Dario Argento Dreams Up Your Nightmares
The <i>giallo</i> master dishes on hot monsters, giant TV sets, and the death of film criticism.
Photo by Lele Saveri
Even among his most loyal of fans, there are two common misconceptions about Dario Argento—the director of films such as Tenebrae and Suspiria—and his work. The first is that certain people tend to think he’s postmodern and ironic, while others regard him as a horror director. The problem is that together, both notions add up to a picture that’s pretty much as rotten as the maggot-infested corpses in his movies.
In actuality, he means everything he writes and directs—and everything he writes and directs transcends the horror genre.
I met Dario Argento in Vienna recently, at a screening of his latest picture, Dracula 3D . We talked about hot monsters, giant TV sets, and the death of film criticism. He’s the nicest man you'll ever meet, right after your grandpa.
VICE: You once described the gore effects in your movies as “feasts” in which everything is exaggerated to a degree where realism doesn’t matter anymore.
Dario Argento: Yes, like a mess or church service.
But at the same time I feel that the shock sequences tend to turn on you at a certain moment, all of a sudden becoming all too realistic—almost like horror wrapped in splatter candy, so that it hits you even more unexpectedly. Would you say that's a recipe you follow in your movies?
That’s right. For me, it’s all about transforming something spectacular and baroque into something very precise and cold, like a stab with a knife. First, I want to create opulent beauty—and then kill it off with a stab.
If I had to compare you to any other director, it would probably be David Lynch—and not so much other classic horror movie directors. Do you see parallels between the two of you at all?
Indeed, I have some similarities with David Lynch as far as my poetics are concerned. Not the movies themselves, as they are obviously very different. But our approach to cinema is pretty much the same, yes. We both come from surrealism.
Just like David Lynch, you also use crime story lines, suspense elements, and classic whodunits, but in general, your films depict life as something illogical, even mystical.
Yeah, because I’m most influenced by the great directors of early cinema history—like the German expressionists and the Spanish surrealists. Luis Buñuel and his group have influenced me a great deal.
What is it about surrealism that fascinates you most?
It formed my poetic vision—it helped create my movies—but most of all, it inspired my writing. I’m not only talking about the movies of Buñuel, but the technique of écriture automatique—you just let go and let your brain wander. Sometimes it’s scary, and you don’t understand it yourself until you bring it to the big screen.
You once said you’re always scared when you write, but never when you actually direct your movies.
Exactly. Because the danger lies in exploring and writing, not in executing the takes.
What’s your general reason for writing? Why do you keep going?
I started writing as a young boy. First, I wrote fairy tales. It was a necessity for me—something from deep inside. I guess it’s because I love to tell stories. One day, I took a screenplay my father had lying around, and I studied it. I wanted to learn the basics of how you tell stories for cinema. Then, I started writing screenplays myself at a pretty early stage of my career too. That’s my path. It’s very direct. Very simple, actually.
And you never thought about writing anything other than movies—novels, for example?
No, no. I like movies. Romantic and gothic horror stories didn’t interest me much.
If you had to break down the whole of movie history to one genre, which one would that be?
I really can’t say, because I love all kinds of movies. I follow everything that happens in the world of cinema; I love all cinematic works. Actually, I go with Jean-Luc Godard, who said that every feature, no matter how horrible, has this one special moment when the camera goes off the beaten tracks and the actors go wild and, very simply put, magic happens. It’s good to watch everything, because there’s importance and meaning in everything. That’s pretty much my idea of cinema.
Speaking of magic, your masterpiece Four Flies on Grey Velvet got a fantastic Blu-ray release pretty recently—which is almost like magic in and of itself.
Yeah, I’ve watched the Blu-ray; it’s really a work of art. I’m especially glad that it did make it back on the market, given the history of the film’s distribution and that it had completely vanished from the market.
What do you think of Blu-rays and home cinema? Does it complement your movies?
I think it’s great! It’s important that movies are in circulation and that the people are watching them. Doesn’t really matter if it’s at home or on the big screen. Actually, TV sets have become fairly big screens themselves.
So you’re not one of those purists who feel that you can’t really have the whole experience if you don’t watch it in cinemas?
No, that doesn’t apply to me at all. No.
Photo by Hanna Pribitzer / Filmfestival
In an older interview with VICE, you mentioned that film criticism is a dying art—and that it has been replaced by mere reviews that give you the plot and the cast and that’s it. Why do you think that’s the case?
