I’ll just come right out and admit that I’m a huge fanboy of Dario Argento. This man has given us so many demented, violent and beautiful films, that I put him up there with David Cronenberg. So when I was sifting through the descriptions for the 349 films screening at the Toronto International Film festival this year, it was his latest, The Mother of Tears that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. When I got an interview confirmation with him, I started taking deep breaths into a paper bag to avoid hyper-ventilating.
My fascination with his films began with his witch movie Suspiria (1977). I’d seen a lot of horror movies before Suspiria so I knew this one was different. The graphic murders, the epic score, the amazing cinematography, this movie stayed with me and it immediately became one of my favourite horror movies of all time. Not long after that, I learned he produced George A Romero’s zombies-in-a-mall classic Dawn of the Dead (1978), another one of my favourite horror movies. Following this, I saw Inferno (1980), the sequel to Suspiria. Though not nearly as popular as Suspiria, it’s just as good if not better. Not only that, it promised a third witch movie to come that would complete The Three Mothers Trilogy. But it never came.
After this I discovered his giallo classics The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970) Deep Red (1975), Tenebre (1982) and Opera (1987). Giallo is Italian for yellow, the colour of the covers on mystery pulp novels that inspired the films. They’re essentially slasher films with an element of mystery. Watching Dario’s giallo films for the first time is like eating the most delicious piece of candy you’ve ever had in your life, only to have a razor blade hidden in the centre slice your tongue open.
He’s been consistently directing and producing films since Opera; recently, he’s been doing episodes of Masters of Horror. While there’s been the odd gem along the way, nothing has done it for me like his earlier work did. But there was always that nagging question: when will he complete the trilogy?
That question got answered this year in Toronto. The Mother of Tears is a definite return to form for Dario. A third witch, Mater Lacrmarum, has awoken causing an outbreak of violence across Rome. It’s up to Dario’s daughter, Asia (ah-zee-ah), and her modest magical abilities to stop this all-powerful witch before she brings about the end of the world. The gore is out of control, the nudity is gratuitous and the dialogue is hilarious although this is likely unintentional—even the biggest Argento fans will concede that dialogue has never been one of the man’s strengths.
A few hours before the interview, I learned that this was about to get sweeter as I’d also be talking with Asia. An accomplished director in her own right, most notably for the J.T. LeRoy penned, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things (2004), but better known as an actress who has appeared in xXx (2002), Gus Van Sant’s Last Days (2005), Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, (2006) Catherine Breillat’s The Last Mistress (2007) as well as a handful of her father’s films. She’s also universally regarded as one of the most attractive women on the planet.
I set up in the lounge at the Intercontinental Hotel on Bloor and immediately clued in that my time with the two was going to be brief, as a television crew was setting up to interview them after me. They walk in and we politely exchange greetings. I remain relatively composed and don’t embarrass myself by screaming, “Holy shit, it’s him!” and getting people to take pictures of us flashing gang signs together. They sit down on the couch on which they’ve been doing interviews non-stop for the past two days. I direct my first question at Dario, who’s sitting furthest away from me, “Why did it take so long for a follow up to Suspiria and Inferno?”
“Because the idea needed to be good. It wasn’t automatic. You do a film and then you do a few follow ups? No, you must wait for the right idea and then you do it, “ he replies in a thick Italian accent. Factor in the noisy room and I already know this one is going to be a pain in the ass to transcribe.
“Stylistically, do you feel The Mother of Tears is a departure from Suspiria and Inferno?”
“Yes, I think I try to do some new style, my style. Of course the film has a lot of special effects. That’s the only things that are different.”
Visually, Dario’s movies are a cut above most other horror movies. So I want to get him to talk about how generic looking horror movies are today—ideally get to him to trash someone. So I ask him “How do you feel about the way horror movies look today?” He doesn’t understand that one so Asia translates it into Italian for him.
“Today, the audience loves horror movies. People love horror movies.“ At about this point it started to sink in that we’re hitting a language barrier and this interview isn’t going to go the way I want it to. I came armed with a list of 100 convoluted and nerdy questions but I quickly learned that they don’t translate well into Italian. So I started firing some questions at Asia.
“Asia, when did you see Suspiria?”
“Around six years old. Oh, I loved it. Because it was like a fairy tale; a mean fairy tale. For me, I wasn’t so shocked by it because I really saw it like Hansel and Gretel. It was just like all these really mean fairy tales that I loved as a child.” She goes on to say that she saw Inferno at about the same time.
Sticking with Inferno, I ask if she thinks it’s underrated.
“I don’t feel that. It’s a movie a lot of people are obsessed with and it’s one of my favourite movies he’s ever made.“
“Do you feel your father’s contributions to the slasher genre are overlooked? I mean movies like Deep Red came out years before Halloween.
“My father is not a slasher filmmaker. You can’t compare those beautiful movies to Halloween. Halloween was scary but my father’s movies are profound.”
“Dario, what scene would the average moviegoer would find most offensive about your latest film?”
After a lengthy translation where I have to reword the question a couple of times, I get, “I don’t know exactly. Maybe the episode of the Father Johannes, maybe.” An exceptionally bloody exchange where a priest (Udo Kier) is minced with a cleaver. He then adds, “All of the ending, really.”
