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Monday, November 21, 2016

Retro Review: DARIO ARGENTO'S WORLD OF HORROR (1985)



DARIO ARGENTO'S WORLD OF HORROR
(Italy - 1985; US release 1986)

Written and directed by Michele Soavi. (Unrated, 71 mins)

For horror fans who weren't around at the time and only know him now as a genre elder statesman at best or an aged has-been at worst, it's really difficult to convey just how revered Dario Argento was in the 1980s. It was a time of Jason, Freddy, slasher movies, Stephen King, and pre-CGI makeup and special effects wizardry by the likes of Rick Baker, Rob Bottin, and Tom Savini. There was no internet, no social media, and very little in the way of fan/creator interaction. Horror fans of the '80s were in the know thanks to books like Michael Weldon's The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, John Stanley's Creature Features Movie Guide, and Kim Newman's Nightmare Movies, publications like Fangoria, watching old and new favorites on late-night broadcast and cable TV, and taking blind chances at the video store on Friday and Saturday nights. But knowing the work of a director like Argento really separated the players from the pretenders in horror fandom. So lionized was the "Italian Hitchcock" that he earned the adoration of many fans just on his reputation alone, as most of his essential work was nearly impossible to see in the US at that time. A partial remedy was made available when the 1985 documentary DARIO ARGENTO'S WORLD OF HORROR was given a straight-to-video release by Vidmark Entertainment in 1986. Like Paramount's fan favorite TOM SAVINI'S SCREAM GREATS, WORLD OF HORROR was a behind-the-scenes look at a horror master that became a video store staple when it wasn't exactly easy to see a lot of Argento's films and if they were available, they were usually the butchered US versions. 1970's THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE and 1975's DEEP RED were common sights in any reputable video store (PLUMAGE largely intact; DEEP RED missing around 20 minutes), and though it was released uncut, 1980's INFERNO didn't see an official US release until Key Video's VHS in 1985. 1982's TENEBRAE was drastically cut and barely released in the US in 1984 as UNSANE, and another three years would go by before Fox Hills released that edited version on video. And 1977's SUSPIRIA, generally regarded as Argento's masterpiece, wouldn't be granted a US home video release until 1989, courtesy of Magnum Entertainment.


Argento with a young Jennifer Connelly
on the set of PHENOMENA 
It wasn't exactly a surprise when Argento's 1985 film PHENOMENA was hacked down for the American market, its running time going from 110 to just 83 minutes. It was acquired by New Line Cinema, then riding high on the huge sleeper success of Wes Craven's 1984 hit A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. PHENOMENA was recut and retitled CREEPERS and New Line gave it a decent-sized rollout in major markets, making it Argento's most widely-seen-in-the-US film since SUSPIRIA eight years earlier. CREEPERS got extensive coverage in Fangoria and was already well known in horror circles by the time it hit video stores some months later. 1985-86 was arguably the height of Argento-mania as far as media exposure (including an awkward appearance plugging CREEPERS on THE JOE FRANKLIN SHOW) and the cult horror fan following were concerned. Around the same time, Argento also produced and was the guiding creative force behind Lamberto Bava's DEMONS, released in the US by New World in 1986. DARIO ARGENTO's WORLD OF HORROR spends a lot of time on the behind-the-scenes footage from PHENOMENA/CREEPERS and DEMONS, and while it may seem superfluous and dated now (it's a bonus feature on Synapse's new 3-disc special edition PHENOMENA Blu-ray), it vividly captures Argento at a pivotal moment in his career. He would churn out one more undisputed masterpiece with 1987's OPERA (which was picked up by Orion, who retitled it TERROR AT THE OPERA and prepared a trailer but abruptly shelved it, leaving it unseen in the US until Southgate Entertainment released it straight-to-video in 1991), and then his career began a slow-motion implosion that's ongoing to this day. There were a few small victories--1996's THE STENDHAL SYNDROME has some devoted fans but can't overcome the fatal miscasting of Argento's 21-year-old daughter Asia as a hard-bitten veteran cop, and even forgettable trifles like 1991's TWO EVIL EYES, 1993's TRAUMA, 2001's SLEEPLESS, and 2007's MOTHER OF TEARS have their moments--but there's little complimentary to say about the likes of 2004's absurd THE CARD PLAYER, 2009's GIALLO, and 2012's DRACULA, aside from the fact that they look like classics compared to 1999's PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, an unwatchable clusterfuck that represented Argento hitting bottom. He's lost his mojo and, at 76 and last seen attempting to crowdfund a big-screen version of E.T.A. Hoffmann's THE SANDMAN with Iggy Pop, doesn't appear to be getting it back anytime soon. In that respect, DARIO ARGENTO'S WORLD OF HORROR shows the auteur at the peak of his powers just before the decline, a time when there was zero doubt that he was a genius who lived up to the hype.