Criticism has indeed become synonymous with reviewing movies. I have no idea why. Maybe because newspapers and modern-day media have a totally different style and deliver shorter, quicker pieces than they used to. Most people who write about cinema are just reporters who happen to go to the movies. It’s not so much about capturing the essence of a film or a director and giving you a theoretical background on his work. But then again, that’s fine with me.
You’re not sad about that?
Well, maybe today’s audiences actually do understand movies better on their own, because they have watched way more of them than former generations. Perhaps they’re fed up with authorities telling them what they have to think about certain works of art.
How important are your fans' opinions to you? Are you more of a crowd pleaser, or is it all about getting the artistic vision across?
Actually, I never think about my audience when I write or direct. I never did. It’s primarily about the story—and sometimes it just happens that my fans like the same things I do.
For me as a fan, I especially loved your work for the TV series Masters of Horror. Your first episode, "Jenifer," is about a sexy nymph with a disfigured face who drives men into dependency. I’ve probably watched it four or five times, each time with different friends—and all of them were shocked by the scene in which Jenifer devours a little child.
Very good! They say everything has been done before, but this shows me that there are still things that can actually get to you—even if you’re young—if they’re done correctly. Such shock scenes are very simple, actually—they appear very naturally in writing screenplays and teleplays, because I myself am inside all my monsters.
How was it for you to work on Masters of Horror, since it was for TV and you had to use their crew?
Upon arriving in the States, the producer told me, “Just go ahead. Do whatever you want. We want to grasp your real nature.” So I was very enthusiastic and, actually, absolutely free. There was no pressure at all. You know, the story originally comes from a 70s comic book. When Steven Weber, our main actor, approached me about his character’s relationship with Jenifer, I told him: “Just imagine someone like her in real life. What would you do? Of course you’d fall in love with her. You’d think everything she does is OK. You just have to love such a monster.”
After listening to the Suspiria soundtrack last night, I realized that the music by the band Goblin is pretty scary in itself, without any pictures at all. Also, it’s very dominant and not the kind of score that just helps the mood of the movie. Why did you pick such a dominant band for the movie?
Because the movie is very special and strange, and it definitely needed something dominant to amplify this strangeness, instead of a soundtrack that just goes along with the images. I was talking a lot to Goblin before postproduction and we worked on the direction of the movie intensely. I love the soundtrack—it’s definitely the best one of all my movies.
You’ve worked with Goblin on a number of other occasions.
Yeah, their music is fantastic, but they’ve still done their best work on Suspiria.
There have been rumors about a remake of Suspiria for about the past five years.
I think there were lots of screenplays, but none seemed to work. Somewhere along the way, they seem to have given up.
You were never contacted by anyone on this?
No, by nobody. Not by the producers, not by the director, nobody. I actually found out via the internet! But then again, it’s probably better this way—I don’t want any part of it.
Last month was the 24th anniversary of Mario Bava’s death—the other big giallo director, besides you. How big an influence was his work for you?
We were like a big family. His son, Lamberto Bava, was my assistant, and Mario himself did the SFX for Inferno. We were always very close, because we liked the same things, the same authors, the same movies. But he obviously went into a totally different direction. I always thought his movies were way too ironic and fantasy-inspired.
The horror genre in general has become a rather postmodern and ironic thing instead of…
…big emotions, yeah.
You’ve been saying that the hope for horror lies in Asia.
Yeah, South Korea, Japan, and Thailand all have incredibly strong, but small, productions—some of them are only on the internet, but they’re very powerful. Also, South America and especially Argentina have a solid horror movie scene.
What is it that Asia and South America do better than Hollywood?
The horror is all psychological there. It gets to you, under your skin, inside your head. Something about the stories touches you at a place you didn’t know you had, and that scares you.
What about Europe? Are there any notable movies in recent memory that you’d recommend?
Well, I loved Amer from Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani. Very interesting. Also, Spain had a very promising scene, but nowadays, sponsorships cease, and the horror movies die off.
Your latest movie, Dracula 3D, follows a pretty rich mythology—unlike Phenomena or Suspiria, where you created a whole new and original universe all by yourself. Why did you choose to do a story with that much tradition?
Sometimes, it’s just fun to watch the classical stuff from a distance, through my very own lens. I did that before, with Phantom of the Opera and Macbeth, where I also went back to established mythologies. It’s also fascinating, for a change—you know, to watch your characters and story lines deviate from the original.
What’s the best question nobody ever asked you before?
Probably why I make movies in the first place.
And what’s the answer to that?
Well, the reason why nobody asked me is because the answer would be too difficult for me, even after all those years.
So you keep going until you find out?
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