Dario Argento: A Dip Into The Inferno
Part of growing up means accepting that artists are imperfect people and that worthwhile art may contain troubling attitudes and politics with which one doesn’t completely agree. Contemporary culture seems to be moving in the exact opposite direction, demanding a kind of perfection from films and filmmakers that, knowing human nature, the people making these demands can’t possibly all live up to. In this climate, it interests me that Italian director Dario Argento retains a large American cult audience. When the New York theater, the Metrograph, premiered the uncut version of his film Suspiria (1977) last July, it kept adding screenings, and they all sold out instantly. Argento’s films combine a grasp of directorial style few filmmakers in history have rivaled – he’s closer to Jean Cocteau or Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger than the horror directors with whom he’s usually lumped in – with fetishization of violence against women. I decided to write this essay because he’s the director I feel most passionate about who has also made me frequently uncomfortable.
Argento’s reception in the U.S. has been distorted by the fact that most of his first 20 years’ worth of films were cut to get an R rating or simply to fit a distributor’s whims. Two of his films, Deep Red (1975) and Phenomena (1985), were hacked by more than 15 minutes (well beyond simply taking out gore), for American release. Tenebrae (1982) initially took two years to find an American distributor, who renamed it, Unsane, and cut out 10 minutes, including almost all its violence.
He’s an unconventional storyteller, but these cuts often made him seem like a bad one. The release of Maitland McDonagh’s book, Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds, and the fact that Argento’s American following eventually grew large enough to encourage DVD releases of his films’ uncut versions finally led to cinephiliac respectability. Drawing on Roland Barthes, McDonagh makes a case that Argento’s films are texts that call for an active viewer, using strategies closer to ’60s and ’70s European art cinema than conventional horror films. Her argument is a convincing one, although disappointingly, her book never discusses sexual politics.
Argento has often been called “the Italian Hitchcock,” and this makes sense for his first three films. However, Hitchcock created a world that, on the surface, resembles the real one. Its stylization and nightmarish undercurrents are only apparent on closer viewing, while Argento took a deep dive into complete fantasy with films like Suspiria and Inferno (1980). Argento does owe a debt to Mario Bava, who created the giallo genre in which he spent much of his career working, in terms of both subject matter and style. However, Bava dabbled in many different genres, even making films in Italy about Vikings featuring Sicilians with bleached hair. He wasn’t able to pursue a career where he only made films like Blood and Black Lace and Kill, Baby…Kill! With the exception of one Western, Five Days in Milan (1973), Argento has never ventured far from the horror genre.
For me, Argento took several films to find his voice, particularly as a storyteller: Deep Red strikes me as his first major work. (The heavily edited U.S. cut may benefit from better pacing, but it takes out a great deal of character development.) Suspiria is Argento’s consensus masterpiece, and I’ve discovered that even people who generally don’t like his work, horror films or violent movies value it. Because it goes so far into fantasy, it’s a very good demonstration of Argento’s skill at world-building, which is just as strong but less obvious in a superficially more naturalistic film like Deep Red or Opera (1987). Even Argento fans have commented that his films are examples of “style over substance,” which seems to miss the point of the role of style in a film like Suspiria. The “substance” of Suspiria and Inferno lies largely in their ability to create private universes for their characters to inhabit – and, in the case of Suspiria, to allow a teenage girl to find her inner strength. The tale of Suzy Bannon’s (Jessica Harper) discovery that the German ballet academy she attends is really a cover for a witches’ coven led by the evil Helena Markos (Lela Svasta), it would lead to Argento’s very next film, Inferno, which is even more surreal (it features a beautiful sequence in which a woman discovers that the house she’s walking through is actually built on top of water) and continues the story of the coven but has gotten much less exposure in the U.S.
If Suspiria stands out among Argento’s work, I think that may be because it’s the product of three auteurs. Argento’s own vision is evident all over it, of course, from the narrative’s progression from one strange event to another to the garish use of color. However, the film also benefited greatly from Daria Nicolodi’s work as co-screenwriter and the rock band Goblin’s score. Suspiria takes place in a world where men have very little power, which is completely different from later Argento films made during his major period like Tenebrae and Opera. In fact, they’re largely marginalized in Suspiria, while girls and women play the hero, all but one of the victims and villain. Suzy gets useful information from men, but she saves herself. It’s no wonder this narrative has attracted female writers like Dodie Bellamy and the late Kathy Acker, who based a chapter in her novel, My Mother Demonology, on it and talked about Argento’s work as offering insight into AIDS. (Her ideas would go on to influence gay poet Kevin Killian’s book, The Argento Series.) As for Goblin, they may have created the best rock music-based film score ever. Particularly when played very loud during a theatrical screening of Suspiria, it has a sheer menace and power that makes the spectator feel he or she is pinned down to their seat. Their score was composed before shooting began, and Argento played it on the set to get actors in the mood. Argento used other scores based around a similar progressive-rock style, notably Keith Emerson’s compositions for Inferno, but none would equal Goblin’s work for Suspiria.