Michele Soavi
DARIO ARGENTO'S WORLD OF HORROR was produced by Argento but doesn't come off like a self-aggrandizing, ego-stroking puff piece. He assigned the project to his top protege Michele Soavi, an assistant director and part-time actor (he's the guy in the car with Daniela Doria when she's puking her guts out in Lucio Fulci's CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD and he's the cross-dressing killer in Lamberto Bava's A BLADE IN THE DARK), making his directing debut. Soavi had been getting on-set experience doing some production assistant and second unit work for Argento, Fulci, and others for several years and would briefly leave the Argento stock company in 1987 to make his breakthrough, the Filmirage-produced STAGEFRIGHT, a late-period giallo slasher that would find an unlikely fan in Terry Gilliam. The legendary Monty Python alum caught STAGEFRIGHT at a European film festival and reached out to Soavi, hiring him to handle second unit chores on his big-budget 1989 spectacle THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN. Argento produced and co-wrote Soavi's next two films, 1989's THE CHURCH and 1991's THE SECT, aka THE DEVIL'S DAUGHTER. Soavi branched out on his own to direct 1994's arthouse zombie film DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE, released in the US in 1996 as CEMETERY MAN. A critical success and cult smash all over the world, CEMETERY MAN, combined with Argento's slide into mediocrity, cemented Soavi's position as the new leading voice of Italian horror and he was likely going on to much bigger things, but it never panned out. While Italian genre fare was in a serious downward spiral at the time he was being hailed as its savior, Soavi's decision to walk away as worldwide notoriety beckoned was a personal one: he put his career on hold to care for his gravely ill son, who was born with a rare liver disease. When the Italian film industry continued to crater over the next several years, Soavi quietly resurfaced as a journeyman TV director in the early 2000s (most notably the terrific 2001 Michael Mann-esque cop thriller miniseries UNO BIANCA), not to explore the visionary potential of his earlier films or to rescue the moribund Italian horror genre, but more to keep himself busy after his son's death. Now 59, Soavi is content to make his living as a top-shelf hired gun for Italian television, though he did enjoy a brief return to the big screen when MUNCHAUSEN mentor Gilliam would call on him once more to handle second unit duties on his 2005 film THE BROTHERS GRIMM.


Argento overseeing the rigging of the
severed arm effect in TENEBRAE. 
It's easy to dismiss the significance of DARIO ARGENTO'S WORLD OF HORROR now that we've had nearly two decades of uncut and uncensored Argento films on DVD and Blu-ray. For American Argento fans in the mid '80s, this documentary was the only way to see the complete versions of the legendary Louma crane shot and the "severed arm spray-painting the wall" murder in TENEBRAE. And it was the only way to see any footage at all from his obscure 1972 giallo FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET, which wouldn't get a DVD release in the US until 2009. The bootleg market was a ways away, so for horror fans who voraciously devoured every Fangoria article on Argento, wondering if the day would ever come that they'd be able to watch SUSPIRIA, DARIO ARGENTO'S WORLD OF HORROR was a pretty big deal. Narrated by dubbing luminaries Tony La Penna and Nick Alexander, it also showed Argento as a hands-on director involved in every aspect of the production, overseeing the studio work of Goblin and prog rock legend Keith Emerson on their respective SUSPIRIA and INFERNO scores, stressing over the special effects difficulties on PHENOMENA and expressing serious doubts that he'll be able to finish the movie, or being interviewed while seated on top of the crashed helicopter in the middle of the Metropol set during a break in shooting DEMONS. There's some priceless archival on-set footage from various Argento shoots, with a focus on PHENOMENA, where you can see a 14-year-old Jennifer Connelly smiling, laughing, and being a very good sport about swimming in a huge pool filled with water, wood shavings, yogurt, and chocolate all being employed to simulate rotting human remains and maggots.





Argento with William Friedkin
at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival

Thanks to all the DVD and Blu-ray interviews, additional documentaries (like Luigi Cozzi's DARIO ARGENTO: MASTER OF HORROR in 1991 and Leon Ferguson's DARIO ARGENTO: AN EYE FOR HORROR in 2001), and the articles and books written about Argento over the years, most notably Maitland McDonagh's absolutely essential Broken Mirrors, Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento, there's a plethora of information out there that those watching DARIO ARGENTO'S WORLD OF HORROR for the first time will find redundant. They'll already know it's Argento's hands wearing the black gloves in the murder scenes, or that he isn't particularly fond of actors, especially Tony Musante, his BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE star with whom he didn't get along at all (though the mercurial and often difficult Musante, who died in 2013, mellowed significantly with age and would enthusiastically praise Argento years later), to the point where that one experience soured him on actors in general. And while it jumps around with little sense of narrative flow (for some reason, Soavi waits until near the end to reference Argento's earliest films, but he also includes a impressively-assembled montage of shots from various Argento movies that show recurring ideas and images that flow together beautifully), it's a time capsule work that vividly captures the state of Argento fandom at a specific time and place and for that reason, it remains significant, making its preservation on the new PHENOMENA Blu-ray release one of that set's unsung special features.

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