Sunday, February 7, 2010

Argento Films 101: An Interview with author James Gracey

Today I bring you the previously promised interview with James Gracey, the author of the forthcoming book (Spring 2010) on the films of Dario Argento, whose name is synonymous with stylized, innovative horror. An influential visionary when it comes to giallo. A director, screenwriter and producer of some of the most popular horror in the genre.

James and I first met through the horror blogging arena, as he has his own (fantastic) blog, Behind the Couch. We caught up on Facebook as well, and he has been kind enough to grant me an interview regarding his upcoming publication.
I can only imagine how engaging his book will be, with the subject matter being so near and dear to many a horror fan's heart.

Here, we won't touch on everything in the Argento arsenal - that's what the book is for, dummy!
But hopefully James can give a bit of insight into the master of the Italian giallo film & horror cinema.

To the questions!


Fascination with Fear: Why Dario Argento? What made you decide to write a book about his films?

James Gracey: Argento is one of my favourite directors and over the years I have become so obsessed with his work and reading about it, no doubt boring friends at parties by constantly talking about him. I needed to clear some room in my head for more information. Writing a book seemed like the best way to do that. I had been toying with the idea of writing a book about Argento’s work since I left university in 2003. I’d read a few of those little Pocket Essential books on filmmakers like John Carpenter and David Lynch and thought ‘I could write one of those.’ Unfortunately at that stage I’d never had anything published. So when I contacted publishers back then they weren’t really interested. I moved to Belfast and whilst working my way through a succession of pretty awful jobs, began to build up a body of published work in my free time writing for various magazines and websites and a few years later, I still really wanted to write a book about Argento. This time I could provide examples of work I’d had published – in particular, a piece I wrote for Paracinema magazine called ‘Dreaming in Red: The Pornographication of Death and Violence in the films of Dario Argento.’ I believe this article went some way to seal the deal as it proved to my publisher that I could write about Argento and was fluent in big words like ‘pornographication.’

FWF: What can we expect from your book?

JG: I hope the book will act as an introduction to Argento’s film work for those who maybe aren’t too familiar with his movies. I also hope that it will appeal to die-hard fans too. As I wrote it I tried to keep in mind what I as a fan would like to read about in a book about Dario Argento. Hopefully it’ll work. An added bonus is that it covers his more recent work too – including a couple of little Giallo exclusives - and I’ve also touched on his work as a producer.

FWF: Dario Argento is famous for the horror sub-genre called giallo. In the event that someone is not familiar with the term, please explain just what that is.

JG: OK. Here goes! Giallo is Italian for ‘yellow’ and the name comes from the trademark yellow covers of pulp crime-thriller books that were extremely popular in Italy. Giallo films, which were essentially modelled on these books, combine sex and violence, ridiculously elaborate murders, convoluted and meandering narratives and plots, breathtaking camera work and chic set design, ‘outsider’ protagonists who usually stumble unwittingly into events, ineffectual police and lashings of sadistic gore.

What’s not to love? The killer usually wears a trademark fetishistic and somewhat androgynous wardrobe of black leather gloves, dark raincoat and fedora and will usually be prone to psychological hang ups of a sexual nature and flashbacks to past misdeeds. Giallo films were rife throughout the cinemas of Italy in the Seventies and Eighties, and were exceedingly popular due to their combination of exploitative violence and stylish excess.

FWF: Who were some of Argento's influences, and can you see that through his work?

JG: Argento has so many influences – aside from various filmmakers he also draws influence from art, literature and philosophy. Perhaps his most obvious influences were Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava. Bava brought Italian horror out of its dark gothic shroud and firmly into the modern age, setting his stories in chic fashion houses and cosmopolitan cities. He provided the blueprint for the giallo film with The Girl Who Knew Too Much widely regarded as the first giallo film, and Blood and Black Lace. It’s also important to note the immense influence literature has had on Argento – particularly the nightmarish tales of Edgar Allan Poe. Argento’s obsessive quest to depict death in all its morbid beauty fits perfectly with Poe’s own explorations of the dark side of human nature – one only needs to read The Philosophy of Composition – a treatise on how the death of a beautiful woman is the most poetical topic in the world – to see how much Poe’s sensibilities are aligned with Argento’s. Even when Argento doesn’t wear his influences on his sleeve, he still alludes to them throughout his films – these allusions range from Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang to Thomas de Quincey and Jung.

