By Jeremy Carr.
Ideal for Argento newcomers but ultimately lacking in fresh perspectives….”
Dario Argento Panico, a new documentary about the iconic, enigmatic, and—especially during the peak of his career—astonishingly inventive director, is a well-illustrated and reasonably informative look at the life and work of the man who largely defined the Giallo genre. Directed by Simone Scafidi, it balances the traditional formula of clips and interviews with a concurrent, contemporary portrait of Argento as he sets about writing his latest film (never named but probably 2022’s Dark Glasses). In the then-current material, which serves as something of a framing device repeatedly revisited, Argento appears as somber, contemplative, and unduly cranky. Prodded by off-camera questions, he soberly and sharply reflects on his life’s work as well as the relationships that helped shape his career, including with his parents, siblings, children, and collaborators. At the same time, he is none too happy about having to stay at what is apparently a popular hotel far from his home (he early on laments the long drive). But when ostensibly left alone, save for the dwelling camera crew, or when engaging in terse conversation, he is also reserved and strikes the viewer as an aging, solitary figure.
Using this tone of meditative recollection, Scafidi establishes the formative familial factors that contributed to Argento’s cinema. His father’s industry connections and access certainly helped, but perhaps more impactful was Argento’s exposure to his mother’s photography, which captured alluring movie stars and other beautiful women. Young Argento observed the makeup and costuming process and, as stated in Panico, witnessed how his mother elevated these women through photography, something her son was frequently wont to do in his films, often resulting in condemnation when those same women were subsequently subjected to violent acts.
Movies were everywhere in the life of the Argento family, according to his sister, and before long, Dario began to harness this burgeoning passion, first as a critic then as a screenwriter, going on to pen—singly or in collaboration—more than a dozen screenplays, the most famous of which, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), is the only one typically noted with any interest, including in Panico. After that, directing was perhaps inevitable, and it is a testament to Argento’s seemingly instantaneous faculty for cinematic flair that during a time when Italy was graced by not only the pillars of international art cinema, like Fellini, Pasolini, and Antonioni, but masters of genre filmmaking, like Leone, Corbucci, and Bava, Argento emerged as a genuinely original and imaginative artist.
This early period of Argento’s career is given ample time in Panico, as it should. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971), and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) form an auspicious introductory triumvirate, and in underscoring what made these and a few of the later Argento films mentioned so fascinating, Nicolas Winding Refn likens Argento to a painter or a musician while Guillermo del Toro lauds his camera work and storytelling. Both fellow filmmakers heap abundant and justified praise on Argento, as does Gaspar Noe, who is as provocative in his evaluation as he is in his work, tending to focus on the erotic qualities of Argento’s output. Del Toro also tries to pin down what set Argento apart from others at the time, particularly those working in a similar thematic capacity. He observes how Argento brought unusual elements of horror to the thriller and how there is the sense that everything in his films could possibly be fatal. He also quotes Brian De Palma’s Scarface by commenting on how Argento could “get high on his own supply,” which is accurate enough and aptly indicates the joyous excess seen in the best of Argento’s work, where he revels in the medium’s possibilities with an overt, unabashed stylishness.
After this immediate success, Argento opted for experimentation and variation, first with an ill-fated television program, La porta sul buio (1973), then with the generally forgotten historical-comedic-action mashup The Five Days (1973). All the while, he was also making himself known as something of a cinema personality, a la Hitchcock, and the complexities of fame—its perks and drawbacks—are a recurrent refrain in Panico. This brief period of asserted missteps was also an early indication of how fickle popular and critical acclaim could be, and how even the best directors can find themselves pigeonholed in a fashion they themselves helped to create. To that end, as daughter and frequent star Asia Argento remarks, with 1975’s Deep Red, Argento returned “with a vengeance.” This was followed by the phenomenal Suspiria (1977), boasting one of many vital horror scores by the progressive rock band Goblin (keyboardist Claudio Simonetti speaks lovingly of his work with Argento and Panico includes footage of their alliance), followed by Inferno (1980), the second film in Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy, and the 1982 Giallo masterpiece, Tenebrae (1982).
After this, Panico takes a turn for the predictable. Blame is assigned to a changing marketplace, to the necessity of increased budgets, to television, and to the lack of directorial control—all are applied to explain Argento’s supposed fall from grace in the 1980s. Which is a shame, as Panico seems to take this perceived decline as fact and consequently neglects the many films Argento released in the ensuing years, save for 1987’s Opera, which is admittedly a great picture but hardly the only noteworthy Argento film from the past three and a half decades. Everything else is given a passing mention, if anything at all. Similarly, there is scant attention paid to what else Argento was working on at the time. Having completed just four features in the 1980s, one might assume Argento was lost in the wilderness, but this is not the case; rather, he was also dividing his time producing films such as Demons (1985), Demons 2 (1986), The Church (1989), and Two Evil Eyes (1990). As with his early screenwriting, this too is given little to no attention, even though directors like Luigi Cozzi, Lamberto Bava, and Michele Soavi speak briefly to Argento’s mentorship. Falling in line with this prevalent and unwarranted norm, Scafidi delivers nothing of substance about such canny and self-referential works as Do You Like Hitchcock? (2005) and Giallo (2009), nor about the hugely underrated third “Three Mothers” film, Mother of Tears (2007), and Argento’s entertaining foray into 3-D, Dracula 3D (2012).
Where important features like Trauma (1993), The Stendhal Syndrome (1996), and particularly The Phantom of the Opera (1998) are given any attention at all, it is as a segue to discussion with, and about, Asia Argento. She speaks candidly and thoughtfully about her complicated and at times contentious personal and professional relationship with her father, as well as his tumultuous creative and private association with her mother, Daria Nicolodi, star of several Argento classics. Cristina Marsillach, star of Opera, likewise discloses the difficulties she had with Argento’s occasionally abrasive methodology, though she does credit his lack of tact for aiding her performance; this before lamenting, somewhat overdramatically, that she never really knew who Argento was, or, presumably, still is.
This inscrutability seems to be a key, underlying theme of Panico, which, not unlike Scafidi’s barebones 2019 documentary on Lucio Fulci, attempts to delve into the psychological depths of its subject. In the film’s back-and-forth course, from select periods in Argento’s career to his current station, Panico primarily, and appropriately, centers on the subject of fear as a decisive influence. With Argento, this emerges as something as concrete as his fear of wartime bombings and as something much more abstract, more ambiguous, and more akin to a feverish delirium, which is the state where his films usually excel. But, as Argento declares, giving the documentary its title, it is also more than fear—he strives for a sense of panic. For Simonetti, simply, “Argento is fear.”
When pieced together, Panico is ideal for Argento newcomers and compelling for those with a cursory knowledge of his filmography. However, for ardent admirers it is ultimately lacking in fresh perspectives, insights, and, most notably, any developed analysis or evaluation of his post-1987 output. While this doesn’t make the documentary any less interesting—after all, it’s always nice to hear from Argento and to see an expressive compilation of his craft—it does make the film less illuminating and far less comprehensive than it could have been.
Jeremy Carr is a Contributing Editor at Film International and teaches film studies at Arizona State University. He writes for the publications Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. He is the author of Repulsion (1965) from Auteur Publishing and Kubrick and Control from Liverpool University Press a contributor to the collections ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press, and David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.