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Ti piace Argento?

Dracula 3DI can remember a time when I used to love the films of Dario Argento.

Recently a friend had the opportunity to see ‘Giallo’, one of Argento’s recent films, at a film festival. He didn’t like it. It was the first Argento film he’d ever seen and he wasn’t likely to watch any others.

All directors seem to go off the boil, some more than others. More mainstream directors like Ridley Scott or Martin Scorsese seem immune to the punishments imposed on the often more creative, risky directors of ‘specialist’ cinema. Rather than go into budgetary exile they’re given token Oscar nods and warm, glowing reviews often ones which hark back to earlier work to draw a comparison of a ‘developing’ film-maker.

But then they’re in Hollywood and poor Dario never broke through to the US audience. Instead he’s in Italy, a country in a far worse economical state than ours. But those conditions are identical to the ones he was working in in his prime. Italian cinema was born out of minimal budgets. De Sica made ‘Bicycle Thieves’ on a shoestring and it’s widely lauded as one of the all-time cinema greats.

Deep RedDario Argento, in the seventies, was a director who seemed to care so much about the visuals, often to the detriment of the plot and even the performances. ‘Inferno’ may be totally nonsensical but it looks and sounds terrific! Equally ‘Suspiria’ has only a very basic fairytale plot but it’s all about the visuals and build up. He didn’t even need a good script to make an effective film.

So why is ‘Dracula 3D” so awful? Because it really is virtually unwatchable. This was Argento, finally, with a modest budget. His big chance to make a comeback and he just blew it. Why rely on CG if it doesn’t look good? Why kid yourself that it does look good?

He seems to be a director now who’s going through the motions and it’s a sad sight to take in. He has the directorial equivalent of Alzheimer’s. It’s still him physically but the personality of his films has long since gone away. There was a brief return to form with ‘Do You Like Hitchcock?” and even his Masters of Horror segment ‘Jenifer’ but for every one of those there was a ‘Card Player’ and ‘Pelts’ right on their coat tails.

This is of course not unique to Argento. Enzo Castellari recently released the abominable ‘Carribean Basterds’ on the back of his Tarantino-influenced new wave. It’s shot on mini DV (seemingly) and shows no sign at all of being the same man who gave us ‘Keoma’ or ‘Street Law’.

But with Dario Argento there was such a consistent string of excellence for so long. Even his mediocre eighties with something like ‘Phenomena’ – a screamingly diabolical script and plot – is a joy to behold if only for some incredible visuals and set-pieces, and one almighty ending that no viewer could soon forget.

Probably his last big flourish was that shot in ‘Opera’:

Other than that one shot it’s not a terribly memorable film and certainly not his best work, but if anything highlights the effort he used to go to then it’s that single shot.

As we drift from the DVD age into the Bluray age and beyond, directors are being called upon to provide commentaries and interviews for their past works. Surely he can see that the films he’s making now are nowhere close to the quality they once were? These digital domestic retail formats are of course part of the problem too. The distribution is digital and so is the shooting now. Why should he shoot in 35mm with a decent lens when he can borrow his mate’s camcorder and knock out a film? Because that seems to be the case with ‘Giallo’!

Cat O'Nine Tails

It would be nice to see a return to form from Argento, but at present each new film diminishes the last. He struggles to find finance for a script, and with good reason. They’ve seen what he does with the money! Like a glutton for punishment I keep watching the new ones because one day we might just get another ‘Deep Red’. It really could happen. In the meantime a director should be judged on their successes and not their failures. We might even be able to let George Lucas off the hook with that ruling. Seems unlikely though.