FWF: I've watched many of Argento's films again recently, paying more attention to detail than I ever allowed myself before. I've noticed there is a great deal of apparent symbolism - dogs fighting and/or attacking someone, lizards (?), trees eerily blowing in the wind... these things are found in nearly every film. Trademarks or coincidences? Your take on their hidden meaning? In particular the lizards (I'm dying to know here...)

JG: Good question. I think Argento, like so many directors, has various images and ideas and themes that he likes to revisit throughout his work. Lizards are apparently his favourite animal; perhaps he favours them because of their mystical qualities. Animal telepathy, an idea that was touched on in Deep Red, plays a key role in Phenomena too. There’s a shot of a lizard munching on a butterfly in Inferno – I think this single shot serves as the perfect metaphor for Argento’s cruel cinema in which he is seen to relish in the act of destroying beautiful things. I was very fortunate last year as I got to interview Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni. She claimed that when Argento killed her in his movies he was making her immortal - she was being regenerated. This made me think of the regenerative qualities of lizards – perhaps this is why Argento favours them? In their own little way they have the power to be destroyed and reborn. Alas, maybe I’m just reading too much into this - perhaps all these shots of lizards only feature in Argento’s films because they are his favourite animal and he just thinks they look really cool.

FWF: Argento's use of vibrant color, as well as brilliant artistry are legendary. Besides the obvious choice of Suspiria, which film do you think is his next best example of his skill with this?

Inferno (1980)

JG: I think the films that came just before and after Suspiria, films like Inferno, Deep Red and Tenebrae are amongst his most dazzling looking works. Each exhibits a look and feel all its own, and yet they are still all immediately identifiable as Argento films. Even with his much later work, such as The Stendhal Syndrome, Trauma and The Card Player, Argento displays unmistakable artistry – even though the palettes of these films are washed out in comparison – they fit the moods of the stories unfolding with them. His use of lighting is exemplary. His favourite cinematographer these days seems to be Frederic Fasano, who lenses Argento’s terrifying visions with real elegance and poise.

FWF: The black gloves of the traditional giallo film are present in all of his classics, as is showing us random clues, and the killer's point of view as he stalks his victims. This approach seems lost in modern thrillers. Is it a dying form or the fault of recent filmmakers trying to keep up with the gory, pointless trends of today's horror?

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)

JG: I think it was a trend that was pretty much exclusive to Italian cinema. In Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds Maitland McDonagh beautifully illustrates the idea that various trends and cycles exist throughout the history of cinema. She talks about how the success of one particular film inspires so many others to palely imitate it. These cycles and trends are referred to as ‘filoni’. I think that giallo films are an example of this – they were exclusive to a certain time and place and their success or abundance has never been repeated outside of this frame. There have been many films that have been inspired by, pay homage to or have a similar feel to the giallo – Don’t Look Now is an interesting example – and indeed some of Argento’s later films that reference his earlier work but can’t really be considered ‘true gialli’. However with the re-emergence of European horror cinema, including work by directors like Alexandre Aja and Pascal Laugier, these various sub-genres are being re-evaluated and revisited by mainstream audiences and critics and so many filmmakers pay homage to them. It might not be long before a new wave of giallo movies hits our screens.

FWF: Blood seems an almost unnatural bright red in an Argento film, particularly in his earlier movies. Do you think this was done simply for effect?

JG: I think it was likely a combination of the limitations of special effects at the time as much as it was Argento wanting to create an overtly striking, unnaturally stylish look.

Suspiria (1977)

FWF: If Suspiria was made today (and there are rumors of a remake...) could the same care be given to make the film the stunning work of art and style that it was back in 1977? Could it ever be duplicated?

JG: Apparently Suspiria is indeed being remade by David Gordon Green. To be honest I’m not sure how this will turn out. I will keep an open mind as I usually do, but I tend to have problems with remakes. The only thing I can see that is truly positive about them is that they may encourage audiences to check out the original film. Obviously there are exceptions; John Carpenter’s The Thing comes to mind. Like I said, I will keep an open mind, but I doubt anything could equal the grandiose style, opulence or sheer abundance of visceral intensity that made Argento’s Suspiria such a classic.

FWF: Most of his movies have a well-thought out twist at the end. Did any of them truly surprise you?

