I’m a huge fan of Dario Argento. Well, let me amend that statement: I am a huge fan of Argento’s work through 1987’s Opera (AKA Terror at the Opera). In my opinion, his work generally took a downturn at that point until just recently with his two Masters of Horror films, Jenifer (2005) and Pelts (2006) as well as 2007’s Mother of Tears: The Third Mother. It seems he may be on an upswing again, which is terrific, because I truly love his early work and have been pleased with much of his 21st century output.
I ran across James Gracey’s book, published by Kamera Books, in a magazine and was intrigued, but also wary. One of my biggest complaints with filmmaker biographies or books on a particular director’s films is that oftentimes they are written by a fanboy. I don’t mind fanboys, but they aren’t always very objective about their chosen subject which seems to make them less credible. If nothing else, it’s irritating to read a fanboy’s gushing prose about a project that you know was a complete train wreck; at worst, it destroys any respect one may have for the writer or his/her ideas.
So it was that I plunged into Gracey’s Dario Argento with interest as well as a little bit of trepidation, hoping I hadn’t wasted $15 on something I wouldn’t like. Gracey covers all of Argento’s films in chronological order, including his one foray outside of the mysterious, The Five Days of Milan. Included are his two television projects (produced strictly for Italian audiences, although Door Into Darkness is now available in a poor-quality DVD). While Gracey is obviously an Argento-phile he is also well-versed in the critical analysis of films and doesn’t come across as just another gushing fan.
The book begins with a mini-biography of Argento as well as a brief overview of the history and general themes along with the various criticisms that have been leveled at Argento and is filmic work. Included in this informative essay is a short history and explanation of giallo films (which is most likely a bit redundant for most people reading a book on Argento), a brief explanation of how art has affected Argento’s life and career, particularly the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, a short section addressing the claims of misogyny in Argento’s films, and a brief commentary addressing the extreme violence that tends to permeate his films. The essay ends with a short summary of some of the big names in film today that have been influenced by Argento, arguing for the "Garlic Hitchcock’s" relevancy over four decades after his directorial debut.
The comments on each film are divided into separate sections which begin with the major credits for each film, date of production, some of the more common alternate titles for the film, and a brief synopsis. This is followed by a section entitled "Background", which describes how each film was developed and the thinking Argento had as he wrote and directed each film, along with filming locations and general time periods. While this was generally a fairly short section about each film, it was also usually fascinating, describing some of the goings-on that helped shape the film such as which actors and actresses turned down the film or couldn’t participate, the relationship Argento had with various others involved in the project, and studio financing as well as meddling by studio executives.
The next section is comprised on some general comments of the film in discussion followed by what I would consider the ‘meat’ of each discussion, sections on the each film’s style as well as an in-depth discussion of the themes present in each film. While the first sections are interesting and entertaining and contain some fun trivia, the sections on technical style and film themes are where Gracey really shine. Gracey’s discussions about Argento’s camera style, editing techniques and use of color palettes is astute and had me wanting to go back and look at some of the films to catch these techniques that I sometimes missed while being immersed in the film itself. While it wasn’t anything most Argento fans weren’t already aware of–Argento is famous for his use of color, light and shadow, and his incredibly innovative camera angles and shots–I found it informative to have many of these specific scenes highlighted so I could go back and watch the scenes to admire the technique. The trouble with watching Argento–especially early Argento–is that you become so involved in the film that you sometimes completely miss the wonderful techniques being used to manipulate the audience. While that is, of course, exactly what a good director is aiming for, I also find it fun to watch these particular scenes more critically instead of just as a fan.
The section on themes is also informative, although again, many Argento-philes already know a good deal of this information as well. I’ve already mentioned the brief introductory comments on Argento’s seeming misogyny; Gracey continues his discussion throughout this particular section for each film, quoting Argento on his views of misogyny and violence against women in general, pointing out that a good number of the director’s films have strong female protagonists, and also discussing the intriguing notion that Argento has abused, raped and killed all of his real-life lovers as well as both living daughters in his films. This last point has been a particular sore spot for many film critics as well as professional psychologists who argue that Argento has a difficult time dealing with family (he also famously has ended his relationship with his brother/producer Claudio Argento on numerous occasions, although at this time they have reconciled and are actively making films together…again). Other themes include the use of art as a weapon, the idea of voyeurism, the use of funny but strange character quirks, much sexual/phallic imagery, the use of graphic and explicit violence, nonlinear plot elements, and murderers who kill due to some derangement caused by psychic trauma as a child, among others. In fact, and most Argento fans know this piece of trivia as well, the filmmaker typically films the black-gloved hands of the killer slashing, stabbing and strangling his hapless victims using his own hands for these scenes. While Argento claims this is because he knows just how he wants the highly stylised murders filmed, critics often claim it has more to do with Argento’s fractured psyche than merely an expedient filmmaking technique.
The remaining sections include a brief discussion of the musical score for each film and a "verdict", Gracey’s summation of the effectiveness and quality of each film. It is this final section I found to be the most interesting for me for several reasons. First, I was astonished to see that Gracey also mentioned that 1987’s Opera was considered by many fans his last truly great film. I have always felt that way, but not knowing many fans of the director, I had never had that discussion with anyone. In a way, it legitimized my feelings of his work and I have to admit I was happy to read those comments. Secondly, I was also pleasantly surprised to read how closely my feelings for many of the films matched Gracey’s "verdicts". I was especially happy to read the lukewarm reviews for many of Argento’s films of the nineties. Not that I want everyone to dislike those particular films, but again, it somewhat legitimized my feelings. My only real complaint with this section was that I felt like Gracey was a little soft in his negative criticism for some of these films. I mean, 1998’s The Phantom of the Opera is one of the worst films ever to be committed to celluloid, while The Card Player (2003) is so dull it remains the only Argento film I have actually turned off in the middle of the movie. I just couldn’t take it, although it’s still pretty incredible to me that I made it through Phantom of the Opera! But instead of just calling a spade a spade, Gracey feels a need to defend each title somewhat which was a bit annoying to me.
The book ends with a brief discussion of the films Argento has produced, including Lamberto Bava’s Demons and Demons II as well as Michele Soavi’s The Church and The Sect, among several others. The final chapter is a listing of Argento’s scripts that were turned into films by other directors. These were all made in the late sixties, before the master hit it big with his debut directorial effort, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970).
Overall, I was pleased with this book. It is filled with fun and intriguing facts about some of my favorite films as well as some very astute film criticism. Reading this book has made me want to rewatch some of these films and perhaps try to reevaluate some of them. While the author does tend to do some minor sugar-coating for some of the films, his critical analysis is usually dead-on. Recommended.