For us horror fanatics, we make it a point to seek out every single movie listed on our favorite director’s IMDb page. Sometimes, we don’t like what we see. Whether it’s John Carpenter’s Ghost of Mars or Wes Craven’s Deadly Friend (minus awesome “basketball to the head” death) – sometimes we’d just rather forget these titles littered our Masters’ filmographies. Well, distance makes the heart grow fonder, and I’m here to pinpoint at least two titles worth a second look. They might not be such sore spots on a director’s resume after all! Remember, critics and fans alike dismissed Carpenter’s The Thing as a dud upon release.
Fans are still reeling from the loss of Tobe Hooper. Personally, I remain unable to wrap my head around the loss of both Romero and Craven as well. There are moments I find myself thinking of the possibilities of a Scream 5, only to snap back to reality and realize it’s unlikely to happen without Craven behind the camera. Besides, without him who would want it? Despite the sadness of loss hanging over the legends of horror, today we have an excuse to celebrate. The Maestro, Dario Argento, is turning 77! Anyone who knows me knows Argento is one of my biggest influences. When I was a youngin, I made weekly trips to the mall’s Sam Goody to peruse their horror section. While DVD was a thing, I was still rocking a VCR back at home. And nothing caught my attention more than a thick, black, clamshell VHS from Anchor Bay.
My first introduction to Argento was through the amazingly over-the-top Demons. Granted, Argento only wrote/produced that film, but his name was plastered on the front cover as “Dario Argento Presents”. I was in love from the very first pustule burst. In a lot of ways, it felt familiar to the other 80’s horror I had been devouring. I could see shades of Night of the Demons, but the style and blistering gore were on a level I had yet to experience. The next week, I saw another clamshell calling my name. I noticed the name “Argento” on the box and immediately took my purchase to the front counter. That film was Phenomena. I was wholly unprepared for that night’s viewing.
Phenomena melted my fucking face…for lack of more eloquent wording. It was the first time a film caused me to jump up out of my bed and begin yelling at my TV, “No! NO! Run!” I’d witnessed a woman reacting similarly when I first saw Scream in a theater, but I’d never been driven to the edge of the seat in that same way myself. I realized in that moment of pleading with the girl from Labyrinth to vomit up a pill and flea, the name “Argento” truly meant something special. I watched Phenomena three times that weekend, twice alone and the third time forcing it upon my best friend. A love affair began with his work, and I snatched up every bit of it that I possibly could.
I was lucky to have the chance to meet the man recently at Texas Frightmare. He was there celebrating the 40th anniversary of what most consider his masterpiece, Suspiria. I tend to fluctuate on what I feel is my personal favorite (outside of Suspiria, there’s Phenomena, Deep Red, Tenebre). I’m not someone who gets starstruck at all. I’ve had the opportunity to be in the same room as quite a few “famous folk” and ultimately find them to be…ya know, normal people. When meeting The Maestro, I nearly started crying…nearly. Okay, maybe I shed a couple droplets? When I told him what a huge inspiration he was to me, I’m not sure he fully understood. His English isn’t that great. Nonetheless, it was a brief yet monumental moment for me. It was pretty much the coolest thing ever. That is, until the day I get flown to Rome to work on his newest script. Ahh, dream logic, right? While we may have lost several Masters of Horror in recent years, I’m so happy that today we can still celebrate the birth of Dario Argento.
In honor of his special day, I wanted us to focus on a couple of films that might be worth a revisit by fans. I’ve decided to pick something from the director’s heyday and one selection that’s a bit more recent. There are many who consider Opera to be his last great film. “Bollocks,” say I! Full Disclosure: from Argento’s massive filmography there are only three films that I simply don’t like. I mean, at least The Card Player, a somewhat stale procedural, is better than most episodes of something like CSI.
Easily the most underrated of Argento’s filmography, Sleepless is a full tilt homage to the director’s own work. While it certainly doesn’t feel as “fresh” as Gialli from the sub-genre’s golden era, it packs in some breathtaking set-pieces that make the film warrant “undiscovered gem” status. Despite this feeling like a Giallo through and through with a convoluted plot, each kill presented with operatic staging, and a lead who just barely remembers the one detail that will crack the case, Sleepless still manages to bare the marks of a film produced in the post-Scream horror landscape. The first scenes almost feel like Argento’s skewed way of trying to one up Wes Craven. There’s the raspy voiced killer taunting our victim on the telephone, only instead of one Drew Barrymore, we get two prostitutes. It all culminates with the type of suspenseful chase that slasher fans dream of.
While the film might reach its peak early on, there are plenty of trademark Argento flourishes that keep it a fun ride from beginning to end. The stylistic standout is an amazing tracking shot along the aisles of a theater during intermission that culminates in quite a gruesome discovery. Plus, you get Max von Sydow in an uncharacteristically subdued performance. I can’t understand why this film hasn’t begun to build up its following. Availability could be an issue. I know Arrow UK has polished the film up for Blu-ray, but the US has been stuck with the cruddy full frame, slightly edited, Artisan DVD since the film’s initial release. Lucky for us, rumor has it that Scorpion Releasing is planning to rectify that issue in the near future.
Here’s the deal. I’m sure most fans of the director’s work have seen this quasi-followup to Suspiria. The problem is, if you’re like me, you saw Suspiria, were blown away by it and then realized there was a sequel. You were all, “What? Argento made a sequel to Suspiria? I have to see it, like, right now!” And so you did. You tracked down a copy of Inferno and were hypnotized by the gorgeous underwater photography (scenes rumored to have been directed by Lamberto Bava). You then noticed the score by English composer Keith Emerson was…not Goblin. After about twenty minutes into the film your excitement likely waned, and by the time a hot dog stand chased a character down to a lake, you had likely given up any hope of Inferno matching the excellence of Suspiria. Now that the initial disappointment is out of the way, go back and see it again!
Trust me. When I first saw Inferno I barely made it to the end credits. The second time I saw it, I did NOT make it to the end credits. I finally revisited the film after many years, not too long ago. I’ve got to say, it’s a damn fine work of art. I think the general disdain for Inferno comes part and parcel with the built in expectations set by following Suspiria. Naturally, nothing can live up to to the experience of witnessing Suspiria for the first time. Argento and his then wife, Daria Nicolodi, even manage to take the relative narrative incoherence of the previous film and shove it into a wood burning stove. This movie is balls to the walls phantasmagoric imagery with only the barest thankful bits of voice over to help string us from scene to scene. Despite the lack of any real narrative structure, Inferno succeeds by unleashing one gloriously photographed nightmare scenario after the other onto the audience. If it’s been awhile since you checked this out, go into it with an open mind. View the tale of Mater Tenebrarum as its own thing separate from Suspiria. There’s some genuine skin crawling stuff here just waiting to be rediscovered.
Also Worth A 2nd Look: Do You Like Hitchcock, Masters of Horror: Pelts
While Argento’s latest filmography might not reach the soaring heights of his early output, I think there’s a lot more to mine than the usual suspects. Besides, I’m still excited by the prospect he may one day soon step behind the camera again. Plus, we have Synapse’s amazing looking restoration to look forward to by year’s end. I know I’ve preordered my Blu-ray.
We salute you, Argento. Happy Birthday, Maestro! What are you favorite underrated or overlooked Argento flicks?
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