JG: As far as I remember, yes, pretty much all of them! I can’t admit to trying to follow his plots like one would a conventional, rational plot – I just let Argento lead me into ever darker places and accept whatever he presents me with. With Argento though, it’s not the ending that really matters – it’s the journey that takes you there that’s important. Logic and reason don’t fit into his universe. Not as much as atmosphere and technical mastery, anyway.

FWF: I believe Tenebrae may be some of his finest work, but often is forgotten when bragging up his films. What reasons would you give to get someone to watch it?

Tenebrae (1982)

JG: Tenebrae, much like Deep Red, well, maybe even more so, is a kind of deconstruction and highly reflexive take on the conventional ‘detective’/giallo movie. All the traits that are associated with gialli are present in this film – and Argento actively goes out of his way to address these conventions and the criticism hurled at him throughout his career. For example in one scene the author Peter Neal is grilled about his new novel which has been accused of misogyny – the response Neal gives is basically Argento defending himself against similar accusations. Tenebrae also contains some of Argento’s most iconic imagery. Many people assumed he would conclude his Three Mother’s Trilogy after Inferno and typical of Argento, he went out of his way to defy expectations. I’d also recommend it to people because of the fact that it’s just a damn good film!

FWF: Argento is often referred to as the Italian Hitchcock, quite a compliment. He pays homage to this in Do You Like Hitchcock?, which I hadn't seen (or even heard of) until recently. In which other films can you see this specific influence?

JG: Argento has spent his career being compared with Hitchcock. Both are purveyors of tense, violent and subversive films that are as shocking and gripping today as they were on release. Both are technical wizards who revel in experimenting with new and exciting ways to make films. Hitchcock was a stanchly linear director who used logical and linear narratives that culminated in a carefully prepared climax. Argento uses style and visual flamboyance to tell stories, the details of which come second to how they are conveyed through images and sounds. Both directors have a love for Freud, psychoanalysis, the mechanics of suspense and fear, stories involving the plight of the ordinary ‘everyman’ thrust into extraordinary situations, and both exhibit a fondness for the portrayal of often damaging familial relationships, particularly those between mothers and their children. In Italy Argento’s ‘brand’ is as instantly iconic and recognisable as Hitchcock’s.

FWF: Dawn of the Dead - a classic. But it always brings Romero to mind, not Dario Argento, who collaborated and has a production credit on the movie. Have they worked together on anything else?

JG: On the basis of Night of the Living Dead, Argento had the sense to leave Romero to it basically! He loved Romero’s script for Dawn and trusted him to realise it effectively. They would work together again on the very uneven Two Evil Eyes. Argento wanted to align himself with other horror filmmakers such as George Romero, Wes Craven, John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper. He had approached these directors – as well as Clive Barker and Stephen King – with a view to collaborating with them on an anthology movie. The only one who was available was Romero and the two decided to pay tribute and adapt a couple of stories by Edgar Allan Poe. Argento films his frenzied segment – The Black Cat – with his usual aplomb, while Romero produced a darkly humorous but stagnant tale of revenge from beyond the grave – The Facts in the Case of Mr Valdemar. The overall film is very disjointed and looks a bit like a TV movie. It is an interesting, but not great entry in the career of both filmmakers.

FWF: Coherent plots were not always Argento's forte, but he made up for it with his talent for visually striking cinematography and stunning attention to detail. Which film might be the best illustration of that?

JG: One of my favourite Argento films is Inferno – it was also one of the first Argento films I ever watched. I think this could be the best illustration of his ability to create an immensely atmospheric film, pierced with visually striking cinematography and unflinching attention to detail – and all without the aid of logic or reason. Inferno’s plot, if I can call it that, unravels like a really vivid dream. Things don’t always make sense, but it all works in the context of the story. It’s a bewitching and truly nightmarish film and represents everything audiences love and hate about Argento’s film work – indeed, I’d go as far as saying it represents everything audiences love and hate so much about Italian horror cinema in general.

FWF: Profondo Rosso (Deep Red) has long been considered Argento's masterpiece. Would you agree, or does another film suggest that to you?