“Well why do you like to shock people?”
“Ah why? Because this is my profession.“
I was expecting bit a longer of a response. So there’s an uncomfortable silence for a few seconds while I gather my thoughts.
“Why did you get a special thank you at the end of the Rodriguez/Tarantino joint effort Grindhouse?” I suspected it was for two reasons. Firstly, Dario’s movies played on a lot of grindhouse double-bills. Secondly, the ending to Death Proof ends the way his movies end, very abruptly.
He responds with “I did?” Then he speaks some Italian to Asia and she reports back “He didn’t even know.” And we all share a laugh.
Switching gears, I ask Asia how she responds to claims that her father’s a misogynist. His films are notorious for showing an abundance of beautiful women getting violently murdered. The Mother of Tears is no exception. There’s also a rather gratuitous shower scene with Asia and a random lesbian sex scene.
“I don’t think so. He makes women look very powerful and very beautiful. He said something I loved once: he kills more women in his movies because they scream better and they move better. Women know pain more genetically so they can express that better than a man.”
“Dario, Do you think people over-analyze horror movies? It’s like the Scream mentality, should we not just sit back and enjoy the ride?”
Asia translates to Dario and he says “Sorry,” with a shrug. Asia, sympathizing with my pain, giggles and tells me he doesn’t understand. Their publicist is telling me to start wrapping it up now.
“What makes monkeys so scary Dario?” referring a rather menacing simian that chases Asia around in The Mother of Tears. Oddly, Dario lights up when I ask him about this.
“Monkey is pure energy. It’s something of pure energy. She’s screaming. The energy is unbelievable!”
“Claudio Simonetti, who did the score for Suspiria, provided the score for this film. How important is he to your work?”
“He’s very important. The score is very good.”
“Have you heard the “Phantom” remix of his Tenebre soundtrack?”
Asia, also a pretty accomplished DJ, replies for him. “The Justice thing? I told him about it but I don’t think they even say anything on album that’s it’s taken from Tenebre. Do they say they sample it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Maybe we should sue them then,” Asia replies with a laugh. “Sounds like a good idea.” And with that my time was up. I thought I did a good job at the end encouraging them to launch a lawsuit against a French dance act. Unfortunately Justice, do credit Claudio Simonetti in the liner notes on their album so their lawsuit will be a frivolous one.
When you get to meet one of your heroes, naturally, you want to have an engaging conversation. You want to show them you know their work and tell them what their work means to you. You want them to know that you’re not just some writer looking for the three quick quotes that’ll allow you to write your article so you can get paid. That obviously didn’t happen here but the fact that I had such a macabre experience trying to chat with him is perversely reassuring. It’ll haunt me just like Suspiria did and I couldn’t ask for anything more than that.
MAGNUM CORPUS: THE FILMS OF DARIO ARGENTO
Deep Red (1975)
A psychic reads the thoughts of a killer in the crowd of her live performance. So the killer does what killers do… kills her. A music teacher witnesses this murder but can’t for the life of him remember what the killer’s face looked like. The teacher’s inability to remember naturally leads to everyone around him dying a violent death. Considered by many Argento connoisseurs to be his finest work.
This is the first Argento film you should watch. A young American ballerina starts attending a prestigious dance school in Germany. She learns it’s tough to practice pirouettes when corpses keep piling up around you. Some investigation by her reveals that the school is home to a coven of murderous witches. If the first horrific murder doesn’t haunt you for life, the score by Claudio Simonetti’s band Goblin will.
The amazing sequel to Suspiria that wasn’t nearly as popular. Turns out there’s another witch coven in New York City and this time it’s up to a man to take care of business. Features one of the most tasteless murder scenes of all time. A man tries to kill a bunch of stray cats by sticking them in a potato sack and throwing it in a pond. Then rats come and attack the man and start eating him alive. A man nearby at a hot dog stand hears his cries for help and rushes over, only to stab him.
In Argento’s triumphant return to the giallo genre, an American author is in Italy to promote his latest pulp novel titled Tenebre. The autograph sessions get put onhold when a vicious serial killer strikes and appears to be inspired by the book. The police are clueless so they enlist the help of the author to help solve the mystery. A lengthy scene with a vicious dog that can leap over giant fences needs to be seen to be believed.
One of Argento’s best looking films and a great introduction to the Giallo genre. At an operatic performance of Macbeth, circumstance forces the understudy for Lady Macbeth into the spotlight. Sadly, being in the spotlight means it’s only easier for the vicious killer who’s on the loose to find you. His trademark move is tying up the understudy and performing gruesome murders in front of her.
The Stendahl Syndrome (1996)
A top notch Asia and Dario collaboration. Asia Argento is on the trail of a sadistic murderer. Then she becomes a victim of the maniac she’s pursuing. To make matters worse, she suffers from the Stendahl syndrome, a bizarre affliction that causes her to hallucinate when in the presence of great works of art. Even more bizarre is that graffiti can set it off. Graffiti isn’t art!
Words: Michael Mann
Photography: Clint McLean www.clintmclean.com