Dario Argento is something of a living legend. His unique images of violent surrealism and darkest horror have influenced and scared the crap out of an entire generation of international filmmakers and filmgoers, at least those enough in the know to seek out his sometimes hard-to-find works. Such works as “Suspiria,” “Deep Red Hatchet Murders,” and “Tenebræ,” have visibly left their indelible mark on film, and his startling, symbol-rich style has filtered into mainstream consciousness through the works of such directors as Sam Raimi and Wes Craven.
When I took the train down to San Jose to meet director Argento at this year’s Cinequest film festival, where he was to be honored with a special tribute, something unexpectedly macabre occurred; the train hit and killed a pedestrian crossing the tracks. As the train sat stopped while emergency services arrived, the conductor made an unusually blasé statement about how the coroner was on their way, and that the train would be moving again soon, because the body was still in one piece — thus it shouldn’t take them very long to deal with the problem.
When I first sat down with Argento, I informed him about the accident, and told him that I thought even more remarkable than the fatality itself were the uncaring reactions of the passengers. “What place do horror films have,” I asked him, “In a world where we are constantly exposed to images of death and horror? How do you scare people anymore? How do you shock them?”
“People are the same,” he told me. He mentioned that he once witnessed a stabbing many years ago on the street, and that despite the many people around, no one reacted. “Nobody cares. Nobody.”
“Horror film is not showing the reality,” he went on, and pointed out that he doesn’t consider himself only a director of horror, but of many genres. His films, he said, were not meant to be reflections of real life, but something deeper. They’re about “Something in your soul,” he said, “your ancestral fear, the fear you don’t remember. But I try to remember for you, the audience.” He recalled the fear that one feels as a child, frightened by noises in the dark when alone in bed at night. “These films are similar to a dream — not reality — to a nightmare. It’s another dimension, the dimension of film.”
“So your job,” I asked, “is basically recreating people’s nightmares for them on screen?”
“Mine,” he said, referring to his own dark dreams. “My nightmares are not the usual nightmares.” He related a process whereby he would sometimes concentrate in order to recall man’s oldest fears, the kind of fears that seize us by the throat when we look out into the unknowable blackness of night. “Why are you scared by the dark? Because your ancestors are scared by the dark,” he explained, mentioning the nocturnal predatory creatures from which primitive man must have cowered while huddled around a campfire. “I try to speak with your soul.”
The images in his films are based purely upon his own visions, and he has thus never been attracted to commercial projects. “When you are a film director, all your life you make the same film,” he declared, noting that although the trappings of each film might be different, that each time it’s really “the same story.” He gave as an example the fact that the style and personality of great directors are so strong, that you only need watch for a single minute to recognize their unique stamp upon a given work. Yet as to the nature of his own signature ideas and images, he feels that he cannot analyze his own films, that any such attempt on his part would be insincere.
He is also much less interested in shooting the film than writing it. He is happiest “at the moment when the idea comes,” and prefers the solitude of pure story creation. For Argento, writing, designing, and storyboarding the film is the best part of filmmaking, while being on the set actually makes him somewhat unhappy. “Shooting it is not the same, because you have lots of collaborators,” he complained. “The film is in my mind.”
“Remember, Alfred Hitchcock, for most of his films, he never went to the set.” He described how Hitchcock stayed at home for much of the filming of ‘Psycho,’ because the film was already completely storyboarded. Hitch only reluctantly appeared when Janet Leigh insisted that he be on set. Although Argento doesn’t shun the set, clearly, he would if he could.
Argento grew up around film. His father was a producer, his grandfather was a distributor at the beginning of the century, and Argento began his own career as a movie critic for an Italian newspaper. He described the how lucky he was to grow up in the midst of the revolutionary film movement of the late ’60s. He would go to the movies at least three times a week, and sit through every film twice in order to gain a deeper understanding of the works. Argento got an early lucky break when Sergio Leone recruited him, based upon appreciation of Argento’s film critique, to help script the brilliant “Once Upon a Time in the West.” Argento collaborated on the work alongside another future film artist of note, Bernardo Bertolucci. Leone’s great talent, Argento recalled, was to recognize ability in other people, and that he especially liked to work with new, young talent. Argento directed his first feature only two years after working with Leone.
“People are too influenced by the films of the last 15 years,” in which the horror stories are centered around laughable monsters. “I think audiences have had enough. They want films for adults.” While irony is fine, he said, laughter isn’t the reaction he seeks to generate in his own works. He wants audiences to be truly scared. He called “The Blair Witch Project” a “bizarre film” because of its deliberately poor technical quality, and that’s its success springs from the fact that mainstream audiences had never seen a film with such an æsthetic, as well as the fact that some people confused it with reality. He noted that it wasn’t a big success in Europe.
Independent, underground and experimental films are very important, he said, because, “you learn more things from these films than the entire ‘Star Wars’ saga. ‘Star Wars’ is nothing; it’s like a soap bubble — it’s empty inside.”
This attitude goes a long way to explain why he has never made a big-budget film. In addition to directing, he is typically the writer and producer of all of his films. “I was asked many times to do films in Hollywood. I like Los Angeles, I have lots of friends.” Yet he refuses to make a film any other way. “I do films small. But I’m happy in my dimension.”
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