Profondo Rosso (Deep Red) (1975)

JG: Deep Red is indeed often considered to be Argento’s masterpiece and it’s also a major defining moment in the history of the gialli – basically it was released when these films were at the height of their popularity. It epitomised them, but in many ways it also slyly subverted their conventions. It also epitomises Argento’s work - operatic violence, seductive camera work, loosely structured narrative, progressive score and gallons of claret. Sure, this could easily describe any Argento movie, but Deep Red truly marks the beginning of all the things Argento is now revered for – it was in a sense his comeback movie in Italy after the commercial and critical failure of his historical comedy drama Five Days of Milan. The excess and grandeur of his later works can be traced back to Deep Red.

Opera (1987)

FWF: Dario Nicolodi (former domestic partner of Dario and mother of his daugher Asia) swore after Opera that she was not going to do another film with him. They had split up, and yet when he asked her to do Mother of Tears she agreed. She starred in several of his films, as has Asia. Easy casting or legitimately fine acting?

JG: I think Daria Nicolodi is indeed a fine actress – a great actress, even. You only have to look at her performance in Mario Bava’s last film, Schock, to see evidence of that. With Mother of Tears there was a sense of something coming full circle, a conclusion – it was only fitting Nicolodi returned to the series – after all, she was so instrumental in its conception.

FWF: Trauma (1993) attempted to be a classic giallo but fell short by typical standards. It seemed to be too Americanized to work as such. Do you think it "jumped the shark" by allowing the decapitated heads to continue to talk?

JG: It is such a weird touch, isn’t it? There is a weird obsession with the French Revolution in Trauma. The mode of death in the film is decapitation via a guillotine device – also popular in the French Revolution. It is said that when Marie Antoinette was guillotined, her bloodied severed head continued to speak as it lay in the basket beneath her body. The guillotine scenario that opens the film is revealed to be a toy and is later glimpsed sitting by the crib of Nicolas. If you look at Argento’s other films, they are all filled with odd little moments like that. Take the end of Opera for example, when Betty is rolling around in a Swiss mountain meadow whispering to lizards and flowers! His earlier films were filled with oddball characters and moments too. Remember the agoraphobic artist who existed on a diet of cats in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage? Or the tap dancing morgue attendant in The Card Player?

FWF: His more recent work (The Card Player, Mother of Tears, Giallo) has been criticized as being "too American". Do you find that is true? Do they stand up at all against his earlier films?

JG: I still think Argento wants to reach mainstream audiences outside of Italy, where he is a household name. His teaming up once again with American writers for Giallo is testament to that. His recent films are just as slick, stylised and polished as his previous efforts – and perhaps just as violent, if not more so. And the man is in his seventies! If you were to watch something like Giallo or Mother of Tears and not know it was directed by Argento, you might think it was the work of a very angry young filmmaker with a grudge. The newer films might not exactly stand up alongside his earlier work every time, but they might just be the natural progression from it. Like the narrative of Suspiria, one could say that Argento peaked or climaxed quite early on. I’m not saying I believe this, but I do believe that Argento is not a director content to just remix past glories – he continues to experiment and explore new boundaries. Ok, not all have been successful, but he should still be commended for trying.

FWF: His contributions to the anthology tv series Masters of Horror televison - good or bad?

JG: I think they’re perhaps two of the better episodes throughout the series, though for Argento films they are quite weak, especially Pelts. Jenifer was much more in keeping with Argento’s earlier work I think. In my humble opinion, Argento and Takashi Miike were the only two directors involved who really took full advantage of the creative freedom they were offered. And Miike’s episode Imprint was deemed too disturbing for broadcast.

FWF: Mother of Tears, the third film in the supernatural trilogy that started with Suspiria, seems to be a bit of a departure from the other two films (Suspiria & Inferno), with more straightforward violence and gore. Is it your opinion that Argento felt pressure to conform to modern gore-fests, or was the change warranted due to the material?

Mother of Tears (2007)/Asia Argento

JG: It’s a huge departure! I think the first draft of Mother of Tears was deemed far too violent and gory and Argento was persuaded to tone it down a little. I have no idea what his producers were expecting. He wanted to make a film that was radically different from the prior two instalments, and I think he succeeded. His collaboration with American writers Jace Anderson and Adam Gierasch, though it came about because he met them whilst filming his Masters of Horror segments, indicates to me that he still wants to reach as mainstream and as wide an audience as he can. Received with mixed reviews, Mother of Tears still managed to defy everyone’s expectations. I think it’s a fun, outrageous and pretty engrossing movie, and the verging-on-camp histrionics evident in it, bleed effortlessly into the very reflexive and knowing winks and nudges of Giallo.

