With the rise of found footage and you-are-there handheld, contemporary horror movies seem increasingly concentrated on simulating artlessness. It is invaluable, then, to have the example of the grandiose artifice of Dario Argento’s films on display in a two-month series at the Museum of Arts and Design—projected before a public that has grown accustomed to crude nerve-end assault and hopefully some aspiring filmmakers.
In many respects, Argento is the Italian Brian De Palma: Both adapted Hitchcock’s master-builder cinema to their own far-out personal obsessions. Argento’s favored vehicles for his formal experiments were giallo thrillers, beginning with The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970) and horror-fantasies like Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980), the ne plus ultra of Argento’s cinema. Dario Argento’s films are the centerpiece of MAD’s tribute to the Argento family, which also includes Argento’s actress/filmmaker daughter, Asia, and his producer father, Salvatore. The location is apposite, for Argento’s movies are nothing if not designed. Where today’s reality-horror film seeks to cover authorial tracks and eliminate the audience’s awareness of the director, Argento’s is a cinema of exhibitionistic, ornamental virtuosity, not only wrought, but also deliciously overwrought.
Dario’s biological father might be Salvatore, but his cinematic father is Sergio Leone. The stand-alone set pieces of Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, including the famed opening shoot-out, set the bar for Argento, who collaborated on the script. Argento’s films are full of Leone-like tours de force, scenes that seem to exist for no purpose other than to astonish, the cinematic equivalents of architectural follies. “I think everything through before I start actually making a film,” Argento told interviewers for the history of Italian horror Spaghetti Nightmares. “There’s nothing gratuitous about my films.” There’s nothing spendthrift or minimalistic, either. Argento reproduced Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks on the soundstage for a throwaway shot in Deep Red (1975); orchestrated an extraneous, elaborate crane shot creeping between an apartment building’s windows in Tenebre (1982); blasted his soundtracks, often quite abruptly, with commissions from the likes of Goblin, Claudio Simonetti, and Keith Emerson; and staged Irene Miracle in an underwater ballroom, tangoing horribly with a bobbing corpse in Inferno (1980).
I have watched probably a dozen shaky-cam horrors in the past year, and hardly one frame from any of them has stayed in my mind. I can, however, effortlessly call to mind the above scenes and many other Argento images besides, particularly the stained-glass, theatrical-gel colors of Suspiria and Inferno, the endless, dream-logic nonsense interiors of their hell houses. It’s the difference between the sort of nightmare cinema that looks only to deliver a jolt in the moment and the movies that linger in the mind for a lifetime.