Watching Suspiria again, I realized why I’ve never bought the soundtrack album. Goblin’s score is extremely powerful, but it’s also far from pleasant listening. While it contains a brief melody that is frequently repeated, it reaches beyond standard rock music to include elements of harsh noise, as early as the tail end of the opening credits. The score smashes the boundaries between music and sound effects. It never features anything as conventional as a song with lyrics, but it’s full of eerie, wordless vocals.
Seeing a good print of Suspiria on a large screen with the sound cranked high is an astonishingly immersive and sensual experience. A faded print would destroy the effects Argento worked so hard to achieve. At many points, the characters are bathed in colored gels that make their skin look blood red or a sallow shade of yellow. This is clearly not the same universe we live in. There’s cruelty towards girls and women here, in the opening murders and the set piece where a girl jumps into a room of barbed wire and gets mutilated to death. (In the R-rated cut, the latter scene is extremely abbreviated.) But despite all this violence, Suspiria is essentially a celebration of teenage girls using their intelligence and intuition to figure out just how ugly a world they inhabit. When one dies, her torch is passed to Suzy, who had been drugged to near-unconsciousness by her food and wine, and she proves completely capable of solving the mystery. The film also never requires her to give a damn about heterosexual (or even lesbian) romance: Suspiria seems to exist on a plane where teenagers’ normal libidos play no role in the story.
Tenebrae was inspired by a real-life disturbing encounter Argento had with a stalker, but the implications of its narrative go far beyond anything that could have actually happened to the director (unless he risks being locked in jail.) It begins with American crime novelist Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) flying to Rome to do interviews about his latest mystery, also called Tenebrae. He is dogged by complaints about its sexism from a rather caricatured feminist journalist and comments about its depiction of “aberrant” and “deviant” behavior from another journalist, Christiano Berti (John Steiner). Soon, a real murderer is explicitly using his novel as inspiration, killing off a shoplifter, a lesbian couple and a woman seeking refuge from a vicious dog who stumbles into his house. But Neal figures out that Berti is the killer, murders him and starts killing off people himself for his own reasons, using the prior crimes as cover. Throughout the film, we see weird, dreamlike images of his teenage self being humiliated fetishistically by a girl on a beach who wears red high heels (Eva Robins, who happens to be transgender – this casting adds an additional element of complexity to the film’s libidinal fantasies) and then killing her. Initially, the spectator has no way of knowing if these are fantasies or flashbacks, but their reality is confirmed near the end of Tenebrae.
The version of Rome presented in Tenebrae emphasizes suburban sprawl, where a woman could be chased for miles without getting any help, over broad plazas and tourist traps. The daytime scenes feature bright, sunny lighting that makes the violent events seem ironic; in fact, Argento deliberately aimed for the look of TV cop shows. Tenebrae seems to take place in an international Anycity rather than Italy, an effect enhanced by the presence of so many American actors in its cast – neither the English-language nor Italian-language soundtrack exactly seems “authentic.” Its peak moment may be a two and a half minute long tracking shot over the lesbian couple’s house; if it allows the male spectator to gaze at women’s intimate moments, it also spends just as much time exploring tiles and suggests the influence of Michael Snow’s La Region Centrale.
Tenebrae is utterly self-aware about Argento’s reputation as a misogynist and has fun with it. That doesn’t mean the film is able to prevent itself from repeatedly succumbing to the problem, particularly when it seems to get a great deal of pleasure from putting a woman through an extremely lengthy chase that seems to offer moments of hope but ends in her death. The film displaces possible accusations of homophobia onto Berti, and Neal responds by saying that he portrays gay characters in his work as normal and happy. (From Deep Red to The Mother of Tears, Argento generally does not.) The film’s extensive and scholarly Wikipedia page has a section on the theme of “doubling,” but beyond the on-screen actions of Berti and Neal, there’s a triple: Argento remains the puppet master behind it all.