FWF: Giallo (2009) is not available here in the US yet. You've seen it. Traditional giallo or mainstream horror?

JG: Giallo is an interesting film – while not an actual giallo, it certainly does a good job paying homage to Argento’s earlier gialli. The original script, written by Jim Agnew and Sean Keller – huge Argento fans and great genre writers - was much more referential and contained many conventions associated with the sub-genre, but Argento thought it too referential. He even removed the token black leather gloves worn by the killer! It’s more of a typical thriller movie with loads of nods to the likes of Opera, the Animal Trilogy and Sleepless. Actually, like Sleepless and Phenomena, it’s kind of like a ‘greatest hits’ package. I believe Argento was simply a director for hire on this one, and his distancing himself from the film after its premiere speaks volumes.

FWF: One cannot discuss Dario Argento without mentioning his go-to soundtrack gurus, Goblin. Most horror fans are probably familiar with the theme from Suspiria, but besides that, which Argento movie scores do you think may be underrated?

JG: I adore Morricone’s vibrant and oh-so-chic scores for Argento’s first three films and also his haunting soundtrack for The Stendhal Syndrome. The string arrangements and vocals on that are beautiful – and all the whispering and disembodied voices are just so creepy. Just when it begins to feel a little too subdued, those booming brass sections blast you into a state of unease again. I also loved Keith Emerson’s maniacally operatic score for Inferno and Marco Werba’s score for Giallo – it really elevates the film and gives it this wonderfully dark grandeur. The theme song Ruby Rain from Trauma is also a really atmospheric piece of music, in a similar vein to This Mortal Coil’s Song to the Siren. I may also have ‘bopped’ along to Simonetti’s theme music for The Card Player once or twice… I’ve said too much.

FWF: Tenebrae used to be my favorite, but after seeing so many of the movies again recently, I've grown quite fond of Phenomena.

Phenomena (1985)

Your favorite Argento film is what? And why?

JG: Argh! Talk about putting me on the spot. I’m quite indecisive at the best of times, but questions like this really hurt my head! I have many favourite Argento films and many favourite moments within them. I think I might have to say though that Inferno is perhaps my favourite. Well, it is today anyway, it could change tomorrow. I love the scene in Inferno in the underwater ballroom. The sound effects, the spooky lighting, the gentle camera movements, Irene Miracle’s serenity, the unbelievable sense of foreboding and dread that seems to ripple up from those dark depths – all these things combine to create one of the most beautiful and nightmarish scenes in any horror film – let alone an Argento film. A truly breathtaking moment. It’s kind of ruined when that festering corpse bobs into view!

FWF: So what now? A novel? The films of Lucio Fulci? Mario Bava? Or perhaps an American filmmaker? What can we expect from you in the future?

JG: I plan to continue writing and hopefully one day be able to make a living from it. Obviously my dream job would be to take over Kim Newman’s Video Dungeon column at Empire magazine. I have hopefully just landed a regular gig writing for Gorezone magazine and I hope to continue contributing to the likes of Paracinema – a really great magazine that has been very supportive of my writing. I’ve also been invited to contribute a chapter to another book on Argento, but this is still all very embryonic so I don’t know too much about it. I also have a few ideas for other books and I’ve been venturing into the statically charged world of radio broadcasting too recently, reviewing films and stuff on local radio. Writing and films are my passions and writing about films is what I really want to do.

**James Gracey studied English literature and film at the University of Wales (Aberystwyth) and has written for Paracinema, Culture Northern Ireland, Film Ireland, Alternative Ulster, and for his aforementioned horror blog, Behind the Couch. He lives in Belfast.

Order Dario Argento at in the USA, or .


Johnny said...

Fantastic read and a really great interview. I knew nothing of this book before and i'm now about to pre-order it, so job well done!

Franco Macabro said...

Nice interview in deed. Very informative, defenetly lets us know that Gracey knows his Argento! Should be a fine read in deed!

I Like Horror Movies said...

Very awesome, James is one of my favorite reviewers on the web and I cant wait to grab the book! Thanks for the thorough review Christine!

Unknown said...

Argento Serenity

Wow!! Excellent blog. It seem to be terrific. I have never seen this kind of blog ever. All the pictures and its story is really good. Thanks..

Christine Hadden said...

Thanks very much for stopping by!