the fury that tormented him. And so he committed his first act of murder. He had broken the most deep-rooted taboo and found not guilt, not anxiety or fear, but freedom. Every humiliation that stood in his way could be swept away by the simple act of annihilation: murder."
This equation of liberation with annihilation points to Argento's repeated argument that his films do not engage in senseless violence, but instead liberate inhibited domains of human imagination. However, that equation becomes ever more complicated when the killings continue after the murderer is killed, and Neal proves to be not only the culprit of that crime but others as well. He skillfully uses the cover of the mass killings to exterminate his wife and her lover, his editor. The circular logic of the film's plot, where the violator becomes the violated and then transfers his role to another, conveys an uncanny chill. By the final sequence, the words quoted at the start have become more disturbing as they appear to be an autobiographical statement by Neal of his own homicidal psychosis.
It is the manner in which this film coils back upon itself and makes one question the very nature of story-telling and the impact it gains by transgressing expectations that makes Argento worth time and attention. Notwithstanding killer chimpanzees, countless good-looking corpses, and virtual abandonment of motivational complexity, the work of Dario Argento remains with an audience irrespective of their wishes.
In Violence in the Arts, Canadian scholar John Fraser asks "Why it is that some violences seem to make for intellectual clarity and a more civilized consciousness, while others make for confusion?" Argento promotes both conditions. His willful disregard of sensibilities and frequent use of shock for its own sake jolts nervous systems, but little more. On the other hand, the self-reflexive narrative complexities of Tenebrae — which can be found elsewhere, most notably in Opera and The Stendahl Syndrome — confront the manner in which extreme forms of art can overwhelm both those who create and consume them. Fraser suggests that "It is in violent encounters, however, that one is required most obviously to reaffirm or reassess one's own values and to acknowledge the necessity of having as strong and clearly articulated a value-system, as sharply defined a self, as much alertness to others, and as firm a will as possible." Argento lays bare the potentially tenuous nature of that value-system and the threats to it, but equally reinforces that foundation and allows it to continue to exist.