And what does that puppet master have to say about the accusations of sexism and promoting real-life violence addressed in Tenebrae? He actually seems to agree with them. This film is an utterly despairing, nihilistic vision of art and artists as unable to achieve anything positive in the world. If art can change the world, in Tenebrae, it can only damage it. I’m sure this was adopted as a devil’s advocate position, and the film’s early scenes express it with dark humor, but by the time the film’s final 10 minutes turn into a parade of slaughter, it cuts pretty deeply. When a woman’s arm is severed, the resulting blood splatter looks like an Abstract Expressionist painting. An elaborate, sharp metal sculpture becomes a murderous deus ex machina in the film’s final scene. My other favorite moment in Tenebrae depicts Neal pretending to commit suicide by slitting his throat with a theatrical prop razor that drips fake blood. On a first-time viewing, it’s a horrifying image, but on repeat viewings, it becomes an acknowledgement of the fictional nature of movie violence and everything that the film is depicting. But the film is an ocean of meta and reflexivity, almost all of it pointing back to Argento in a way that reflects serious self-examination and does not play as an attempt at creating cheap thrills. He seems seriously haunted by getting phone calls from a man who said Suspiria ruined his life. Olivier Assayas once wrote that Videodrome’s refusal to cohere narratively reflected serious politics; one can say the same of Tenebrae’s inability to find any redemption out of making art. The Argento of this film and Opera, which sharply and viscerally explores the penetration between fictional and real violence, points the way towards ‘90s Michael Haneke; while Haneke has never expressed misogyny or homophobia, Argento has never presumed to lecture his audience for enjoying violent films or refused to acknowledge his obvious pleasure in staging sadistic scenes.
Something happened to Argento after Opera. The second edition of McDonagh’s book concludes with a long lament for this period of the director’s career, although she likes one late Argento film: The Stendhal Syndrome (1996). And it is probably the most interesting film he made after Opera, although even it doesn’t rise to the level of his 1975-1988 work. Do You Like Hitchcock? (2005) is also not bad. However, Argento reached his nadir when he finally concluded the trilogy begun by Suspiria and Inferno with The Mother of Tears (2007). Instead of delving further into the seductive side of those two films’ fantasy worlds, he indulged his homophobia and misogyny and hit a new low in a scene where two lesbians are killed by a spear to the crotch.
New generations of horror fans discovered films like Deep Red and Suspiria on video and loved them. Few of them bothered seeing The Mother of Tears or Do You Love Hitchcock? Along with his precipitous decline in quality, Argento was out of step with every single horror trend in the ’90s and ’00s. Scream ushered in a postmodern jokiness that was alien to his essentially sincere sensibility. Then films as different as Ring and The Blair Witch Project marked a move away from explicit violence and towards a more allusive and suggestive sensibility. When extreme violence eventually became hip again, “torture-porn” films like Saw and Hostel threw gore on-screen without also delivering it with the kind of style Argento always offered. The duo of Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani is now making explicit giallo pastiches, but they refer to Argento’s work as a nostalgic object set well in the past, much like many soundtrack composers deliberately evoke ‘70s John Carpenter and Tangerine Dream.
I’d like to celebrate the power of the imagination as a way to process fantasies about sex and violence that can’t be safely lived out. As far as I know, Argento has done that; I’ve never heard any stories about him behaving in real life like a raging misogynist, and he has collaborated with his then-wife, Nicolodi, and produced the first film directed by his daughter, Asia. However, the imagination always has a connection to reality. Just as I was conceiving the ideas behind this essay, a female acquaintance tweeted that she has approached by a man with a knife and felt like she was in an Argento film. That was very sobering. Behind its many layers of stylization, the kind of violence depicted in Tenebrae happens to women every day in real life, and it’s not pleasurable for anyone except its perpetrator. I would like to separate the pleasure Argento took in creating a fictional universe full of danger and wonder, which I fully enjoy and which has given me a great deal of joy, from the pleasure he took in populating it with women who are disposable objects. I’m not sure that it’s possible. Recognizing that Argento was a great director means living with his misogyny. I think that embracing art requires embracing complexity and contradiction as well; a film like Suspiria takes female lives more seriously than many more mainstream films which never place women in danger but relegate them to subsidiary roles as “the girlfriend” or “the wife.” Argento could have continued down its path, but he wound up going further into his uglier fantasies, especially as his work grew weaker. The woke generation would reject his work altogether, despite its obvious formal accomplishments, while I’ve talked to female Argento fans who say liking his films makes them feel like gender traitors and male Argento fans who can talk for an uninterrupted 15 minutes about his films’ style but don’t seem to know the meaning of the word “sexism.” Suffice it to say that no one gets away unscathed from a film like Tenebrae, especially the audience. And it’s still great.